Lessons Learned in NaNoWriMo 2014

James Scott Bell

And so ends another November and the keyboard-clacking madness that is NaNoWriMo. It seems like each time I get a little something different out of it.

This time I worked on the third book in a series (the books will be published close together next year). I did some pre-planning along the lines I’ve suggested before. I killed that first day, hitting 3k words. And I was off to the races.

Only this race had some hurdles.

I did make the 50k mark on the last day, but barely. I lost at least four full writing days due to Bouchercon and a family matter that had me driving a car for about 16 hours over two days. But that’s part of the NaNo experience and a good lesson for writers who want to do this professionally—life often intrudes, but you find a way to write through it. 

The book is not finished, BTW. Since I’m aiming for 70-80k it’s still in production. I’m trying to keep the NaNo MoJo working, though. Which leads me to the following lessons I pass along to you.

1. Deadlines work

Remember what Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, once said? “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” Every writer who has written under contract knows what he means. 

The “pressure” of NaNo is good for a writer. If you fall too far behind you’re cooked. So you do whatever it takes to keep to a daily word count. You adjust your goals to make up for lost time. 

Out of NaNo, I’m sticking to a SID — self-imposed deadline. Writing down the date you want to finish and putting it where you can see it daily helps.

2. Scrivener rocks

Scrivener was a big help this year. I made heavy use of the Outline View. Scrivener lets you color-code your scenes and then view them in an outline format. You can customize this view. I show my scene titles, the scene synopsis (which you can generate AFTER you’ve written the scene. Scrivener will even auto-generate a scene synopsis with one click), and my own added timeline, which is of tremendous importance. Thus, I can see at a glance what I’ve done and on what day and time the scenes take place. 

I found this to be valuable as I began the writing day. I did my Grafton journal notes (see my post on that), then looked over the outline which showed what I’d already written, as well as  future scene ideas. In this outline view you can instantly add a scene you think needs to go in between other scenes.

3. Trust but verify

In NaNo there are times when you have to be willing to try something risky, or follow an idea that pops into your head. Pure pantsers love that. No problemo, they say.

But there is a problemo. Unlike what some may advocate, not every spark of inspiration or tangent is good just because it’s new. Indeed, one of these could take you to a bog where your story drowns, and a good deal of NaNo is wasted.

The answer, I found, is to take ten minutes of breathing time when something totally unexpected pops up. Journal about it. Write some notes. (Here again Scrivener comes in handy. Each scene in your story has its own “Document Notes” section. You can record your ideas and thinking there, work things out).

4. Nothing beats full immersion in a story

All writers know the feeling of getting away from a WIP for awhile, then coming back to it and finding it hard to get into the story again. NaNo keeps you immersed in your story. This is good for you and for your novel. Not necessarily good for your spouse. When Mrs. B asked me in October if I was going to do NaNo again, I nodded. And she did not look pleased. So I tried to stick to the final lesson:

5. Don’t forget the important people in your life

I was intentional about trying to carve out evening time with my wife. But she knows me well after 34 years together. I get that faraway look as she’s talking…I have to ask her to repeat things…I nod my head at the wrong time….I excuse myself to go write something….I forget to pick up the milk at the store.

Once I got out of the shower thinking about my story. I went to the sink as usual, thinking, thinking, and put some gel in my hair, brushed it, then got ready to shave. And realized I had put shaving gel on my head and was about to lather my face with hair gel. 

Most writers are like this. We’re strange creatures, rare birds, a little funny in the head. Our loved ones have to put up with this. So be kind! Take them out to dinner and try to forget, for a couple of hours, that you’re a writer.

Unless, of course, you see a particularly interesting character over at the bar…

So anybody got a major lesson or two they’ve learned this year on the writing of fiction? 

25 thoughts on “Lessons Learned in NaNoWriMo 2014

  1. This year was a bit of a validatioin for me. I’ve never come close to completing Nano before. Earlier this year, I made my decision to behave like a professional author, even though I’d yet to publish a book. I completed Nano 2014 by November 22nd. I ended the month and 62K. I finished the book last week. That is my 4th completed draft this year. It took 15 years before this one to complete my first 4 novels. When I set deadlines like that, even though my intent is to self-publish, I feel the pressure to hit my goals. I’m eager to have the drafts professionally edited, hire a cover designer, and make this a career, not just a hobby. Nano was a great inspiration to me this year. It helped me to prove that I can really do this. And yes, my wife made it clear that I had some catching up to do with her in December.

    • NaNo is great for that, Ron, providing inspiration among many other things (discipline, creativity). That’s why I just don’t get the NaNoNaySayers.

      Here’s to your great 2015.

  2. *Does a happy dance cheer thing in middle aged geeky fashion for Mr. Estrada.*

    I’ve never taken part in this NanoWriMo. Perhaps next year. But I did commit myself to reading and responding to this blog. I haven’t always succeeded, but I am proving to myself that I can build a habit when it comes to my writing.

    Thank you for the part you have played in that, Mr. Bell.

  3. Your lessons learned are golden! As always, thanks for posting them.

    I didn’t do Nano this year, though I did finish drafting novel I started last Nano. The lessons I learned were related: staying on task and focus. I hit 55K on my book at the end of NaNoWriMo ’13, but then the momentum ebbed as I outran what outline I’d had and I switched to working on two unrelated novelettes. I didn’t return to the novel until late February. Writing the last 30K words took until early May, because I was hit or miss, which never let me build any momentum. I worked on a few more short story projects, further breaking up my momentum.

    The other lesson is the importance of focus. I write fantasy and science fiction, which has a vibrant “pro-rate” short fiction market. It’s extremely competitive. A lot of my sf/fantasy author friends come out of writing short fiction and struggle with writing novels because of the longer time it takes to write them. The “validation loop” takes a lot longer to close. With short fiction you’ll know in any where from a day to six months after completing a story if a market wants it. With novels it can take longer. Aside: I’m an exception among the trad published short story SF/fantasy authors in that I’m aiming at self-publishing novels, most of my peers are focused on agents.

    Back to focus–I’d like to perfect the skill of working on more than one project at once (as you’ve written about) but find it all to easy to let the short stuff take over when what I really want to do is write long.

    • Ivan, that’s a lot of great self-insight there. I can tell you have the mind of a writer. And I know exactly what you mean about the need for focus.

      But then there’s that “more than one project” idea, which Asimov seemed an absolute master of. I wonder if moving project to project in a single day, rather than putting weeks in between, was his secret.

      Thanks again for the insights.

    • Jim,

      I think it was. You’ve written about doing something similar–what I’ve wanted to do but haven’t yet pulled off is scheduling time constantly *each day* for more than one project.

  4. I moved during November, so on top of Thanksgiving I had to go through all our stuff, sell things, pack, etc, on top of dealing with normal house stuff and taking care of the toddler.

    So it was stressful, but I still managed to write around 52K words this month, between writing longhand and typing. It really showed me I can find lots of time during the day to write, even though I really prefer writing on the computer, for an hour or more at a stretch.

    Also, Scrivener is awesome because I was able to write longhand in the morning, and then go to the document in Scrivener and pick up where I left off, even though I was a few scenes “behind” typed up. Now when I edit, I can just type in the longhand scenes without having to worry about the proper order.

    I love NaNo, and the lessons it constantly teaches me. 😀

    • Excellent, Elizabeth. You made it even with all the distractions. I found myself using all the tools: my AlphaSmart, my smart phone, my extra laptop, dictation for some notes, longhand for others, doodles, and mind mapping. And still managed to watch two football games on Thanksgiving.

    • I bought an Alphasmart based on your and a friend’s recommendation, but I have to upgrade the software on it so I can sync the files to my computer. So I didn’t actually use it during NaNo, but now that things have calmed down, I’m going to upgrade it and make it a part of my daily routine.

      I would have thought using notes, mind maps, Scrivener, and dictation would make me feel all over the place, but it kept me in the flow of the story, and appealed to my sense of messy brainstorming. 😀

    • Right. What I’d do is put a little symbol in the main document, or a letter, like (A), and then put that same symbol at the top of an AlphaSmart file and write. Then I could match it up later.

  5. I didn’t do Nanowritmo (because I’m heavy into a WIP which involves research as it’s historical fiction), but my writer’s group, The Red Wheelbarrow Writers, did. I found the discipline of sitting down to write 1600 words for my day of writing the chapter really excellent and a challenge. I had to read the 24 other chapters leading up to mine, follow the characters, including new ones, keeps track of events and then pull the novel back on track by picking up earlier threads that had been lost. We are actually reading our work at an indie bookstore tomorrow night.

  6. Jim, thanks for the five great lessons. I learned the hard way about the validity of #1 and #4. I helped with preparing for a move in the past couple months and didn’t set deadlines or stay fully immersed in my WIP. Now I’m finding it hard to get back into the story. But that will be my New Year’s Resolution.

    I think the biggest major lesson I’ve learned this year on the writing of fiction is the “write from the middle.” It helped with a short story and being selected for an anthology (Out of the Storm) coming out in February. And it has helped me organize my current WIP.

    Thanks for another great post.

  7. I didn’t do NanoWriMo, but I may do it next year. We’ll see. I’ve never heard of AlphaSmart and Googled it after reading this blog. This sounds like what I’ve been looking for! For the past two weeks, I’ve been searching for something similar to my laptop, but lighter in weight. I only want to use if for writing. No WiFi, or other bells and whistles. I saw that it’s no longer available from the company. I ended up ordering the AlphaSmart Dana from an Amazon seller.

    Are you using something like Dragon Naturally Speaking for dictation transcribing or do you talk into a recorder and transcribe it yourself? Sometimes I have scenes running through my head when I’m driving and I talk into a digital voice recorder to get it down.

    • Yes, I mostly did the same thing, dictating notes into my phone, at odd times. Sometimes ideas, sometimes a scene. Anything….

      You will find the AlphaSmart just what you’re looking for. Light, runs forever on AA batteries, easy to carry and use.

  8. Congratulations on NaNo and an understanding spouse! I am not ready to try it yet, (both Nano and spouse). Maybe after I get one book written. I admire all that do, however. I have read many authors remarks about Scrivner, and most all swear by it. Is it difficult to master? Some say there is quite a learning curve and some say it’s easy. I am not particularly tech savvy, so I was wondering if it would work for me. It sounds like it is very helpful for organizational purposes. I am reading your book on plot and structure now, and it is helping me a lot. I wanted to thank you for that. Happy Holidays to all at TKZ! 🙂

    • Rebecca, you can start using Scrivener right away for basic things, like scene cards, ideas, character sheets and so on. A day or two is all you need to get to using it pretty well for these things.

      The learning curve after that is made much easier with Learn Scrivener Fast. These step-by-step videos and screen shots take you through the basics to the “ninja” stuff. You can go at your own pace. The tutorials are short and to the point. I liked them so much I became an affiliate, which is my link, above. I wouldn’t recommend what I haven’t used.

  9. You’re so right, James! I tell ya, NaNo is the best time for me to pound out a first draft. I plot ahead of time (using what? Plot & Structure, of course!) and then write full steam ahead without looking back. The deadline keeps me on task, even on tough days.

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