Reblog: NaNoPrep: Signing Up and Getting Started — Connie J. Jasperson

Last week, I talked about the good and the bad of NaNoWriMo — National Novel Writing Month, where the goal is to write the entire first draft of a novel in the month of November. Now, November is almost upon us. Are you going to participate?

If you’re on the fence, or you’re just not sure where to start the whole process, take a look at Connie J. Jasperson’s latest NaNoWriMo prep post for a guide to getting a project set up on the NaNoWriMo site.

If you don’t like to plan, you can just start writing after Halloween midnight. If you’re an inveterate planner like me, that strategy might feel overwhelming. Luckily, Jasperson has you covered, with an entire series of NaNoWriMo prep posts linked at the bottom. They’ll get you figuring out your setting, characters, story arc, and more.

Check it out on Jasperson’s blog, Life in the Realm of Fantasy…

The Good and Bad of NaNoWriMo

It’s almost November. If you’re a writer on any sort of social media, you know what that means: National Novel Writing Month. It’s affectionately known as NaNoWriMo and spearheaded by a non-profit company whose founder started with the simple idea of writing a novel in a month. Modern participants do the same thing, specifically striving to write 50,000 words in the 30 days of November.

In recent years, I’ve come to have mixed feelings about NaNoWriMo. For many writers and non-writers, it’s an awesome event. For others, I think it’s counter-productive, and may even turn some people away from writing.

My Experience

I have six different years logged on my NaNoWriMo account: three are successes (at least 50k words in the month) and three are failures. I’ve participated more times than that, but I either didn’t track progress or they got lost in some revamp of the website. (Fun fact: one of those failed projects was a very early idea for Razor Mountain, the novel that I’m currently preparing to publish serially, years later.)

I am a planner, so I’ve come to realize that my success in a project like NaNoWriMo is mostly dependent on whether I’ve put together a decent outline before November. The best I’ve done without an outline is something like 10k words before the story stopped dead and I realized I needed to rework what I had written to have a path forward.

However, an equally important factor for me is how much free time and energy I have. Over the years, I’ve done NaNoWriMo when I was single and when I was married, when I did or did not have a job, and before and after I had kids. I’ve observed just how much my living arrangements and family situation can affect my ability to dedicate a month of evenings to a single project.

At least one year where I failed was the result of falling behind in the first week, and realizing I simply didn’t have the time (or energy to write) that I would need to continue, let alone play catch-up.

What Works

NaNoWriMo was built to encourage people to write. It is especially focused on new and inexperienced writers, even people who have never tried to write fiction before and don’t think they can. The promise of NaNoWriMo is this: you don’t have to be an expert to write a novel; you just have to keep writing one word after another until you’ve stacked up 50,000 of them.

For some, this is a revelation. Writing has a certain mystique (that many writers are happy to encourage) as a process that requires some particular innate talent or even some important credential like an MFA. The truth is that anyone who is literate enough to put words on paper or screen and persistent enough to put down a lot of them can write a book. NaNoWriMo doesn’t claim that book is going to be a bestseller (or even close to publishable), but for some folks, the experience of simply writing a book is enough, even with nothing more expected beyond that. And plenty of people have gone on to do the work, past November, to get that novel published.

The event has developed a huge community, with hundreds of local groups across the globe alongside geographically dispersed virtual groups. Those who are unsure of themselves can search out one of these communities that fits their needs and helps encourage them.

NaNoWriMo is a nonprofit that does great work with a small team. In addition to the online events, it facilitates a Young Writers program that encourages kids to write.

What May Not Work

NaNoWriMo has expanded exponentially since its early years, and tried to provide more options than the “traditional” November event. There’s the project planning NaNo Prep in September and October. There’s the editing and revising “Now What?” series in January and February. There’s Camp NaNoWriMo in April and July, intended to be a less structured way to work on writing projects. Even for the November event, the website will happily let you set whatever word-count goal and timeframe you want for your project.

There’s clearly an ongoing effort to expand the brand here, but NaNoWriMo remains known for one thing: writing a 50,000-word novel in November. After all, it’s built into the name. As much as they’re trying to encourage a variety of options, most people will get involved in the “real” NaNoWriMo, and that has a structure that is going to work well for some people, and poorly for others.

Many will come into the event with little or no outline. If they’re planners like me, writing a whole novel like that may feel impossible. Some will find that they don’t have the time or energy to write 1667 words each day, and feel like setting a lower word count goal is cheating.

In short, a lot of people will fail at NaNoWriMo for a lot of different reasons. If they’re new or inexperienced writers, they may not even understand exactly what those reasons are — especially if they are seeing forum posts and tweets where other writers seem to be having great success and a good time. They’ll just think they’re bad at it.

NaNoWriMo is all about encouraging people to try writing, but in these cases it is very possible for new writers to think “this is what writing is like,” and get burned-out. There are as many different ways to write as there are writers, and some of those ways just don’t jive with “50k in November.”

Don’t Take This Too Seriously

I don’t want this to read like I’m ragging on NaNoWriMo. The organization does a lot of great work. They’ve probably encouraged hundreds of thousands of people who otherwise wouldn’t to try their hand at writing a novel. They try to demystify writing for young people, and help them tell the stories that matter to them. They’re clearly trying to cater to a variety of writers with different styles and techniques.

NaNoWriMo has gotten huge. It’s hard to miss it if you’re tuned in to writing stuff online. I worry sometimes that people who don’t fit NaNoWriMo will be turned off by it; that they won’t realize they don’t have to follow prescriptive writing advice or a monthly goal to be a “real” writer.

If you’ve never tried NaNoWriMo before, I encourage you to do so, if not this year, then next. Even if you think you couldn’t possibly write 50,000 words in a month. Just take it one word at a time.

But if you discover that you can’t do it, or it’s a terrible experience, that’s okay. You’ve learned something about the kind of writer you are. Try it again next year. Prep differently. Or do your own kind of NaNoWriMo with your own goals and limits. To succeed at writing in a way that works for you, you don’t need a website that tells you how much to write and when. You need to find something internal that drives you to write. Then it’s just a matter of putting one word after another.

Word Count Isn’t Everything

After months of outlining, planning and prep, I’m now putting words on the page for Razor Mountain, but my daily word counts are pretty low. I’m only averaging a few hundred words per day. If writing were a competitive sport, you might not want me on your fantasy team*.

Writing Twitter is full of authors posting their daily wordcounts, and with November (and NaNoWriMo) right around the corner, we’re sure to be inundated with the usual strategizing as people look for ways to get their daily 1,667. Certain authors, giving advice to newbies, suggest that you’re not a proper writer if you’re not outputting a certain number of words each day or week.

In fact, a new writer would be totally reasonable to look at all of this and come to the conclusion that word count is the best measure of a good writer. The truth, as usual, is more complicated. Sometimes, word counts can be a useful tool. Sometimes they get in the way, and there are better measures we can use.

Why Do We Obsess over Word Counts?

Writing projects, especially novels, are a ton of hard work. One of the easiest ways to get through a ton of work is by breaking it down. And the best way to break down a big task is to set lots of small goals. So really, it should come as no surprise that writers are naturally drawn to word counts.

A word count gives you an exact quantification of your writing. It’s a progress bar. Factories are often evaluated by how many widgets they can pump out per day, and writers are just word factories, right? A day where you write 1,000 words must be better than a day when you write 500.

The truth is that writing isn’t just filling up a progress bar. Each word occupies a unique place in the work (even if it is the tenth instance of “the” in the chapter). You may find that ten paragraphs in a row just flow out with little effort, but a single sentence takes hours to get exactly right. You may spend ten times more effort on your first page as any subsequent page. Word counts can be a useful measurement, but they start to become a problem when complex, creative work is reduced to a mere number.

When Are Word Counts Useful?

Let’s not completely malign word counts. They can be a powerful motivator. I’ve certainly fought the feeling of not wanting to write any more by telling myself that I just have to finish another 100 or 200 or 500 more words. Breaking down big tasks into little goals is useful, and sometimes a word count is a quick and easy goal to set. Even more important: the feeling of satisfaction when that word count goal is completed often feels better than the mere feeling of having written “some”. It’s a quirk of the human brain that measurement results in more satisfaction.

First drafts are the best time to use word count goals. This is the magical time when a story transforms from ideas into actual words. It’s the most writingful part of writing, and the time when generating lots of words is the most useful time to measure your word-making speed. For planners, it’s the time when the story takes shape. For exploratory writers (a.k.a. “pantsers”), this is the time to discover what the story is. Since exploratory writers may end up throwing away more words and rewriting more heavily once they know the shape of the story, word counts are often going to mean a little less for them. Still, words = progress at this stage.

Finally, word counts are important for publishing. Most outlets that publish short fiction have word count requirements for what they will publish. These can be hard requirements (“nothing over 5000 words”) or limitations that make it harder (“we publish fifty short stories, but only two novellas per year”).

Genres also have expected word counts. Your high fantasy novel may be 200,000 words and everyone will yell “huzzah,” but you might have a hard time selling a cozy mystery at half that length. This is especially important if you’re trying to get a literary agent and/or sell to traditional publishers. Even when self-publishing, readers of particular genres have expectations. There will always be books and stories that break these conventions, but it’s going to be a harder road, and it’s good to be aware of that.

When Are Word Counts a Problem?

While word counts can be useful as motivators, they can also be demotivating. Many prospective novelists who struggle with NaNoWriMo will know the pain of visiting the forums and seeing others posting word counts far above the curve. Authors who have spent years on a book may cringe when they notice a popular series writer putting out multiple books per year.

The problem here isn’t low wordcounts. It’s the soul-crushing pastime of comparing yourself to others. There will always be writers who are faster and more prolific. Of course, they all have their own struggles in life, but we know nothing about them, while being intimately familiar with our own. Amazingly, even in this age of social media, most of us make this mistake from time to time. We compare what we know of our own lives to what little we see of others, from the outside, looking in.
Even when we focus on our own writing, there are times in the process when word count just doesn’t mean much. For example, when doing research, or revising drafts.

Planners usually do a lot of research up-front. Exploratory writers may wait until they have a working draft and have a better idea what the story is about. Either way, a very productive research session may only produce a sentence or two in fiction output. In these cases, it may be better to write down a list of questions you’re trying to answer. This can act as a checklist, and a way to measure how much you’re getting done.

When a draft is done, and the remaining work is to revise, edit, and polish, word counts are at their most misleading. This often involves cutting words, rearranging, or adjusting a particular sentence until it sounds exactly right. Don’t rely on word counts as a measure here. Instead, consider tracking what you need to revise scene-by-scene or chapter by chapter. Many writers also gather feedback, make a checklist of things to improve, and then make a revision pass through the whole story for each one particular issue at a time.

There’s No Measure for Quality

No matter what measures you choose at different stages of the writing process, there will come a point where they fall short. There is no quantitative way to measure how good the writing is. It’s purely a matter of taste.

Quality is in the eye of the beholder. You may choose to take feedback from those you trust, but you are the arbiter of your own writing quality. You have to decide when you’re satisfied. Is it worth it to spend years writing and revising a single work? Or is it time to say “good enough” and move on to something new? There are Stephen Kings in the world, and there are Harper Lees, and a huge spectrum between.

To Count or Not to Count?

Goals are good — they help us plan and judge how well we’re executing. But goals don’t have to be word counts. Think about what you’re actually trying to accomplish, and set your goals accordingly. Use word counts for early drafts, where they’re a better indicator of progress. Use them as little motivators, and as guidelines for your chosen genre and/or publishing path.

Avoid the temptation to compare yourself to others, and don’t confuse quantity for quality. Understand what you’re trying to accomplish.

How do you feel about word counts? Do you see them as a motivator, or a demotivator? Do you use any other measures to decide how well your writing is going? Let me know in the comments.