A hot, steaming mess: The NaNoWriMo 2009 post-mortem

After 30 days and 33,898 words written, National Novel Writing Month ended Monday at 11:59. I didn’t make it to the coveted 50,000 word mark, but I think the attempt deserves a review for posterity’s sake and maybe for other writers struggling with the same problems I had this year.

33,898 seems like a lot of words, but for a novel, it’s just a beginning. I’m pretty sure what a lot, maybe even most, of what I did write will need to be culled or rewritten, and a lot more will need to be added to that total to reach the length of a respectable work. This task is not a lamentable one; it’s part of the way books get written.

The question at hand, though, is why I didn’t reach the magic number of 50,000 words this year. I’m sure I could have, except for two very important things I didn’t do. Here are the mistakes I think I made and suggestions on how other writers can avoid them.

First, I failed to establish a regular routine for my writing. For the first ten days or so, I wrote two hours and 2,000 words every day, but I did not establish that writing as a routine. As a result, when my schedule tightened in the middle of the month, I let the writing get away from me while I took care of other things.

It’s easy to forget that writing is a job when you’re not getting paid for it yet, but no one will ever succeed as a writer unless he is doing it. Being a writer means establishing a regular schedule that is inviolate to other concerns. Writing is your job if you want to succeed, and you have to do it even when it means that it might impede on other things.

This schedule can be whatever works for you. Some people like to binge: set a day where you have time to do that every week. Other people like a steady pace: set a time everyday to write. I prefer a pace and a word count. It usually takes me about two hours to write 2,000 words, and I have to carve that space out of each day if I am going to succeed. That pace would have put me at 60,000 words if I had stuck with it for 30 days.

The point is that the writing is not going to happen if one is not doing it. Set a schedule and stick with it.

Second, I had only a vague idea of what I was trying to write. I originally conceived the idea I started with as a short story, and I thought that I could make that idea work for 50,ooo words without a lot of prompting. I was wrong.

To borrow an idea from the visual arts, I think every story needs to start with a sketch. I like the term sketch better than outline because it allows your pre-story writing to be whatever helps you. It could be as simple as some verbal doodles that get the main ideas you are trying to accomplish out. It might be a cache of research and notes. It might be an outline or a collection of plot points.

My point is that it needs to be something that tells you what you are trying to do to begin with. A story sketch is something one can refer back to when the story gets stuck, and it’s  a place to try out new things when the story doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.

Ironically, I usually do sketch my stories before I start; I just didn’t with this one. I paid the price for that, and it’s a problem that can be easily avoided.

So what’s next? Well, I am going to set this year’s story aside for right now to let the dust settle and the idea develop some more. In the mean time, I have half a dozen short stories to work on and a novel that’s been languishing for a while that needs to be finish. Maybe, by this time next year, I’ll be talking about what went right.

We’ll see.


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