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The Most Important Thing to Know Before Beginning NaNoWriMo

It’s about that time again. November 1st marks the beginning of the annual writing frenzy known as National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short. NaNo is even better.

50,000 words in one month. That’s the goal. Write 50,000 words, submit it to NaNo’s encrypting novel reading machine, and they’ll declare you a “winner.”

I did this once years ago and hated it. I didn’t have enough of a plot in mind ahead of time, so about a week and a half into the month the whole thing derailed and I abandoned it. I was a less experienced writer at the time, so that contributed to the problem.

In the end, I wrote thousands of words and scrapped every last one. I went back to my original idea and started over, working the way I work, which is a strange mix of loose and methodical.

Methodical because I don’t sit down to write the draft until I know the plot, most of the subplots, and most of my key characters. I know the people. I know the world. I know (generally) what’s going to happen.

Loose because I explore all these things in a very random way. I fill up notebooks with disjointed thoughts and ideas that start with “what if?” and “what about?” I explore freely, the way some writers do when they write the first draft (a completely legitimate way to write that works for some and is a disaster for me).

Loose, also, because I go into the first draft knowing two things: it’s going to be a mess and things are going to change.

Ideas that seemed to work don’t flesh out the way I thought they would. Or I discover holes I didn’t know I had. Or the flow of events isn’t right and needs to be rearranged. Or there’s a character that isn’t as three dimensional as he needs to be. Or background events I haven’t thought through thoroughly. (Say that five times fast.)

This doesn’t really trip me up (now that I’m a more experienced writer). I write the draft and figure it out and I know that I’ll smooth out any creases and straighten those crooked seams in the rewrite.

All the work I do before that first draft keeps me on course, but it’s not firm enough (or developed enough) that I feel I’m just following an outline or that my movements are so restrictive I can’t be creative. Often creative inspiration strikes right in the moment. Right when you’re writing hot. I follow that inspiration where it leads me. I love those moments.

Anyway, remember I said I go into the first draft knowing two things? Well, one of those things is the thing new writers who are new to the NaNoWriMo experience need to remember:

Your 50,000 words is going to be a mess.

An absolute mess.

It’s not going to be a finished novel, so whatever you do, don’t send it off and give the NY agents more reasons to complain on their blogs that they’re getting all the “NaNoWriMo crap.”

Yep, that’s a yearly event, too.

So, if it’s going to be a mess, why do it at all?

People have their different reasons. I’ll tell you mine. Because, yes, I’m doing NaNoWriMo this year. For the second time. And I can’t wait.

This time, I have a story that’s well thought out and pretty developed and definitely at that stage where I need to freaking get it out of my head and on paper so I can actually do something with it.

The working title is “The Hidden Branch” and it’s the sequel to Gift of the Phoenix.

I know there are people who imagine the first draft of the sequel to Gift of the Phoenix is already finished and I’m plugging happily away on subsequent drafts.

I wish.

I’m sorry to disappoint, but there has been NO time for the actual writing of this poor sequel. None whatsoever.

I have been working on it, though. Like Gift of the Phoenix, it’s a complicated storyline (complicated to plot, anyway) and there’s a whole bunch of stuff to keep straight and figure out and make completely awesome.

I’m almost ready to write the first word. I have four more days to get ready, because come 5:30 am on November 1st my butt’s going to be at the local Starbucks for the kick-off write in.

I’ve never been to one of those, so I’m hoping it is, in fact, a write-in and that people aren’t trying to chat with me. If so, I’ll just leave. Because from 5:30 to 7:30 I’m going to write the first couple thousand words of “The Hidden Branch.” Then I’ll do that again every day in the month of November.

It’ll be awesome.

The other day I was at my son’s gymnastics class, waiting with all the other parents on the sidelines, in exquisitely uncomfortable metal folding chairs. I had my laptop with me and I was working on the plot line for the book. Another mother, who I’ve gotten to know a bit over the past few weeks, started chatting with me when I shut the computer to give my brain a rest and let the most current idea simmer and absorb all its lovely flavors.

We got to talking about NaNo and she confessed she’s always wanted to write a book.

I would’ve guessed this about her anyway. I’ve learned to identify aspiring writers by the kinds of questions they ask me. (Thoughtful ones, if you’re wondering.)

I encouraged her to give it a go. I told her there’s never a convenient time to write a novel, which is, in the end, a massive undertaking. I also told her that even if she never publishes it or does anything with it, justĀ finishing a book is such a satisfying accomplishment.

I will never forget when I finally finished Gift of the Phoenix. It’s genuinely one of the highlights of my life. I finished a book, and I loved it. Gave me a high for weeks.

Anyway, she decided to go for it.

Then I gave her advice that’s worth repeating here: at the end of November, your book will be a mess.

It really will.

And that’s okay. It’s supposed to be a mess. You’re not trying to write something publishable. You’re just getting your ideas down in tangible form so you can go back and do something intelligent with them later.

It’s like going into your pantry and pulling down all the ingredients you need to make a batch of cookies. You’re just getting stuff on the counter. That’s it. You’ll mix and bake later. Right now, just get it down.

So when you’re a few pages (or several pages) into your book and you realize there’s something you need to change about chapter one, make a note to yourself and keep going.

When you come to a scene that’s going to require, say, research on the kinds of things your character would buy at a market in 1400’s France. Don’t stop to figure it out. You know how much time you’ll lose on the Internet, right? Not to mention losing that forward momentum on your story.

No, for now, have your character go into the market and buy anything you want. It can be Macaroni and Cheese for all I care. You’ll go back and research something like that later. Right now, just make a note to yourself and keep going.

Whatever you do, keep going. Don’t worry that it’s messy. It’s supposed to be. It’s the first draft. The first draft is for you, the author, it is not ever for the reader.

The first draft is a tool. It’s a step. A very necessary step.

And that is the beauty of NaNoWriMo. It gives you the drive to get those ingredients out on the counter. Get that first step done. Because once you get that first step done, you’re one step closer to creating something someone else will actually want to read.

So, if NaNo is something that feels right to you this year, go for it. Go for it with gusto.

You’ll have a mess at the end. But it will be a mess you can be proud of. A mess no one else on this planet could have written, but you.

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