Beginning next week, if you hear what sounds like a flock of Hitchcockian birds descending on your neighborhood, that’s just the collective sound of thousands of keyboards on frantic overload.
Because about 50,000 writers will be pounding away on a new novel, sweating blood to finish within 30 days as part of National Novel Writing Month.
If you’re one of them, good luck with that.
I feel I should weigh in on this, since the mission of Storyfix is to empower authors to write successful novels and screenplays. But I’ve been hesitant about it, because in some ways the whole proposition rubs me the wrong way.
You see, I take this novel writing thing very seriously.
And that’s the problem… only a fraction of those 50,000 writers do, too.
I say this with love and empathy, by the way. Not every person who wants to try their hand at a novel is a serious writer. Nothing wrong with that, a lot of people play golf, too, and never aspire to a tour card. And it’s likely a fine way to test the literary water, get your feet wet, see what it’s like to play God on the page.
But if that’s you, then you don’t yet qualify as being serious about it… at least not yet.
It’s like going on a diet – whatever gets you in the game is good. If there was a National Gut Losing Month out there, I might choose in, too.
But – and this helps make my point – it wouldn’t work. Not for me, not for anyone truly serious about losing weight and keeping it off. Because, if you know anything about shedding fat, diets don’t work. Only a lifestyle-change can produce the results you seek.
Only getting and staying serious works. And part of being serious is knowing something about what you’re doing before you begin your program.
Same with writing a novel, in an analogous sort of way.
There are only two possible camps here.
In one there are those who just want to have a little fun with NaNoWriMo, experience the process, and hopefully end up with a pile of paper they can use to legitimize their claim that, yes, they’ve written a novel. Their feet will be wet, and that will be that.
But if, at the end of the 30-days, you plan on stuffing your manuscript into an envelope and sending it to someone in New York – and many of you do – you need a reality check.
The other camp, much smaller, is composed of those who are serious about writing a novel and getting it published, and are using this “official” month as a catalyst to get it going.
I have no quarrel with the former. Have a gas. And to the latter I also say, good luck with this.
Because you can’t really write a publishable novel in 30 days.
Even the late Michael Crichton, one of the most prolific and successful of our modern novelists, took six to eight weeks of long, isolated days to get it done, and he was a freaking genius.
Credible advice for the serious writers signing up for this experience.
First, writing a publishable novel is a function of knowledge. Not the kind you get from having read a box full of novels in the last year, but the insight that comes from studying the craft and getting inside the discipline of it, which is largely invisible to readers.
It is the rare prodigy that can read a novel and intuitively understand the inherent structure and criteria required to produce something that a professional reader – an agent or editor – will stick with past page 10. Something that sometimes takes proven professionals years to finally master.
If you’re that prodigy – I’ll say it for the third time here – good luck with that.
If you’re not, then you need to bring a bag of tools to the table. And you have one week to ramp it up. It’ll take you more than 30-days, but if you follow this advice at least those 30-day won’t be wasted time.
Many sites are writing about this.
Both Jennifer at Procrastinating Writers and Suzannah at Writeitsideways are offering a ton of good information, and they’re both credible. Not so with a few other writing sites. One so-called guru, who has done NaNoWriMo all of once (and has never published a novel, by the way), is offering to “share (his) secrets on how to be successful during NaNoWriMo.”
This is like Harrison Ford, who flies a small airplane on weekends, offering to “share his secrets of aviation success” to a crowd of graduates trying to enroll at the Air Force Academy to fly F-18s.
This will help.
One approach to ramp up is to cram on all the archived posts here on Storyfix. There are over 91 articles available here, and about 85 of them are directly relevant, especially my 10-part series on story structure and my 7-part series on characterization.
This can work, too.
Another way to succeed in this endeavor is to go into Day 1 of the process with your story almost completely planned out. Beware anyone telling you that you can over-plan your story – trust me, if you want to write a draft in 30 days that stands a chance at being anything other than complete chaos, you cannot over-plan.
Even professionals who use their drafts to explore and discover their story – a viable approach, by the way – can’t do so in 30 days, and they need to bring a steep learning curve even to stand a chance. It just ain’t gonna happen here.
This will work, too.
Another way to succeed is to break the NaNoWriMo month down into two parts:
- a 10-day planning phase in which you do the aforementioned story planning;
- and then a 20-day intense drafting phase in which you write 2,500 words per day. A very doable output, by the way, at least for a serious writer, and especially if you have confidence that the day’s pages are precisely what the story needs at the moment at hand.
Now let me tell you what won’t work.
If you begin the month with no real idea how your story is going to be built, or worse, how it’s going to end, and if your plan is to feel your way into it by writing 1,667 words per day and seeing what happens next, your manuscript will be a complete mess.
Yeah, I know, sounds harsh. And it’ll piss a few people off. But the absolute sure-thing truth is that such an approach will yield a story that will require a massive rewrite. Because, unless you’re Stephen King (who isn’t entering) or Michael Crichton (who isn’t entering because he’s dead), there’s not a remote chance in hell that your story will have the requisite balance, foreshadowing, structure and nuance it takes to even qualify as a first draft.
Cynics might respond by saying that any draft will require a rewrite. And they’re correct, which is why the whole NaNoWriMo proposition makes we queasy. If they called it National First Draft Writing Month it would go down better.
As is, the implication is that you can spend the month in a manner that will take you further down the writing road. And you can, but only if you bring an understanding of story architecture and criteria to the party.
You won’t learn it by writing, and more than you can learn surgery by just trying it, or by watching Grey’s Anatomy. You must learn story architecture before you can write something good enough to submit.
Beware of Poseurs
Be careful who you listen to on this front. Listen to Jennifer, listen to Suzannah, listen to me. Don’t listen to self-proclaimed gurus who are taking time out from their busy blogging celebrity to irresponsibly grace you with self-anointed wisdom in an arena they know nothing about.
Or, just have fun with it. Who knows, you might discover a talent you didn’t know what there, or at least, understand why something that looks so easy from the reader-side of the proposition, isn’t.