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Thursday, November 18, 2010

Lessons from NaNo

Please welcome guest blogger Kalayna Price

It's the middle of November, which means across the world over a hundred thousand novelists are attempting to write fifty thousands words by the end of the month for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). This annual event receives a lot of mixed attention. I've heard it said that agents and editors dread the months following NaNo because of the flood of unedited 50k word manuscripts which pour into their offices. Before the start of NaNo, I almost always see posts or tweets directed at NaNo participants that boil down to "why are you waiting for November?" (which is valid, but not the point of this blog). This year there was a rather opinionated article criticizing NaNo and those who participate. So does the event have no merit? And if it does, why does it have such a bad rap?

I can't answer either of those questions definitively, but I can say, that in my opinion the yearly event can be a beneficial one and is an event I've participated in several times with great success. As to why it receives so much criticism, I think that is likely due to the fact participants are given permission to "write a crappy first draft." Now this advice is meant to alleviate the paralysis of perfectionism that often strikes writers. This is the fear that either has them sitting and staring at a blinking cursor trying to find the absolute best words before committing them to the page, or it creates an endless revision loop that never allows the writer to pass the first 5-15k thousand words. Giving yourself permission to write a bad first draft allows you to get an entire story on the page. I think the problem arises when 'writing a crappy first draft' gets interpreted as 'just get words—any words—on the page."

Over the years I've seen countless forum posts and blogs that suggest 'tricks' to reaching your wordcount. These tricks amount to what I call "word count stuffing." These are things like creating ridiculously long names for people/places and never using pronouns and instead using that long name every time the person is addressed/place is mentioned or to create long chapter titles for each chapter to boost word count. I've seen suggestions to make sure every sentence includes as many adverbs and adjectives as grammatically possible. I've even run across the suggestion to avoid using contractions so you get credit for both words. These are all, of course, ridiculous. The result of doing these things will be a draft that is much shorter than you're fooling yourself into thinking it is and that will need to be completely rewritten, line by line. (Granted, many of us do that even with what we consider a good first draft, but the above tricks would make the book a truly scary prospect.)

So, if word count stuffing makes NaNo the horror many proclaim it to be, what is a "good" crappy draft and why is the marathon writing event a good idea?

In my opinion, a good crappy draft is the result of giving yourself permission to write the story in the raw way it first enters your head. You don't over think it, you don't worry about the exact words, you just get the words on the page knowing that you can revise them later. This frees you to write fast, which has a lot of benefits. In my experience, when I'm fully immersed in writing, and writing fast, I find the story tends to integrate itself in my every thought so that even while I'm not at the keyboard, ideas are percolating in the back of my head. When I write fast, unexpected things occur in the book despite my outline. Now, on occasion I've written myself in a hole, but often the best scenes, dialogue, and characters have appeared during the fury of first drafting. Of course, you don't need NaNo to write fast. You can do that at any point in the year (and if you want to be an author, you'll need to because contracts don't revolve around November.) After writing a few books, I can say that writing 1.6k words a day is no longer a high goal or particularly fast for me, but if you're not used to keeping a daily word count, NaNo can give a novelist that push. And that's the other benefit of the challenge:

NaNo forces participants to sit down every single day and write. I first participated in the challenge six years ago, and before that I had a rather flighty noveling schedule. I was what you might call a "muse-struck writer" as in I only entertained my keyboard when I felt particularly inspired. That is no way to finish a book. NaNo forced me to write every day, and I remember that first year (and during every draft I've written since) I reached several places where I was completely and totally blocked. There was nothing. I pecked out words like each cost me a pint of blood. Normally I would have walked away and hoped something came to me in a couple days (which inevitably turn to weeks and sometimes months) but in that very first NaNo I learned that if I stuck it out and just kept working that eventually the dam would break and the words would rush out again.

I no longer participate in NaNo because of my deadline schedules and where those tend to fall in the year, but I can say I'm happy that I participated in the past. I think it offers novelists, particularly novelists who have never before reached "The End" on a draft, a lot of encouragement and a solid goal. There are definitely ways in which the challenge is rendered less useful to the writer, and there are some writers whose process simply isn't compatible, but I think as a whole, the ideas behind the challenge are solid. The biggest lessons behind NaNo are to write your story with abandon and to write every day, and that is a lesson we can apply to every first draft we work on throughout the year.

Write on, everyone.

Kalayna Price is the author of the Alex Craft Novels, a new dark urban fantasy series from Roc, and the author of the Novels of Haven from Bell Bridge Books. She draws her ideas from the world around her, her studies into ancient mythologies, and her obsession with classic folklore. Her stories contain not only the mystical elements of fantasy, but also a dash of romance, a bit of gritty horror, some humor, and a large serving of mystery. She is a member of SFWA and RWA, and an avid hula-hoop dancer who has been known light her hoop on fire. To find out more, please visit her at www.kalayna.com.

Grave Witch

Grave witch Alex Craft can speak to the dead, but that doesn’t mean she likes what they have to say . . .

As a private investigator and consultant for the police, Alex Craft has seen a lot of dark magic. But even though she’s on good terms with Death himself—who happens to look fantastic in a pair of jeans—nothing has prepared her for her latest case. Alex is investigating a high profile murder when she’s attacked by the ‘shade’ she’s raising, which should be impossible. To top off her day, someone makes a serious attempt on her life, but Death saves her. Guess he likes having her around . . .

To solve this case Alex will have to team up with tough homicide detective Falin Andrews. Falin seems to be hiding something—though it’s certainly not his dislike of Alex—but Alex knows she needs his help to navigate the tangled webs of mortal and paranormal politics, and to track down a killer wielding a magic so malevolent, it may cost Alex her life . . . and her soul.

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