It’s November, so it must be NaNoWriMo.
For those of you unfamiliar with this, NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month. The aim is for participants to (surprise!) write a novel in a month. It’s a worldwide thing, with forums and support groups, as well as meet-ups in all kids of places where people can go along to work on their novels. Those taking part sign up, usually before November starts, and then post their word-counts as they go. They get support from others taking part, and it’s a great encouragement for anyone struggling to get their first draft done.
I heard about it last year, but didn’t get any of the details until later—it was just this ‘write a novel in a month’ thing. I spent time in October planning what would become Deep Water, and thought I might as well give this thing a go, albeit unofficially—I’d start writing my initial draft on the first of November, and see if I could complete it by the 30th.
A couple of weeks in, and I knew I wouldn’t do it. I had only covered about a third of my planning—there was no way I’d get to the end in the next two weeks.
And then I found out a little more about NaNoWriMo. The length of a novel is undetermined, so saying ‘write a novel in a month’ would mean different things to different people. So the NaNo organisers chose 50,000 words—about 150 pages. I checked my word-count on Deep Water (called Dominion 3 at the time)—I was at about 45,000 words already, and still had half the month to go!
So I set myself a different challenge—I might not get to the end of the story, but I’d aim for 100,000 words by the end of November—a double NaNo.
I made it, just. And a couple of weeks into December, I had the first draft of Deep Water finished.
But that’s all it was—a first draft.
There is a complaint that is often levelled at NaNoWriMo—that 50,000 words of first draft is not a novel. And this is true. But NaNo has never been about creating a completed novel in a month. There is no expectation that writers will start the month with nothing, and will then have a finished product, ready to put out into the world, by the 30th. Oh, people have done this—Sean Platt and Johnny B Truant wrote their book The Dream Engine over a month, in their Fiction Unboxed project. They started with nothing, planned the story, wrote it, edited it, got a cover, and had a finished product on sale by the end of the month—and they broadcast the whole process live on the internet.
But they are the outliers. They are doing this writing thing full-time, and they have a machine-like collaborative process. Those of us who are mere mortals have to contend with day-jobs. The majority of us simply cannot work that fast.
And, for a great many people, this can lead to despondency—if they can’t compete, why bother? There are so many people out there who have started, and then abandoned, their writing projects.
These are the very people NaNoWriMo is trying to help. One of the best encouragements for continual writing is a sense of achievement, and one of the most important achievements is completing that first draft, especially for a new writer.. And, with NaNo, there is no sense of judgement. From what I’ve seen, there is an incredibly positive vibe about the whole thing. Yes, people are proud when they ‘win’ with their 50,000 words. But there is just as much encouragement given for the ones who struggle to find the time in their busy lives, and finish with a word count of 30,000, or only a couple of thousand. They have still taken part, and they have still pushed themselves. They might not have ‘won’, but they have not lost, because with those few thousand words they have come closer to the end of that first draft. Every single word written brings the completion of the project a step closer.
I wanted to take part in NaNo this year—not for the encouragement to write, because I’ve already proven to myself that I can complete a first draft, but for the sense of community, and the chance to ‘meet’ others, like me, who have this writing bug. But things haven’t worked out. Over the summer, I planned Dominions 4. I didn’t want to wait before I started writing, not while so much was fresh in my mind, so I ploughed on, and finished the first draft about a week before the end of October.
But a first draft is not a finished book. It is only the start. The first draft of Dominions 4 was (is?) a mess. I was aiming for 100,000 words, but ended up with something closer to 150,000, so I have loads to cut. There are problems with the structure, and I don’t believe some of the characters’ motivations. It is a long way from being the novel I wanted to write.
A first draft is never perfect—far from it. Some people refer to it as the ‘vomit draft’, in part because it is, for many people, simply a case of getting the words out, but also because it often stinks, and needs to be cleaned up.
And that is what I am doing now, with Dominions 4. I’m deep into my first pass of editing (what I refer to as my ‘Kindle edit’, because it starts with me reading the text on my Kindle, as if it were a book, and making notes on all the major problems with the story). So I won’t be doing much writing over November. I won’t be taking part in NaNoWriMo.
At least, not in the normal way. But I’ll still be taking part in spirit. I won’t be working on my first draft, but I’ve set myself an alternative target. I might have started this edit at the tail end of October, but I’m aiming to finish before the 30th of November. For me, this is National Novel Editing Month—NaNoEMo.
I might not ‘win’, but even if I don’t finish this edit until December (or later), I’ll do what I can this month. Along with all those who are flying through their words, and those who are struggling to find the time to turn on their laptops, I’ll be working on my story. I’ll be watching the days, and be thinking of how much I have left to get through. And, when I’ve finished this edit, I’ll let the thing sit before doing another pass. There is still a long way to go before the writing becomes a book.
So, for anyone out there who is taking part in NaNoWriMo—keep at it. It doesn’t matter if you don’t reach that magic 50,000, or if you sail past it. You’ll get to the end of that first draft sooner or later, and when you do, you can give yourself a pat on the back, maybe have a drink or two, and take a moment to realise what you’ve achieved.
The vomit draft is over. You have a story, in all it’s messy glory.
Now comes the next stage.
Now comes the time to turn it into something special.