Lessons Learned from Participating in NaNoWriMo 2016

Today, I’d like to talk about what I learned about myself and my process while participating in NaNoWriMo 2016. Joining me today to help illustrate my points is a clown. I don’t know why he’s here, but he seems to want to be here, so let’s begin.

1. Planing to Write 50,000 Words Resulted in Writing 50,000 Words

My subconscious mind or Muse (I really should give it a name one of these days) is pretty cool. When I ask it a question, it tends to fling back an answer like a clown throwing a cream pie.

Me: I’m going to do NaNoWriMo this year. Wonder if I can write 1,667 words every day for 30 days.

Muse: You know you can. You’re going to finish early, maybe by a couple days.

Me: I wonder if Red Wednesday is long enough to be 50,000 words?

Muse: The first draft will be spot on, the second drafter longer than you think.

Me: What does Red Wednesday even mean?

Muse: Don’t sweat it. It’s taken care of; you’ll see!

I’ll tell you, even up until the last day of writing, I had no idea if the story was going to make it past the 50,000 word mark. Turns out it did. My Muse was correct. It was also correct about the significance of the title showing up in the story, and based on how sparse my prose is in the first draft, I’ll be going back to flesh out the story a bit more, which will make it longer. And I finished six days early.

Lesson Learned: I have a kick ass Muse who knows more about what’s going on than I do.

2. Planning More Helped the Writing Go Faster

I always worry about the planning stage. In the past, I’d always go past the tipping point where all of a sudden I knew too much, and the desire to tell the story deflated like a clown’s balloon.

Nowadays, I seem to like knowing more about the story I want to tell, including the ending. Consequently, I’ve been trying new techniques, such as outlining in more detail, casting my characters using pre-existing actors, pre-determining POV and dressing my scene settings. The less decision-making there is, the better I can focus on other elements, such as transitions, the interactions of my characters, and juxtapositions between action, dialogue, and setting.

Some of the scenes in Red Wednesday practically wrote themselves. These included the introductory scene and the climax scenes. They were the parts of the story I had thought about the longest. Where I stalled is when I hadn’t made basic decisions about points of view or hadn’t tried to visualize a scene in any way beyond the key plot point.

Lesson Learned: Figuring out basic elements of a story as I write, slows down the writing; knowing more, speeds up the writing.

3. Writing From as Many Different Points of View Helped Me Get to Know My Characters Faster

I do struggle with POV choices at times. Red Wednesday originally called out to be told in first person. It may very well eventually be written that way, but I couldn’t make a firm decision and opted for limited omniscient. This provided an opportunity to explore the perspective of a couple of characters.

As, the project evolved, I said What the hell!, threw that clown to the wind and ended up writing from the point of view of six characters, one of which we only hear from once. I rather love the way that turned out, and am thinking of ways to ease the transition from one point of view to another so I can keep them all.

Lesson Learned: Multiple viewpoints helped tell parts of the story in interesting and effective ways.

4. Writing Fast Created a Skeletal Story

As I tend to fall on the side of being too concise when I write, NaNoWriMo just amplified that tendency to the Nth degree. On one hand it’s good not to get lost in a sea of clown noses and too much detail, but on the other hand, it can leave you with a very sterile, bare bones kind of story. Given the choice of going back and trimming a million adverbs and adjectives, I’d rather go back and insert a few select ones here and there and vamp up my verbs.

Lesson Learned: It’s okay if the prose is sparse, as long as there is story there.

5. Writing Fast Made a Messy First Draft

This is one of the biggest drawbacks to doing NaNoWriMo. Even though I did a considerable amount of research, there is no way to account for everything that will come up in the story. In many places of the draft are ???, which means “I don’t know!” Cue the honk of a clown nose.

Those three question marks reflect a number of different kinds of I don’t know‘s, from street names, to the names of buildings (fiction or real), to character names that decided they didn’t want to be just the cook or the servant.  In addition, there’s spelling, missing punctuation, run-on sentences, and either too many paragraph breaks or not enough. All of this will need to be sorted out eventually, and I’ve learned that I’d rather take a bit more time with my first draft and make good and solid, so there’s less to do during the revision stage.

Lesson Learned: I detest messy first drafts.

6. Writing Fast Forced Me to Think on the Spot

The good thing about standing in big clown shoes is there’s lots of space to wriggle your toes. The bad thing is that there’s a whole bunch of shoe that just serves no function and goes to waste. Thinking on the spot is very similar.

When I write under a deadline, two things can and always do happen. The first is that I write some crazy-assed, out of the blue, gorgeous tidbits of prose—little golden word nuggets that make the hairs on my arms stand on end and impel me to hug that clown. The second, I produce a lot of crappy prose, some of which might get scrapped because it doesn’t serve the story well. I haven’t read through the story in its entirety yet, but while I was writing, I got the impression that I’d be rewriting a lot of it sometime in the future.

Lesson Learned: Some rewrites can be avoided if a little care is taken with the first draft.

7. Writing Every Single Day Started to Slow Down the Writing After a While

During the end of the second week of NaNoWriMo, my writing output began to diminish. The 2,000 or more words in two to three consecutive hours stretched out to 2,000 words or less in four to five hours broken up over the course of the day. It wasn’t simply an issue of not planning enough for a scene. My mind had started to ache, and my Muse was grumpy and wanted to punch that clown.

Unsure about whether or not taking a day off would be enough off a break or if it might disrupt my flow altogether, I finally decided something had to be done to appease my Muse. I took a day off, away from the computer as much as I could.

That day off did wonders. Come the following day, my Muse was back to its chipper self, ready to dive in, refreshed, revitalized. And best of all, my output level was restored to what it was at the beginning of the month.

Lesson Learned: I can write every day if need be, but probably shouldn’t. From now on, it’s a Monday to Friday thing only.

8. My Inner Critic Visited Often Even After Being Told to Take a Vacation

When my writing started to getting jumbled on a cognitive level, my Muse stepped aside and let my Inner Critic at it. My Inner Critic doesn’t like clowns or much of anything, and especially detests the cognitive dissonance that shows up in my prose when I’m not sure how to make a connection that needs to be made.

My Muse seems to know when to step aside and let my Inner Critic come in and “fix the playground”, which often involves a rearranging of previously established connections that came out garbled. I have a tendency to put the cart before the horse, and I’m learning to relax about letting my Inner Critic in on the first draft, if it will save me from writing blocks and pushing me off on tangents that don’t serve the story. Thankfully, once the playground was fixed, my Inner Critic was very pleased with his contribution and willingly receded into the background again when he was finished tinkering. No clowns were killed.

Lesson Learned: I think my Inner Critic likes to play a bit too, and he works very hard to make sure I don’t stall out during the writing.

9. Doing NaNoWriMo Helps Build Discipline

If you’re not accustomed to sitting every day to write, NaNoWriMo will help with creating that habit. If you are already accustomed to writing most days, like I am, there are other benefits to doing this writing challenge.

It pushed me to write, no matter how I felt, something I’m not always inclined to do. I spent the first week and a half dealing with a cold/flu and sinusitis, and I sat and wrote anyway, AND I banked as many words as I could just in case of a real emergency.

Word count tracking helps provide averages that can help determine your average daily word output, which in turn can help determine realistic goals to strive for.

Lesson Learned: While I am capable of writing 2,400 words a day, I probably should be writing about 1,000-1,500 a day. 

10. I Completed a First Draft of a Short Novel

51,600 53,086 words in 24 days, need I say more. Honk! Honk!

Lesson Learned: Pushing yourself in ways that are meaningful to you and your passion can produce amazing results.


NaNoWriMo was definitely well worth doing. Not only did I get a story out of my head and down on paper, meeting the challenge under a deadline has done wonders for my confidence levels. Furthermore, my Muse and I seem to have bonded in a deeper way, and I have a better understanding why my Inner Critic barges in on the first draft.

Not sure if I will do it again next year. The time of year is tricky, what with it being so close to the Christmas holidays. And again, I’m not really fussed about the quality of the first draft I produce. I also had to sacrifice quite a bit of time and am now scrambling to catch up. Thankfully I have friends and family who are understanding when I drop off the face of the earth for a while.

Still, it might be fun to find other ways to push the challenge, such as writing a short story every day for the month of November. That’s something to consider… for another year.

And that’s a wrap for this experiment with NaNoWriMo 2016. Coming soon, my final thoughts on the first draft of Red Wednesday, the project I produced during this challenge.

Talk to you soon!


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