Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Q&A: NANOWRIMO

Today, Nov. 1, sees the launch of this year's National Novel Writing Month -- or, as insiders call it, "NaNoWriMo." As described on the official site, the deal is to begin writing November 1, and write a 175-page (50,000-word) novel by midnight, November 30.

"Because of the limited writing window, the ONLY thing that matters in NaNoWriMo is output. It's all about quantity, not quality. The kamikaze approach forces you to lower your expectations, take risks, and write on the fly."

In 2005, NaNoWriMo had over 59,000 participants -- nearly 10,000 of which crossed the 50k finish line by the midnight deadline. "They started the month as auto mechanics, out-of-work actors, and middle school English teachers. They walked away novelists."

As a help to those of us crazy enough to try this for ourselves, we are re-presenting Q&As with three friends who have gone through this process in the past: J. Mark Bertrand (who blogs at www.jmarkbertrand.com), Chris Mikesell (who blogs at mikesell.blogspot.com) and Kevin Hendricks (who has several blogs at www.MonkeyOuttaNowhere.com).

*****

J. MARK BERTRAND

1) What was the result of your participation in NaNoWriMo 2004?
JMB:
The first result was a nervous breakdown. Calling me a reluctant participant would be an understatement. I entered after a friend issued a challenge that pretty much impugned my manhood if I declined, so I registered in a sort of half-hearted way. After writing about fifty pages in two days, I had a meltdown. But then I took the weekend to recover and ended up writing about 52,000 words for the month.

2) Did you meet your expectations?
I did. What I'd hoped to do was write a chunk of a novel I'd put off for a long time, one of those projects that grows and grows in your mind until it is all but unwritable and you become convinced that your only hope is to hire a real writer to do it. Writing 50,000 words in a month wasn't as much of a big deal as overcoming that self-imposed mental barrier.

3) Are you going to take the challenge again this year?
Not only am I doing it, but I'm trying to lure in as many unsuspecting friends as possible. A challenge like this is a good way of discovering if you really have it in you to be a writer. There are a lot of folks who think they'd like being writers, and would certainly enjoy being published, but don't like writing. An irrational, arbitrary deadline like this -- though, to be honest, writing 50k in a month is probably a necessary skill for today's book-a-year writers -- forces you to be alone with your work. NaNoWriMo is like a boar hunt, only you have to supply your own boar and you don't have to drink its blood or anything when you're finished.

4) Based on your experiences last year, what one piece of advice would you say every writer MUST do to succeed this year?
Write something you care about. Don't commit to NaNoWriMo as a stunt. If you're not working on something that has an afterlife, something that will live after November 30, then you're probably wasting your time.

5) What one thing did you learn from experienced that every writer must NOT do this year?
Don't listen to what the NaNoWriMo people say about cranking out a shoddy draft just to get your word count up and then revising it afterward. The only drafts worth revising are good drafts. Your pet monkey can write a bad draft in a month. Your pet monkey's dimwit cousin can pad a manuscript with song lyrics and verbal clutter.

The real challenge -- the thing that separates us from the beasts, if you will -- is writing a decent draft. Some folks approach NaNoWriMo like it's their own personal Heart of Darkness, a journey into the self that might end up anywhere (particularly rehab or a mental institution).

Instead, think of it as a problem of craft. Imagine someone asked you to make a chair in a month, or some fitted bookcases.

BONUS: Any other bits of advice for those doing NaNoWriMo for the first time this year?
Instead of dividing 50,000 words evenly across thirty days to arrive at a daily word count goal, set the bar higher early on. If you're going to run into trouble, it's better to hit it early, work through it, and keep going. Push yourself the first week of November so that coming out of that cauldron you have a plan and a pace to follow.

* * *

CHRIS MIKESELL

1) What was the result of your participation in NaNoWriMo 2004?
CM:
A joyous bundle/steaming pile of 74,000 words. The novel wasn't entirely coherent, nor was it complete in the sense of all subplots tied up, but it was a wonderfully crappy first draft.

2) Did you meet your expectations?
Yes. But my expectations were low.

3) Are you going to take the challenge again this year?
Not a novel from scratch, but I will be continuing to revise last year's novel as part of Dee Stewart's Halo's Eve project.

4) Based on your experiences last year, what one piece of advice would you say every writer MUST do to succeed this year?
Accounability. Be part of a NaNo community, either a local chapter or the online forums (though the forums suck up writing time). An alternative would be to have bunch of people (friends/coworkers) keeping tabs on your writing and encouraging you to keep at it (and ready to ridicule you if you fail).

5) What one thing did you learn from experienced that every writer must NOT do this year?
An overabundance of fast food is bad. My "write a word, eat a chip" policy last year was woefully misguided.

Some fast food is good, but don't go crazy with it.

BONUS: Any other bits of advice for those doing NaNoWriMo for the first time this year?
There are ready-made Excel spreadsheets out there to help you track your progress. The one I used also let you rank your emotional status; when things bogged down in week 3 for me, it helped to remember that the outlook wasn't always so bleak, that there had been days I missed quota but still felt optimistic.

More NaNoWriMo observation/advice on my writing blog: w-i-p.blogspot.com/2005/10/too-big-to-kill.html.

* * *

KEVIN D. HENDRICKS

1) What was the result of your participation in NaNoWriMo 2004?
KDH:
I wrote my first ever novel, Downtown Dandelions, a work just over 50,000 words long in a mere 20 days. I went so far as to self-publish it for kicks, and you can buy a copy or download the PDF www.monkeyouttanowhere.com/dandelions/purchase.html). It's just a glorified first draft and needs a lot of editing work -- which they say is the hard part, though I wouldn't know because I haven't gotten there yet -- but it is a novel.

2) Did you meet your expectations?
I blew away my expectations. I've wanted to write a novel my entire life and I've never seriously sat down to do it. NaNoWriMo gave me the chance to do it and the conditions to make it possible. I had the time of my life writing the novel and as crazy as it sounds, it actually went really well. I even managed to finish early.

3) Are you going to take the challenge again this year?
Sadly, no. Last year I wasn't as busy in November and I could afford to concentrate on a side project like this. This year I'm too busy with paying projects and a baby on the way. Though as I write this I'm reminded how much fun I had last year and I'm tempted to give it a shot again this year. Ooh, that's scary.

4) Based on your experience last year, what one piece of advice would you say every writer MUST do to succeed this year?
One piece of advice? Sheesh, that's hard, but I guess I'd say you must have the proper mindset. Writing a novel in a month is a pretty crazy proposition, and you need to understand what you're getting into. Writing 1,600 words per day means you can't look back. You just have to keep on writing, whether it's crap or Shakespearean drama.

You also have to understand that it's a marathon. You're going to have to make sacrifices: No TV, minimal social time, no sleeping in. It takes a lot of commitment, and you have to have that mindset nailed down. It means getting friends and family to support you and buckling down to do the work. It's all about having the right mindset.

I'd highly recommend the book No Plot? No Problem! by Chris Baty. It's about writing a novel in a month and helps you get into the mindset, plus it gives a lot of good ideas and suggestions to help you make it.

5) What one thing did you learned from experience that every writer must NOT do this year?
My experience went pretty well, so I didn't have many "don't do this" experiences. Part of that may be because I didn't do anything else. You need focus to do this, so don't do anything else while you're trying to do NaNoWriMo.

Obviously you have a job and you need to work and pay bills, but anything that's non-essential can wait until November. The dishes can pile up, the laundry can pile up, your friends can wait, you can tape TV shows or catch the reruns, you can sleep in December, you don't really need to rake the leaves, you can talk to your parents when you're done -- you get the idea. You have to carve out time to make it happen, so don't expect to do a lot of other stuff. Those things may be great rewards if you meet your daily word count goal, but do the writing first.

* * *

Many thanks to J. Mark Bertrand (www.jmarkbertrand.com), Chris Mikesell (mikesell.blogspot.com) and Kevin Hendricks (www.MonkeyOuttaNowhere.com). The offficial site for National Novel Writing Month (in case you missed the many, many links above) is at NaNoWriMo.org.

Related links:
Q&A: LINDA GILMORE (short story writer)
Q&A: BRANDT DODSON (Seventy Times Seven)
Q&A: ERIC WILSON (The Best of Evil)
Q&A: JON L. BREEN (Eye of God)
Q&A: MELANIE WELLS (The Soul Hunter)

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