Writing A Novel: NaNoWriMo Successes, Failures and What I Learned

crest_square-b23dbe8d9b80265765b27ccd9b5d4811So, I actually managed to complete NaNoWriMo in November 2015! Wondering what NaNoWriMo is? It is essentially this: write 50,000 words from November 1st through November 30th. That’s it.

I’ve written about it a few times in the past (NaNoWriMo, Writing A Novel), but I thought I’d take the opportunity to recap what it was like actually doing this challenge. A reflection on my approach, my successes and failures and what I learned along the way. Honestly, it’s as much for me as it would be for anyone else ever considering the challenge in the future.

Preparation:

There are a lot of resources for writers out there in advance of tackling the NaNoWriMo challenge. Here, here, and here. Did I do any preparation? No. Well, I did some, but probably not nearly as much as I could have to make things go more smoothly. I had written my prologue, had basic story ideas and a few rough ideas of where the story would go. But, that was it. I was going in with one eye open essentially.

The Start:

The start of writing was really just that. I simply just started writing. With my notes about general plot advancement, I made up the story as I went along. Point A to Point B was a directionless adventure. Starting a novel this way felt liberating for me however. It meant that I was not constrained by anything that existed before. I was truly in control of where I could take the story. However, when to write would become one of my biggest challenges.

As for how I wrote, I decided to begin my story in Evernote, which is where I’d added notes, ideas and story elements up until that point. This would only work for a few days before I realized it wasn’t the best place to do it as it was difficult to track words written and total word count, which are key to the NaNoWriMo challenge.

Challenges:

Software:

Realizing that I needed a better solution for writing, tracking word count, saving it in the cloud for backup and more, led me initially to Novlr. Novlr was in beta phase when I signed up. For a little over a week, I used this software. It had a nice minimal design, tracked daily word count, total word count, and worked well syncing online. It also allowed me to export at the end of a writing day to Dropbox as a .pdf and Word Doc.

About a week in, I ran into a glitch within the software and lost my entire day’s writing. 1500+ words. It hadn’t backed up yet, I hadn’t saved it to another document and that night’s work was gone. Frustrated and upset, I contacted Novlr’s support on Twitter and they were able to recover a portion of it, but it was only a few hundred words. I decided the following day I’d research other writing software to try.

NaNoWriMo offers goodies (discounts, free items, etc.) for writers if they successfully complete NaNoWriMo. Of those goodies, are writing software discounts. Scrivener, Ulysses, and Storyist are all included for discounted purchases after November. Yet, to tempt writers to purchase their software, all of them were available for trial periods during November. I proceeded to download all of them and play around with them that day.

Scrivener and Ulysses are both widely considered staples of the writing community and are immensely powerful and robust software solutions. But, there in lies the problem. They’re so adapt at doing so many things that the learning curve is huge. There are plenty of resources for learning Scrivener. Same goes for Ulysses. It’s complicated and feeling the pressure of time and words ticking against me, I decided against spending a few days to learn each software when that time could have been spent writing.

Those obstacles led me to Storyist. It too took a more simplistic approach to novel setup. It has features like instant formatting for new chapters, covers, title pages, and includes templates for drafting character descriptions, creating notes for plot and more. It was easy to learn, quick to dig into and also had back up to Dropbox. It’s currently only designed for Mac and iOS, but that wasn’t an issue for me. It had the ability to export to Kindle docs, and other e-reader formats. Their website offers a lot of tutorials for basic skills and functions as well. It was a perfect fit.

I quickly dug in and picked up where I’d left off.

storyist-8-1Writing:

Writing itself was pretty smooth. When I’d hit a point in the story when action intensified, I found I was able to more quickly work. The words flowed out effortlessly. There were only a handful of times where I hit minor writer’s blocks. Those days, I’d stop writing and take a break to let my head clear.

I did run into issues with consistency. Because I hadn’t thoroughly outlined my novel and made it up as I went along, my tone of voice changed at times, character details changed and some inconsistencies in plot established. I’m sure this was a direct result of writing as fast as I could, but it’s a good lesson to take forward.

Finding Time To Write:

The biggest challenge of all, was finding time. Or, more accurately, making time. Working a full-time job, raising a one-year-old, spending time with my wife, and making time to also sleep became a daily juggling act. I made the effort to write before work, for 15 – 45 minutes over lunch, for a bit after work before getting my son at daycare, and writing furiously at night after he went to bed. On weekends, during naps, I’d write as much as I could.

That schedule NEVER would have been possible if my incredible wife, Elizabeth, hadn’t been supportive of me from the start. Elizabeth completely understood why I was doing this challenge. She helped me make time, many times telling me, “sit down right now. Go write!” Would this book have made it through draft one without her? It’s possible it wouldn’t have. She allowed me to write and delay any time we’d previously spend relaxing. She let me shirk some household responsibilities (dishes, laundry, cleaning) and supported me in this ambitious project. Elizabeth was the first person I think of and thank for successfully doing it.

Failures:

Ultimately, there were very few failures in the project. I finished NaNoWriMo, which was the ultimate goal. I hit some failures when it came to planning as I noted above. I failed to properly think in advance about how I’d write. But, those weren’t failures in the strictest sense. They became lessons learned that will help me in the future. There were a total of three days during November that I didn’t hit my daily writing goal.

Success:

NaNo-2015-Winner-BannerAs I mentioned, I actually accomplished NaNoWriMo. In fact, I hit my 50,000 word goal on November 25th, averaging over 2000 words a day to accomplish it. November 25th was actually my goal target day as Thanksgiving was the 26th, we hosting and were going to have family in town staying with us for a few days after that. I anticipated the increased challenge that would present itself in writing the remainder of November and used that as motivation.

I’ll never forget the day and moment of hitting 50,000 words. I’d gone to a new coffee roasters near our house on the 25th for the late afternoon to finish work. Once work was done, I cranked out work and delayed picking up my son for a bit knowing how close I was. With a fresh brewed cup of coffee at my side, a standing table and roasting going on in front of me, I took a big sip of coffee and wrote. The ending of my story was far from where I was (draft one would end up being closer to 60,000 words), but my goal was easily within sight.

I’d trained myself to ignore my word count as I wrote. The daily total was a goal, but it wasn’t like I’d hit the goal and stop writing. I let my end point each day be organic and finish a chapter or scene to ensure consistency as best as I could. As I worked on the chapter, I noticed that the word count ticked from 49,500 to 49,600 and so on. Passing 50,000 almost felt anti-climatic. I was alone at a coffee shop. Elizabeth wasn’t with me and odds were that everyone around me knew nothing of the writing challenge. I desperately wanted to high-five someone and share the joy of that moment. But, it would have to wait. I finished the chapter, packed my things and picked up my son.

His reaction when I told him I hit 50,000 words was exactly what I expected from a one-year-old, no reaction. But, it did feel good to tell someone! Elizabeth’s reaction however was much better. She hugged and kissed me, told me how proud she was, how she couldn’t wait to read it and said we were going to celebrate with a beer after our son was sleeping. It felt great to get that feedback even if the novel wasn’t done.

Looking Back:

Would I dare challenge myself to NaNoWriMo again? Absolutely! It was an incredible challenge, felt insanely good to accomplish it, and I learned a lot. I find myself wondering what I could have accomplished with better planning, software and all the challenges of writing considered beforehand. It’s a question for another year. Will I compete in the NaNoWriMo challenge this year? Possibly.

Currently, I’m working on draft two. I’ve outlined goals to be ready for submitting my manuscript for publication by the end of September. That would leave me a month of breathing room before starting all over again. I’ve got ideas for other novels and I have ideas for possible sequels to my current novel.

One aspect that I would consider changing is getting involved on a local level. Writing is such a personal and isolating activity. I don’t dislike that aspect, but I know that local chapters of writers band together during November for encouragement and solidarity. Most of the meet-ups in Denver weren’t in the city, they were in the suburbs, so I didn’t want to drive that far to meet up.

There is a lot more work to do on my novel and I look forward to which lessons I learn along the way. I’ll be writing about the next challenges in the near future as well so stay tuned. Until then…

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