NaNo Prep 2018: What I’ve Learned in 10 Straight Years of Participation

It’s nearly that time again: National Novel Writing Month. Every November I and thousands of other writers challenge ourselves to write 50,000 words in just 30 days. It’s a big goal, and it’s really hard, and it’s a lot of fun. It’s also the way I draft best.

I first learned about NaNo in 2004, which I failed miserably at. In 2005 I succeeded, but I also started college where I was studying creative writing and didn’t have the bandwidth to NaNo. I tried again in 2009, and I haven’t stopped since. Every year I try, quite literally come hell or high water.

There was the year I was in a car accident and spent the month spacey on pain pills. There was the year Hurricane Sandy stranded me on vacation in the Caribbean and I couldn’t get home because home was a dystopian landscape with no power. There was the year we moved to South Africa, which was actually really productive because I didn’t have anything else to do in this new country yet.

Then there was last year, when I got my 50k spread across the starts of three different projects. This is not how I like to work. But it helped clarify how I do like to work, and that’s worth knowing.

I need to prepare. A lot.

I always do NaNo prep. I thought I had prepared enough last year. I thought I had enough notes and plotting done to be able to write Masque, a book inspired by Edgar Allen Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death.” I rapidly discovered that I hadn’t. I had characters and a good bit of worldbuilding and a plot but I didn’t have layers. Layers are subplots, connections, and nuances–the stuff that makes the back of your book and your front of your book look like a clever mirror of one another. I had my main throughline but none of the extras that would make the book a rich experience.

So I wrote 10,000 words and stalled out.

I’m not good at pantsing

I picked up another project that I felt had quite a lot of work still be done on it, but that I also thought I could just let myself have fun with it. Silk, a story about a cat thief who takes over an empire twice, has layers. But they aren’t anchored yet. And without anchors I don’t feel like I can keep going.

Basically, there are two functions in writing and my brain is only good for one of them at a time. I can invent a story, or I can craft prose. I can’t do both. Which means I need to do lots of prep work and outlining so I know the story and can concentrate on the prose.

15,000 words on that one.

I need to trust the process

Systems work for me. So, feeling quite morose by this point, I decided to just grab a new project and outline it, counting the outline toward my word count. It would still be writing, still be storytelling. I picked a concept that I hadn’t developed very much yet, Corset Queen, a romance between a cosplayer and a swordswoman who works Ren fairs. I opened up Gwen Hayes’s ROMANCING THE BEAT and let her lead me. I wrote a rich outline, a paragraph or two per chapter.

It worked. I told the story, inventing lots of new things, and I had fun. So I started in on the prose and altogether I just topped 50k. By three words. It was enough.

Three attempts, one mishmash

I’m sad that I didn’t come out of last year with a complete draft that I could throw myself into revising. That’s been my pattern for years: I draft in a mad rush in November. It happened to be not such a bad thing, though, because it allowed me to keep focusing on IN HER OWN SKIN and the MONSTER NOVEL STRUCTURE WORKBOOK.

And I did learn a lot about my writing process. I learned that I mustn’t try to rush it. If I’m not ready for a full-on draft come November them I’m not ready. And that’s fine! The important thing is that I tried.

So what’s next?

This year I am as over-prepared as I can get. UNCHURCHED began life back when I was in high school, and I’ve been working on it on and off since then. I’m determined that whatever I draft this year is going to be The Draft that I then polish up to the best of my ability.

The outline is over 12,000 words long. Am I insane? Only a little. There’s method here.

The first reason it’s so huge is because I knew I’d be sharing it with my Author Mentor Match mentor, and she’d never seen any of this before. I needed to give enough information that a new person would understand what was going on. Context.

Secondly, I wanted to get all the layers in. Having worked on this story for SO long, there are a lot of layers I’ve built up. I wanted to make sure I didn’t miss any. And I pulled out Aeon Timeline’s matrix feature to track how frequently a given thread was mentioned. Basically, I did all the plot-proofing I was able to.

Then I got beta reads on the outline. This is important for my process as well, because at a certain point I’m too in the weeds to see everything. I need the external feedback to guide my next changes. I’ve already gotten comments on plot, character, motivations, logic, and weaknesses. Which I get to fix NOW instead of when I’ve written thousands of words that will have to be cut.

This is my process.

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