Five years ago, I embarked on my first real attempt at National Novel Writing Month. I signed up, planned my schedule, roughed out an outline, and buckled down. November 1, 2009, I began writing.
Two weeks later, I raced past the 50,000-word mark. The ending was rushed and the details were hazy and the characters felt rather flat and the writing was messy, but I’d put together a pretty decent story and landed at just over 53,000 words. And I’d done it in half the allotted time (my wife and I were going on vacation for Thanksgiving, so I had to finish early.)
That first attempt at NaNoWriMo those five years ago wound up being the first draft of Hagridden, which, after years of revision and shopping around, came out from Columbus Press two months ago. (It’s listed in the page of “Published WriMos”! They’re organized by publisher, so scroll through the “Traditionally Published” list until you find Columbus Press.)
While drafting Hagridden back in 2009, I kept a running commentary on my process by posting regular updates here on the blog. It’s a habit I kept up every year since then, even setting up a special NaNoWriMo page here on my website, with links to all my posts from all the years I’ve participated (including my “tips for new WriMos“). But writing those update posts also gave me a chance to more deeply examine my writing practices and process, and when I wasn’t writing my novel or updates on my progress, I wrote a lengthy post on the myth of writers block and the first in what became a whole series of posts about researching for fiction.
It was a rich and instructive period for me, that first NaNoWriMo experience. Of course, it helped that I was away from the classroom that year and, for the first time in my life, was able to devote my entire schedule to writing full time. Balancing two jobs — writing and whatever else you do — is tremendously difficult.
But this is one of the things NaNoWriMo taught me how to do. That first November, monitoring daily word counts and tracking my progress along an outline and setting aside designated writing times, these tasks were how I learned who I am as a writer and how I need to work in order to write something as prolonged and as intense as a novel. I learned how to organize the work, how to sustain it over time, how to impose deadlines on myself and then meet them.
I’ve gone back to some of those early posts from that first year, and I’ve noticed some interesting things. In my first post, from my second day of writing, I went back to my outline and my schedule, and I predicted some things: “I’ve had a very clear vision for this novel for about four years now,” I wrote in 2009, “so at the outset of this project I set myself up a relatively detailed outline. Then I upped the page count (NaNoWriMo requires about 175 pages, but I was shooting for 210) and divided it as well as the word count by the 30 days of November, and then I synchronized the whole thing to my outline [. . .]. Strangely, I’ve already fallen a handful of pages behind my outline, yet I’m more than a thousand words ahead on my word count. Conclusion: This is going to be a longer novel than I’d planned, and I might wind up completing NaNoWriMo without having finished the novel.”
I was right, it turned out. Not only did I finish NaNoWriMo without fully finishing the book (as I’ve said, the ending was rushed and incomplete), but I also was spot-on about the page count: I was shooting for 210 but realized it would probably be longer; Hagridden, as published, is 241 pages.
But just two days later, I’d changed my mind: “I’m moving through my outline faster than I’d thought, and today I realized I’d finished a third of the story I’ve set out to write. That means I’m going to run out of novel before I hit 50,000 words.” That, too, wound up being true, because while I did finish the book, or at least wrote an ending to the book, I had skipped over quite a bit of story, and in my later revisions of the novel, I had to do a lot of work to add in character background, plot points, and world-building detail. In my first crack at revision, I threw out a lot of text and cut the initial 53,000 words down to around 49,000, but then I developed, and edited, and developed, and edited, and the final, published version comes in just shy of 69,000 words. That’s almost 13,000 words more than my first draft — 20,000 words more, if you consider what I cut.
The final discovery for me, in my last post about the process of that first year, was how important doing NaNoWriMo was for my sense of community. “I knew I needed to do [NaNoWriMo] publicly,” I wrote just after finishing the book, “not because what I’m writing matters but because I needed to trick myself into thinking it mattered to someone, I needed the illusion of some impatient audience out there in the world tapping their fingers and saying, ‘All right, dude, show what you did today.'”
I’m a terribly undisciplined person, really, and I often have to trick myself into doing the work, and no trick has worked better than the friends or colleagues or editors waiting expectantly for me to finish. Even if they’re an illusion I conjure or their expectation is one I asked them to have.
This is something I’d long known about myself and had used before in college and grad school. But NaNoWriMo taught me how to manufacture that experience outside of school, digitally, across the planet.
That first year was my most successful year. I wrote other books each November from 2010 to 2013. Some I finished, some I haven’t finished yet. Some were irredeemably terrible, some still hold great promise. Then, last year, I returned to historical fiction — and found my next book.
The new novel (tentatively titled The Devil Don’t Die, though I’m not yet married to that) never quite came together last year, and for the second time, I didn’t make it to 50k. But I fell in love with the story, and I’ve spent much of the past year thinking about it and tinkering with it in the background. Which is why, this year, though I will be writing, I won’t be participating in NaNoWriMo, because I want to return to a book I’ve already started. The work will be the same — and I’ll be chronicling it here as I usually do during NaNoWriMo — but since it’s technically against the rules to work on a book you’ve already started, I won’t be entering it on the NaNoWriMo site.
Which is to say, keep tabs on my progress here on the blog (and on Facebook, and on Twitter). And check out what I got up to each November in years past, including how I went about writing the first draft of Hagridden.