NaNoWriMo 2015: revising without revising

It’s been a while since I’ve posted updates on my NaNoWriMo. That’s because it’s been a busy month, with a lot of side obligations I’ve been fulfilling. I judged a literary contest, I blurbed a friend’s book, I did a couple of readings, I wrote an essay a magazine solicited. It’s also been a busy month of my usual, primary obligations, like attending meetings and catching up on grading. (I am proud to report, by the way, that at least one of my students is also participating in NaNoWriMo this year. Like me, she has been struggling to keep up with the word count in addition to school work, but I’m super-impressed that she’s tackling NaNoWriMo, and for a while she was even outpacing me! We’ve been discussing our progress outside of class, which has been a treat.)

Screen shot 2015-11-25 at 6.41.04 PMSo, with all this other work, I feel I could be excused for falling behind on the novel, and if you look at my word count meter, it looks like I sat around and wrote nothing for about a week or so and then all of a sudden, in a burst of inspiration, hammered out something like thirteen thousand words.

In fact, I’ve been needling away at it here and there all along, but it wasn’t until the other day that I remembered to update my word count. I’m thrilled to say that I’m nearly at the 50,000 word goal (I currently sit at 45,645 words), and this Thanksgiving break, I plan on crossing the finish line.

But what’s interesting is looking back over what I have been writing this month and realizing how much of it is just thinking my way through the book — and therefore realizing how much of it I’m going to wind up throwing out.

When I wrote my first NaNoWriMo, I hammered out 53,000 words in a mere 15 days and then packed it in for a long Thanksgiving break. When I went back to revise, I found I had far more to add to the book then to cut, and over the next few years, I added another 20,0000 or so words to flesh out the story and develop the characters. Sure, I also cut several thousand words, and the resulting book wound up around 68,000 words (and I think it turned out much better). The result, for people who are just now following me, was my first published novel, Hagridden.

For my most recent NaNoWriMo, before the one I’m writing now, I wound up doing something like the opposite: I got nearish the official goal but never crossed the finish line, and, after a year or so of reworking that book, I realized that I had approached the story in entirely the wrong way and wound up throwing out the whole book. (I’ve since restarted and have written about 30,000 words on the new version of that book.)

But for my current novel, I’m experiencing the same sense of vision I had with Hagridden, and I’m already able to foresee enough of the book to know what works on the page and what doesn’t. So I already know now — rather than later, in revision — what I need to throw away and what I will end up using in the book, and I also know, in advance of when I eventually throw away the unneeded text, what I am going to replace it with.

It’s a strange feeling, revising in my head as I am still drafting. One would think that it’s frustrating to wind up putting so many thousands of words on the page while knowing I’m going to throw them away later, but this is the nature of the process, especially in NaNoWriMo. You hammer out the words whether they’re useful or not, just to get you through the text, and in this case, it’s actually been very instructive to me to see, in real time, this editorial process.

Sometimes people ask me if I’m planning on writing a sequel to Hagridden, and I always tell them that I’m not. The truth is, I like all of my work to connect to all of my other work in some way, and I have already written a handful of short stories that are in fact related to Hagridden, some of them prequel stories and some of them concurrent with the novel. And my previous book, which I still plan on finishing, is not a direct sequel to Hagridden but does include some of the same characters and is definitely in the same thematic vein. But sometimes, people don’t ask me about Hagridden; they just ask me what my next book is going to be, whatever it is. And the answer to that question is much simpler:

You never know what your next book is going to be.

I could tell you what book I’m working on, or what book I want to work on next, but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be my next book. The book I’m writing now wasn’t the book I intended to be writing now. It just showed up, mostly whole and with the revisions already in my head. And now, nearly finished with this NaNoWriMo draft though nowhere near finished with the book itself, I have a feeling that this thing might wind up being my next novel, whether I wanted it to be or not.

But I won’t really know until I finish this “prevision” draft, a few days from now, and then sit down to begin the long, long process of revision.

Published by Samuel Snoek-Brown

I write fiction and teach college writing and literature. I'm the author of the story collection There Is No Other Way to Worship Them, the novel Hagridden, and the flash fiction chapbooks Box Cutters and Where There Is Ruin.

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