NaNoWriMo 2013 – Week One

Yesterday’s writing saw the end of the first week of this year’s NaNoWriMo for me. I’m actually really quite pleased with the numbers I’ve been able to put up in just the first week — when I went to bed last night, I’d written 25,312 words in seven days. Coming at this project using the Reverse Nano Reward System has been a boon to my productivity levels and has provided a huge incentive to keep putting up over 3,000 words every day, even when I don’t necessarily have to. As a result I’m much further ahead in my manuscript than I had expected and planned for, which is a very nice problem to have.

The NaNoWriMo website has a lot of really neat tools that writers can use to track their progress over the course of the month and to provide motivation to keep working at it. One of my favorite is the daily word count. When you’ve finished writing for the day, you can go to your profile and update your word count to reflect your book’s current status toward completion. Once you’ve done that, your profile redirects you to a Stats page that gives you all kinds of useful information, like average words written per day, total words to be written to “win”, likely day you will finish based on the current daily average, and the average number of words you’d need to write every day in order to finish exactly on November 30. My favorite, though, is probably the graph (shown below) that plots your progress on a scale and gives you a nice visual metric of your progress through the month. It shows each day of the month on the X-axis and your total word count on the Y-axis, and includes a baseline graph that shows what your progress should be each day so long as you write the minimum 1,667 words every day. As you can see, my numbers are well above that baseline. I’m pretty chuffed about that. My profile tells me that my current date of completion at this point will is November 14, so long as I can continue to churn out more than 3,000 words a day.

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So what have I learned so far? First, that I really can write upwards of 3,000 words a day on a regular basis. This isn’t really news to me, mind you, but it’s confirmation to me that I somehow manage to squander an awful lot of time. In focusing on writing this book, I’ve had to ignore a lot of other, less important things that normally clamor for my attention — the Internet, video games, social media, etc. It’s amazing how much time I can waste on those things instead of doing the thing that I love. What’s more, it’s surprising to me how easy it’s been to give those things up so I can focus on my writing.

Second, I’m learning how to write long-form fiction. Up ’til now, pretty much everything I’ve written has been short stories and micro-fiction. Short fiction is great, and I still love writing it. It’s great for working on the mechanics of writing and world-building, but it’s a whole other ballgame when you start trying to expand that into a much longer work. Suddenly you find that your characters need a lot more development and the world they live in needs a lot more fleshing out. I actually ended up turning my whiteboard into a temporary map this week because I needed to take all the places that were in my head and put them into an objective, concrete space. It helped with visualizing where my characters were in the world and where they were headed.

I also discovered, much to my chagrin, just how flimsy my character development and world-building for this universe really were. This is a story I’ve been carrying around with me for a number of years. I knew the basic points of who my main character was, where she was going to start out, where she was going to end up, some of the important places she would have to get to in between, and a couple of major characters she would meet along the way. What I hadn’t counted on was getting stuck partway in.

The first several days of writing went pretty smoothly. I’d managed to rewrite my two false starts from years previous and get my character well on her way toward her quest. I even managed to write two new chapters, dump her into a couple of interesting challenges — and get her back out again! — and begin to develop her into a more well-rounded character. Then I hit Chapter 5 and things came to a screeching, grinding halt. The writing suddenly got much harder. I wasn’t sure of my characters and who they were, and the locations they were traveling through just didn’t feel right to me. I ended up skipping over Chapter 5 and started working on Chapter 6, because I had a better of where the characters would be at that point. My thinking was that it would be better to write the parts I was sure about rather than waste times on the ones I wasn’t. I could always come back and develop those later.

Big mistake. Chapter 6 was worse. Sure, I wrote 3,000+ words for that chapter, but I wasn’t happy with any of them. Everything about the chapter, from the characters to the setting to the events taking place around them, felt contrived. I went to bed afterward feeling discouraged and frustrated. Yesterday, I thought a lot about what had made the previous two days so difficult, and I was forced to come to the conclusion that I simply didn’t believe in my own characters. They were boring to me, and if I found them boring, there’s no way any of my readers wouldn’t also find them boring. I had set out to create a main character who had grown up sheltered and innocent and whose personality was timid and demure. I wanted to then toss her into a series of challenges and adversities that would force her to grow and develop rapidly and force her to call on a hidden inner strength she didn’t know she had.

Trouble was, I’d made her too timid and demure. She had no skills to speak of before setting out on her quest. By Chapter 5 I realized she was doing almost nothing else but looking to her traveling companion for answers and guidance — the traveling companion who, as it turned out, existed almost entirely for the sole purpose of providing my main character with answers and guidance. Yawn.

So I pulled out one of my brainstorming notebooks and starting scribbling notes and questions to myself. Who were these characters? What were their relationships, both to each other and to the important people in each of their lives? If I changed things about them, what would I change and what impact would it have on their actions and on the story?

I’m a very visual planner. I think best on paper with flow charts and diagrams, with little notes and drawings and sketches. By the time I was done brainstorming, I had a two pages of scribblings that suddenly made it very clear who my two main characters needed to be. My timid, sheltered girl was, in actuality, much stronger and more skilled than I had originally thought. She was no longer sheltered; rather, her parents had been teaching her and training her, knowing the day might come when she would have to leave and venture out into the world. And her parents, that was another change. Her father had originally been a quiet tradesman who essentially kept her away from the world, ostensibly trying to shield her and protect her from all the bad stuff that was out there. Her mother wasn’t even in the picture, either having died or disappeared (I hadn’t decided which yet) when my main character was much younger. Now both of her parents were very much present in her life and themselves strong personalities. Her traveling companion, who before had only had a first name and was basically a walking Encyclopedia Britannica of sometimes useful world-building knowledge who also happened to conveniently have mad skills as a fighter, now had a last name, new skills in wielding magic, and a background. Suddenly I had two strong, very interesting main characters that I could do a lot of interesting things with.

When I sat down to write last night, I went back to Chapter 1 and rewrote a large section of it. I didn’t toss the original text away since, after all, the point of NaNo is not necessarily to finish a book but to write 50,000 words in 30 days. Instead, I opened a new file and had my main character, previously timid and demure and likely to run away from even the sight of a mouse, fighting a bear with nothing more than her wits, her courage, and a very sharp dagger. It made for a much more interesting opening scene that better set the tone for the book and opened up a whole plethora of possibilities for character development that hadn’t existed with the previous version. I wrote almost 3,500 words after that, and I felt they were some of the best I’d written for this story yet. I was able to go to bed feeling more excited and satisfied about the book than ever before.

My goal for writing over the next several days now is to go through the chapters I’ve already written and rework them to fit my stronger characters. I expect certain scenes will require drastic revisions. Some will probably end up getting dropped entirely. Others will require only minor tweaks. I feel like now, in order to move the story forward, I need to rework the story of where my characters have been because the choices they make in the future are going to depend heavily on the ones they make early on. They’re different people than I had imagined, but I think I like this version of them much better.

Have anything to add to the conversation?