November is over and I’ve won NaNoWriMo* for the 8th year in a row. By this time, you’d think I’d be bored or feel like writing 50,000 words in 30 days was getting routine. I was worried that might happen, so I made a point of trying some new things this year, with surprising results.
The first thing I did was add a goal of producing a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end. Most of my previous endings were quick summaries of where I wanted everything to wind up, coming hard on the heels of an overly long beginning with little to no middle. This year, I was determined to produce a draft with all the components of my story and I did it, mainly because of some new techniques I tried.
First, I tried a little planning. I do not like outlines and too much planning kills my stories dead, so I kept it simple. I decided on three major events and used them as guideposts for the 25, 50, and 75% points in the story. Then I made a point of writing to each scene with the allotted word count by including only the most important moments leading up to it and sketching in the rest. I had to adjust my word count goals because I wrote more than I needed to (15,200 words instead of 12,500 for 25%, for example), but I kept working to hit the scenes on schedule.
The “sketching” was done using two handy tricks. First, I summarized the boring parts. When people needed to get from one place to another, I didn’t bother writing real scenes. I just wrote a few paragraphs about what needed to happen on the way. Second, I followed some great advice I got from Judy Fort Brenneman: I skimped on description. I found this challenging, because I enjoy writing description. I had to force myself to list the things I wanted to include in a scene instead of describing things in detail, but it really worked. Not only did I save words for the critical story stuff, but it also saved time, because crafting vivid descriptions requires thought. If there is one thing I mustn’t do during NaNoWriMo, it’s think too much. I’ll never finish otherwise.
The other big challenge for me was coming up with the complications and obstacles that happen in the middle of the story. I fed my muse with a list I made of all the things I thought would be great to have in my fantasy, adventurous things I always enjoyed reading about as a teen. Whenever I was feeling stuck and wondering what was going to happen next, I’d read my list. Something on it would jump out (like “kidnapping” or “prince in disguise”) and get lodged in my head. Then, overnight, my magical muse would take my threadbare idea and turn it into a stunning ball gown complete with jewelry and shoes.
The other thing I tried that was more help than I expected was drawing my story ideas on paper. When I had to plot out a journey, I drew little scenes to make a map. At first, they were disconnected. Then I added tracks and paths, and places in between. The events were still vague when I was done, but an inspiring detail came from that drawing. The mountains they were heading for wound up on an island instead of the mainland, which gave me a chance to add a sailing ship and a voyage, and that generated some great complications and dire circumstances.
Thanks to these techniques, I achieved my goals. My 2013 NaNoWriMo draft is over 63,000 words long, but it has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Even more surprising, it’s a complex and interesting story that has already given me ideas for a sequel. However, I think the most important thing that happened in November was that I learned some new ways to approach draft writing. Staring down the blank page is one of the hardest parts of being a writer, so I am grateful to have found some new ways to feed my muse and help move my story through the dark reaches of the unknown.
*NaNoWriMo = National Novel Writing Month, aka November. The goal is to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days.