The Unknown Rules to Novel Writing

I finished NaNoWriMo in record time this year. I had written 50,000 words by November 23rd and finished my story on November 24th. I had five days to do other things at the end of the month, and one of the things I did was look back over November to figure out why my novel went so well.

The short answer is: I have no idea.

I wish I could say it was superior preparation. I did start thinking about my project in October, but I didn’t have any sort of outline. In fact, my attempts to lay out major scenes as guideposts, which worked so well for me in 2013, didn’t seem to help at all. I knew a lot of what would happen in a general way, but the scenes didn’t fit the structure I used in the past.

I wish I could say it was skill. Sure, I’ve done NaNoWriMo for 11 years in a row now, and in some ways things have gotten easier. I am better prepared for the pitfalls that can crop up, from trips and holidays, to running out of story three days into the month.

I wish I could say it was not taking any trips while writing. I wrote every day, and did not have to sleep away from home at any time. But I’ve had great success writing first drafts on the road. My second most successful November included three trips! I was away from home most of the month. And I’ve had dismal NaNoWriMos when I didn’t go anywhere physically and still struggled to get the words down.

So what happened? The muse smiled on me. That’s all I can think. The words were there, I never lacked for ideas, it was easy to get myself to sit down and write. Also, I had great fun, chuckling when my characters surprised me. I loved Ophelia’s feminist rants and laughed when the ghost told her she was “only a girl” because I knew how much that would piss her off.

While I am grateful that this draft was so easy for me to write, I keep wondering: what was the secret? Did I do something that made it go like this? Can I do it again?

The fact is, every year has been different because every first draft is different. Every novel has its own needs when it comes to the first draft. Just because something worked really well for one book doesn’t mean it will work for the next one. There is no magic formula. There are no rules.

There are three rules to writing a novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are. — W. Somerset Maugham

How I wish this wasn’t true. While it may not be a universal experience, plenty of writers say that every book is a new adventure and that they have to figure out how to write a novel all over again, no matter how many novels they’ve written in the past.

Sometimes creation is easy and sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes I am flooded with ideas, and the words flow out of me as a result. Other times, the ideas come in fits and spurts and the gaps in between require gritting my teeth and writing anyway. Occasionally I am possessed by a muse of fire and, burning with the need to create whatever I have envisioned, I work obsessively to get it done as soon as I can.

However it happens, the most helpful thing I can do is keep showing up. When I’m tired or uninspired or distracted by other shiny things, I can still put time in with my writing project and move it forward. Even when I write something that is all wrong, I have made progress. I have learned what is not right for my story.

There are no rules and there are no tricks. There is just doing the work. We run, we walk, we limp, we crawl. But whatever we do, we must show up and move.

Creating Requires Facing the Unknown

November is less than a week away and I’m having my usual pre-NaNoWriMo* jitters. I’ve done this nine times before, and every October the same thing happens. I start thinking “what am I going to write?” I get anxious about planning, figuring out what my story will be about. The fear rises up, threatening to swamp me. I don’t know what to expect, what will happen, what November is going to look like, or what my 50,000 word novel will even be about. All that uncertainty is scary.

It doesn’t help that I’ve been floundering for a few months, wrestling the unknown, as I revise my novel about Rapunzel. I’m worn out from dealing with things I don’t know, and the fear that whatever I do, it will be a disaster in the end. NaNoWriMo just means more uncertainty, and who needs that?

Apparently, I do. I need a break from Rapunzel and here’s NaNoWriMo just in time to offer me a structured, fun way to practice writing without the pressure to write something perfect. (The deadline forces me to let go of my expectations — how can I possibly write anything good at such a speed? — and that frees me to write well. Go figure.)

All of this reminds me why creating anything new is difficult. Uncertainty is a huge piece of the creative process. This is why some of my projects (knitting socks) are done from patterns. I can count (more or less) on the outcome. The risk goes way down. But if I knit something from scratch (clothes for a T-Rex), I am heading into the unknown. I have to be willing to make mistakes. I have to be willing to try new ideas, change my vision, even start over from scratch. It’s riskier than knitting from a pattern, can take more time than I expected, and have its moments of intense frustration. It also has its moments of triumph, and that’s why I show up to begin with, in the hopes that I can see the project through to a successful finish.

Writing a novel is the same way. So is making a drawing or painting. Every act of creation is full of risk. Even the most experienced artists face the terror of the blank page, the gulf between where they are and where they hope to go, the doubt that they will ever be able to capture the vision they see.

In order to create, we have to face the unknown. We have to get used to being uncomfortable and feeling lost. A lot of creative time is spent wandering. We have to embrace the abyss, dive into the dark, swim around aimlessly in the hopes we will come upon some treasure. It’s awkward and frightening and even painful at times, but it’s worth the effort. If we persist, we come out on the other side with something of beauty, something with promise: a muddy shell, a tarnished ring, an uncut emerald, a shard of broken glass.

More work needs to be done, but we have moved closer to our vision. Maybe what we found changes our vision. That’s OK. The point is to keep chasing it, through the tangled forests and dark nights, into light-less caves and bottomless pits, until we get another glimpse of it or maybe even catch it by the tail.


And so it goes with NaNoWriMo. October is awkward, because I want a plan in advance. I long for a road map, with all the stops marked for me, so that I know where I will be going, what is going to happen, how I’m going to get to the other side. As long as I am doing something I’ve never done before, such a map doesn’t exist. Writing my own novel means making the map up as I go. I can plan a little, but only a little. My process doesn’t allow for extensive planning ahead. I must accept the uncertainty and write anyway. Experience shows that I will find answers, that the unknown will become familiar and clear to me, as long as I am willing to push past my fears and write.

November 1 is coming. When it gets here, I will write.

How about you? Do you struggle with the uncertainty of creation?

*For the uninitiated, NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. This will be my tenth year participating in this crazy challenge. (Yes, I love it.)