The Unknown Rules to Novel Writing

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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.