Friday, October 31, 2014

Avoiding NaNoWriMo Pitfalls

"Man, origami is harder than I thought it would be."
Note to stock photographers: we really need to come up with a better shorthand for writing difficulties than "crumpled sheets of paper."
Tomorrow begins National Novel Writing Month; if you’re reading this blog, I feel pretty safe in assuming you know what that means. If you don’t, go ahead and do a search for NaNoWriMo and then come back.

For today, I’d simply like to offer a few bits of advice for using NaNoWriMo to purposefully improve your prose and writing habits.

Focus on one or two problems: NaNoWriMo is about wordcount, about writing a full 50,000-word story in a single month. Focusing too hard on the quality of your prose will probably only inhibit your ability to meet your daily wordcount goals. Let yourself write quickly and naturally and worry about editing later.

However, NaNoWriMo is also an excellent opportunity to break one or two bad habits. Go through some of the posts here on the Story Polisher and pick a problem that I’ve highlighted which you really want to fix. Maybe you want to fix your punctuation in dialog tags or your misuse of “ing” verbs. Whatever you pick, watch out for that problem as you’re writing and ignore any other problems. Fix the problem every time it pops up, right when you notice it. For the first few days, it will be difficult and will slow down your writing. But if you keep it up, you’ll catch the problem more and more quickly each time. Eventually, the daily reinforcement will wear away old habits and the problem will naturally disappear from your writing. A little extra effort now will save you a lot of editing in the years to come.

Don’t wear yourself out: I love that so many people get excited about NaNoWriMo and gain motivation from it. But it can also be exhausting and aggravating. December 1st can be a sorry sight in many writing circles—full of exhausted, over-worked writers who are so sick of the amount of work that they’ve been doing that none of them will touch a word processor for another month.

Some people write well in spurts; some people don’t. I used to write in spurts, but I got very little done because I would wear myself out or hit a difficult stretch and abandon the story for months at a time. Eventually I discovered that writing smaller portions on a daily basis was a much easier and more efficient schedule for me. If you find yourself getting sick and tired of writing toward the end of November, consider cutting down your wordcount to something that doesn’t exhaust you and simply continuing your writing through December and on. 1,600-odd words a day for a month is nice, but 500 to 1,000 words a day for a year is even better. Don’t sour yourself on writing for the sake of an artificial deadline.

Don’t start editing on December 1st: When you finish your manuscript, it’s going to need editing. Every first draft does—so do most second and third drafts. For the publication-minded writer, eager to submit a new story to an editor as soon as possible, it can be very tempting to turn around the moment that you’re finished with the first draft and begin editing. Don’t do it!

You’ve just spent a whole month in close contact with that story—you are closer to it than you are to your clothing. When you’re too close to the story, your mind automatically fills in gaps in the logic of the narrative and glosses over errors. Your head is full of what you meant to say, and so it becomes unable to notice what you’ve actually said.

Take a few weeks off, at the very least. Maybe even a whole month or more. Let that intimate familiarity with the story fade away—if there’s changes that you’re afraid you’ll forget to make, jot down some detailed notes before you leave the story. Then, come back when the story is once again somewhat unfamiliar to you. You’ll find it far easier to notice errors, gaps in logic, or less-than-stellar dialog and prose. And since the story won’t be so close to your heart anymore, you’ll find it easier to ruthlessly cut out the darlings that need to be cut.

I know far too many writers who have burnt themselves out over NaNoWriMo or have become caught in endless, ineffective editing loops because they didn’t want to leave the story until it was finished and polished. Be careful—don’t let yourself fall into these traps!  Happy NaNoWriMo, and good luck.

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