Tuesday, October 28, 2014

7 Lies We Tell About NaNoWriMo

I know--two days in a row here.  But hey, I have loads of job applications to get out, and writing a blog post sounds like a whole lot more fun than revising my cover letter forty times.

Still, I just finished reading another writer's post about "7 Lies" we tell about NaNo.  She made them all positive, singing the praise of this little exercise that so many of us have warped ourselves into. 

I'm'a gonna present the other side....

1.  Writing 50,000 words in a month is fun, fun, fun!

Nope.  And I really mean this, so listen--er, read--closely.  No, it's not fun, fun, fun.  Writing is work.  I love doing it, not because I love, as Douglas Adams once famously put it, staring at a piece of paper until my forehead bleeds, but because I love the finished product.  Well, okay, I do like seeing the bit of linguistic art take shape, then become refined, and finally start singing to me as I read it.  Sitting down each day to get my word count, though?  Not.  Fun.  It's just not, really.  Trust me. 

It's certainly do-able.  But not 50K words.  No, what you need to do is write a certain number per day.  Fifty thousand is--well, I've heard tales, spoken mostly in whispered reverence and in the dark of the night, that it's been done in a day or a weekend, but man, is that superhuman Flash-like writing.  Let's just assume you're neither superhuman nor Flash, okay?  Don't try it.  Instead, write a certain number per day.

Now, 50K divided by 30 is 1,667.  With, of course, a little rounding error, but go with me.  You won't want to stick to that, though, in part because of the counting issue I'll get to soon, but also because there will be some days when the dog will feel sick and the baby will barf on your favorite chair and the washing machine will quit working and--well, and so on.  Some days, trust me, you won't write at all.  I hit that point in the third week, usually.  That's why I always go for 2,500.  That number, if I hit it consistently, isn't a great deal more than 1,700, and yet it allows me to slack off for 10 days. 

But here's the deal: you have to do it.  When writing is fun, and fast, and the words are flowing, you have to hit your word count (and even go beyond on those days).  When it's not fun, and it's slow, and the creativity is murky, you have to hit your word count.

Two tricks: first, don't stop at the end of a scene.  Instead, write on past that into the beginning of the next scene.  That allows easier pickup the next session.  Second: if stuck, blow something up.  It might not work with your plot, but you can always edit it out later.  Besides, plot transition points are all about challenges, and what's more challenging than a great big explosion, right?

2.  You don't really need a plot

Chris Baty started this little zinger with his book "No Plot? No Problem!"  It's a good book, really, about how to get your word count up, and the basic idea that you could start a book off with no real idea where it was going to go sounded really good to me, too, till I'd done it a few times.  My initial NaNo--a failure--was a careening space opera with humans vs. bugs, but because I had no plot when I started it veered right off toward being Yet Another Ender's Game.  I still believe I was doing the world a favor by giving up at what I've come to learn is the fairly standard quitting point of 27,000 words.

Granted, I was creating something that had goodness to it.  The one friend I sent the draft portion to loved it and begged me to finish.  I now have a plot for it, and it's in my "to be finished" pile.  Still, at that time, I was doing the best thing for everybody by quitting.

I mentioned "a few."  Both Cataclysm and Ascension were written without plotting.  In fact, as I originally imagined it, Ascension was gonna be the third book, with the series ending on--well, no. That book only has one plot arc in it, and I'm not gonna spoil it. 

So--yeah.  I'm not saying you can't create something beautiful without a plan.  Stephen King (the other one) reportedly does it all the time.  Several people in the groups I'm in swear by it.  But it's hard, and I suspect if you did an actual study on it you'd find a minority who succeed that way.  You might be one--?  Best, though, if you're doing this the first time and actually want to succeed, that you try starting with a plan.

3. Scrivener is too difficult/expensive/whatever

Now, I'm not going to knock Microsoft Word here.  I've made a lot of money over the years teaching people how to jazz up perfectly good documents using that bit of software.  I have some good friends who still swear by it.  Heck, I used it to write my first three novels.  I still use it for short stories, in fact.

Now, though?  I'm a Scrivener fan--a big, big Scrivener fan (hey, easy on the weight jokes!)  I tried it a few years ago for the new NaNo effort and I haven't looked back since. 

There's three specific reasons I'll recommend NaNo'ers use it.  First, if you're a fan of outlining, it makes that very, very easy.  No longer do you have to keep two separate documents open--though you can!--instead, you can keep the outline in a separate text.  You can even leave it in there the whole time, and just not compile it into the final document. 

Second, there's the word count thing.  50K words is near impossible to write, but 1.7K words isn't, as I already pointed out.  You do it each day, and you win.  Scrivener has a nice little tool that tracks both overall word count and session word count, and for that it's priceless.

Third is the scrolling relief.  The thing I hated most about writing a novel in Word was scrolling hither and yon to discover stuff I'd forgotten, and you no longer have to do that with the "Texts" feature of Scrivener.

Fourth--yeah, I know I said three, but I just thought of something else--you can't afford not to try it now.  It's free at: http://www.literatureandlatte.com/nanowrimo.php.  Download it and give it a try, I'd recommend.  Then if you don't like it, no harm, no foul.  If you do, then at the end you get a 50% discount.  Yes, you have to win NaNo to get that discount (otherwise it's just 20%), but who goes into NaNo to lose, right?

The thing is, Scrivener isn't difficult to use at all.  It does, however, use different terminology from other document creation apps.  That makes sense, too; I mean, let's face it, the act of putting letters and spaces and punctuation all down on a "page" in the right order isn't complicated, right?  But different software packages use different terminology.  The software designers probably have different ways to think of the process, after all--if they didn't, they wouldn't write the software in the first place.  Meanwhile, the software designers' lawyers probably insist upon working hard to avoid copyright infringement. 

So all that said, a) get your free copy, b) tell yourself it's not hard to use, and c) invest some time before November 1st going through the tutorials to learn the terminology. 

4.  Fifty thousand words is a thing.

No, it's not.

Fifty thousand words isn't even fifty thousand words, actually.  For my first NaNo win, I stopped right at 50,000, proud as heck of myself, typed "THE END" jubilantly, and exported that sucker straight to Word.  Only, then Word told me it was a little smaller than Scrivener had--well, you know how size is subjective and all *ahem*.  So I beefed up the final scene with a bunch of "he blustered and she cried loudly and so on and so forth" kind of crap, knowing I'd delete it when I edited the document, and exported it again.  Nope, 49,800, Microsoft's champion word-counters said.  So I added another few hundred pretty boring words, and exported again.  Okay, Word finally said.  It gave me a word count down on the status bar of 50,005.  Yay! 

Ecstatically, I uploaded the document into the NaNoWriMo site's Novel Verification form.  Sorry, it said!  You only have 49,800 words, so nyah nyah nyah and write more and come back later, you loser!  Well, it didn't really say all that, but by that point I was thinking it. 

I did eventually get to over 50K words with all three counters, but that prompted me to go look at how words are counted.  Fact is, nobody really counts them, in part because some things are rather subjectively identified as words/not-words.  Some apps count spaces and divide by a number they think is close to accurate.  Some use a more sophisticated algorithm regarding the number of characters and the number of spaces and so forth.  Publishers just look at the number of pages and multiply by 250. 

But who cares, right?

Have you ever read a book and thought, "Well, that was a great 89,500 words.  I just wish the author would've given it the additional 500 words it needed"?  No, I haven't either.  Baty et al. looked at the question of "what is a novel" and decided that 50K was the right number to use, and in my opinion, it is pretty good.  It's not long enough for most genres, but it does represent the minimum for the smallest genres, so that's a nice start.  It also represents the normal dividing line between what's considered a "novella" and a novel.  Finally, it's well past the normal quitting range of 27K words. 

That said, my first series ended up all between 88K and 100K words, and Prophecy weighs in even longer.  One common criticism of the first three books, too, is that they're too simple--not enough additional plots.  So yeah, longer is better.  *ahem* 

Bottom line: if you're looking at this 50K piece of words as an actual novel length effort, I hate to break the news to you, but it's not.  It's a great start toward one, but it's not there yet. 

5. Write in November, Query in December, Publish in January

Yes, I admit, I actually thought this once upon a time. 


For one thing, agents often close their submissions in December just because of this little myth.  Here's the deal (and I say this with some experience): you're going to write your first NaNo, do a few edits in the first week of December, and because it's your first baby you'll think it's the most beautiful, most perfect pile of literary poop on the planet.  You'll send it away, and the recipients will all cringe. 

Trust me, you will.  And trust me, they will.

Even if you did manage to write a wonderful work of art in the first draft (and near as I can tell, nobody does that) and get it to an agent who cares (and near as I can tell, none of them do) there's zero chance you could be published traditionally in that short of a time.  It takes months to go through all of the acquisition and editing and workup process. 

So what do many people do?  Self-publish, of course.

Please, for the love of all that is holy in literature and beyond, don't do this.  The crap that hits Amazon's "shelves" in December is a large part of the reason Indies are still shunned.  Neither of my NaNo winning projects has been published yet, though both are in the path to being so.  But it takes time, and most importantly, it takes distance.

What do you do on December 1?  Give yourself a nice pat on the back, download your Winner graphic, buy (or don't, whichever) your 50% off license for Scrivener, consume whatever adult beverages (assuming you're an adult) that you use to celebrate, brag like hell on Facebook, and then--this is crucial--put the file you just finished writing away.  Don't look at it again till February or March, because only distance (time-wise) will give you perspective on how "good" it is. 

6. It is counterproductive to edit as you go

I say Poppycock, with a capital P, to this one.  I've won twice and edited as I went each time.  I often write at night, and I often get to looking the next day at the stuff I wrote last the evening before and say "this is such total crap."  So I revise it.  It doesn't take a whole lot of time, and it does allow me to start the day feeling better about my work.  That, and it helps me get back "into" the fiction I'm creating. 

That said, you shouldn't allow yourself to get mired in editing.  Do a little, but only that.  Whatever you do, remember that you have to hit your word count in new words put down on the "paper" that day. 

7. All of your friends will be impressed

Here's another thing I know from experience. 

You can't wait to put up that big sign on your Facebook page, can you?  "2014 NaNoWriMo Winner!"  All your friends will send you virtual cards and congratulations, and the local ones will throw you a wine/beer party to celebrate, right?


The people in your group--you did join a local NaNoWriMo group, didn't you?--will celebrate your achievement, but only gently.  There will be a whole lot more people who didn't win, after all.  And hey, the logic will go, the important thing is that everybody got some writing done, right? 

Yeah, you'll probably leave that party like I've left them--a little bit let down.  Door prize in hand, "Winner" sticker on breast, smile no longer on face--yeah, that's how I looked.


*chirp* *chirp*

What you'll end up doing is a massive Facebook circle-jerk kind of thing where everybody who won will congratulate everybody else who won, while everybody who didn't will give the half-hearted "yay" from the sidelines. 

Face it: nobody knows how hard it is to write 50K words except for those who've done it.  And no, it's not that they're all thinking it's too easy.  It's the opposite, actually; most folks are looking at you like you've just climbed Mt. Everest in your Speedos(TM) and are probably a little--um, vacant--up there somewhere.  Tetched, you know.  Special. 

"Oh, hey, like, congrats.  *yawn* You won NaNoMiWro, or whatever it is.  Why don't you just walk from here to New York City in your birthday suit next, just to prove how special you are?"

That's okay.  It really is.  The most important thing with NaNo, in any event, and in everyone's opinion that I've sampled (admittedly, a small sample size), is that you now know you can do it.  You can bust out a plot, holy/holey or no, and display the personal discipline needed to hit a word count on an ongoing basis.  That's very, very cool. 

It's very, very cool to you, I should say.  Nobody else will care, much.  Then again, why should that bother you? You did it, right?

Now, go do it.