2020 was the first year that I finished the first draft to a novel thanks to National Novel Writing Month. I first attempted Nanowrimo in 9th grade, and came away with a Frankenstein monster of plot, backstory, and ramblings. This year I wrote a novel with a beginning, a middle, and an end, and learned enough about novel writing to fill a blog post.
Here’s what I learned from a productive Nanowrimo.
1. Define success: you can lose the battle and still win the war
Nanowrimo was the battle of writing 50,000+ words. The war was to finish the first draft of a novel. I read novels voraciously as a child and found them to be just a bit off, enough for me to think I could write a better one. In 2020 I wrote 40,000 words on November 30th and finished a novel of 90,929 words by December 30th; I lost the battle (wordcount in November) but won the war (finishing the first draft).
2. Only the story counts towards progress
Writing a novel means telling a story. The research and backstory filled up many pages, but they were not the story. The only way to start a story is to start a story. While backstory and character backgrounds are important, they can begin after Chapter One.
3. Minimize the research
My book featured a detective, so I read up on cop biographies. It was highly valuable to read San Francisco Police Department’s Sergeant Adam Platinga’s books, Police Craft and 400 Things Cops Know. While the books provided great insight, in hindsight I didn’t have to read them to write about a detective. What I needed to know was what went inside a police car, which was a Google search away, and the process to arrest a murder suspect, also a Google search away. I’ve spent a hundred hours researching officer deaths, serial killers, and bomb threats for my thriller. Those hours were better spent writing.
4. Have a daily progress goal
My daily goal was 4 chapters; if I wrote 4 chapters I would be happy. Each chapter was 1 to 2 pages single-spaced. Some days I wrote 3 chapters and others I wrote 8. Chapters were a mini story arc; they had a beginning, a middle, and an end. Chapters were a better barometer of progress than the plain wordcount.
5. Work in bursts
I wrote in 30 minute bursts. After 30 minutes if I’m distracted I move around to get the blood flowing. Working in bursts helped me to stay focused. They also measured effort: each chapter took 3 to 5 bursts. One burst was to outline the chapter, which may be several sentences. The middle bursts fleshed out the chapter, ie. adding description and dialogue. Then it took another burst to tighten up the writing, ensure flow, etc.
6. Find a reader
I wrote the novel during the COVID-19 epidemic while self-isolating at home with my significant other. He was a good sport and read the first draft, using different voices to bring the story to life. He also gave feedback on what worked and what did not. As a bonus he cajoled me to finish the draft when I took a week-long break. Having direct feedback improved the story’s quality, and made writing less lonely.
7. Focus on the main character
The main character can make or break the story. My main character grew on me after undergoing much trial and tribulation. I was so impressed by his dedication that I changed the ending. He’s among the main reasons that I finished the book, because I (and my significant other) wanted to find out what he did next.
8. Focus on one book at a time
I wrote flash fiction and blog posts before I started on the novel. During the novel I was tempted to start shorter works, but told myself to focus. The focus paid off; whatever I wrote fed to the novel, so I was able to output 3 chapters per day on average.
These tips worked for me, and I recorded them as a refresher for the future me. Try them out! They may work for you too.