What I learned from NaNoWriMo

© Eric Gauthier 2002

In 2002, I took part in the National Novel Writing Month, which requires participants to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. I even succeeded. Having learned from that experience, I thought I’d write down some of my observations and advice. This might interest you if you’re gearing up to write a novel (whether or not it’s for NaNoWriMo), or if you’re just curious about the whole process. Keep in mind this is very subjective. The following thoughts were solely inspired from my personal experience with NaNoWriMo; they may only apply to me, and they probably don’t have much to do with serious novel-writing.

In no particular order:

While writing a novel, don’t be afraid to stray from the path you’ve traced for yourself. This is a novel, not a short story: you have plenty of rambling room. Feel like writing a short comical scene that doesn’t advance the plot? Sure, why not? That peculiar character you just made up for comedic purposes may very well turn out to have a useful role later in the story. Feel free to go off on tangents, to improvise. If, later on, your plotting falters, if you’re not sure how your protagonist can get from point C to point D, go back and read all those loose ends, and maybe you’ll find the thread that will allow you to stitch the plot back together.

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Television is an enemy. The Internet can be a great research tool, but can also be a worse distraction than TV: it’s a double-edged sword.

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Characters are the life of the novel. If their personality is clearly defined, they become almost real and they start shaping the story by themselves. Need 300 words to complete the day’s quota? Involve two or three characters in conversation and watch the dialogue write itself! To me, that was one of the most fascinating aspects of the whole project: seeing characters define themselves and crystallize into coherent beings as I wrote. It’s especially satisfying when you get to the point where, for any given situation, you know instinctively how each character would react. It gets a little scary when you seem to glimpse one of your characters on the street, out in the real world.

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The work gets a little easier when you know that a whole bunch of other people are going through the same period of intensive writing. I met a few of the Montreal participants, and found myself a little more motivated with each meeting.

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A writer is a simple machine. Coffee is poured into the writer, and the writer produces words and urine. The urine is easily managed, being produced in predictable amounts, directly proportionate to the amount of coffee ingested. The frustrating aspect is word production, which varies far too much. A new car will reliably perform at X miles per gallon, but a writer will not necessarily produce the same number of words for every cup of coffee. In the short term, caffeine accumulates in the writer’s bloodstream and produces undesirable side effects. This sets a limit on the number of consecutive cups a writer can drink. Therefore, I think someone should invent a simple device that would continuously measure the writer’s blood-caffeine ratio. A liquid crystal display could show the exact numbers, while two lights (one red, one green) would indicate whether or not the writer has exceeded his optimal ratio. To further automate the process, the device could be plugged into a coffee machine that would be activated whenever the writer’s caffeine levels become too low. Of course, such a device would require a calibration period in order to establish the ideal caffeine amounts for a given writer. Don’t forget: for every problem, there is a technological solution. (1)

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Dialogue is easy to write; descriptions present a certain challenge, that of offering the reader a fresh and clear vision; hammering out the plot, with its unexpected complications, is akin to torture.

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Be careful what you include in your novel. More specifically, think thrice before including any kind of character linked to organized crime. Notice that word, “organized”: it implies the existence of a whole network. Even if your character is only a minor member of the local mob, he still has to keep all kinds of shady company and has to answer to a hierarchy of less-than-respectable people. If your character — we’ll call him Fred — travels a lot, some may suspect him of smuggling drugs. If Fred kills himself by jumping out the twelfth floor window, his boss may see it as the work of a rival gang and may take it as a personal insult. Place Fred in the middle of your pretentious, almost-literary novel and, soon enough, a bunch of organized-crime characters may show up and turn your novel into a Robert B. Parker crime thriller (2). In other words, using any type of mobster in your novel is like feeding that cute bear cub you just found in the forest; sooner or later, the cub’s mother will insist on interfering.

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And now, a few (shameless) tricks to increase your word count:

  • Give all your main characters composite names. Change Quasimodo’s name to “Billy Bob” and you’ll score an extra word every time somebody mentions the poor man.
  • Put in a character who uses a lot of scientific or administrative jargon. Then you’ll get to use three words where one would suffice. Just don’t overdo it…
  • Write dialogue. When your characters and their motivations are clear enough in your mind, let them talk and watch the words pile up. Don’t get too enthusiastic, though: since you skip a line whenever you switch characters, the pages go by quickly, but it doesn’t mean you’re writing all that fast.

1 If you like this idea, feel free to turn it into a commercial product. All I ask is that you send me a working prototype for my own personal use. [back]

2 I am in no way trying to disparage that noble institution that is the crime novel. Your pretentious, almost-literary novel is no better. You can’t really afford to be pretentious. After all, you’re currently neglecting your social life in order to spend long hours in front of a beige computer, in the company of a handful of imaginary friends. There’s no great prestige in this. [back]