How I Cheated at NaNoWriMo and Won

how-i-cheated-at-nanowrimoA couple years ago, my friend and fellow writer, S of JSMawdsley, talked me into trying NaNoWriMo. She mentioned it at the writer’s group she facilitates at the library where we worked. At the time, I was mainly a short story writer and dabbled in the occasional picture book. As luck would have it, I had an idea for a novel in mind, and NaNoWriMo seemed like the perfect way to get it out of my head and on my laptop.

Being new to the world of NaNoWriMo, I didn’t prepare at all. I just started writing on November first and quit on November thirtieth. I had 50,000 words, which satisfied the requirements of NaNoWriMo, but I didn’t have a complete novel. What I did have was a lot of work ahead of me and the conviction that maybe I really hadn’t won.

At this point, S would probably have told me I needed to outline my novel, but the first thing I discovered from writing such a lengthy piece is that I’m a pantser. I plot a little when approaching my writing, but I love to explore the rabbit trails because that is where I discover my best writing. My opinion on pantsing can be read here: Are You A Pantser?

So, did I win NaNoWriMo or did I cheat? I started at about the last one-third of the novel because I had the most information for writing that portion. In short, I learned the valuable lesson of researching before you write especially if it’s for a contest such as NaNoWriMo. You don’t want the added stress of trying to conduct research while keeping up a word goal.

I pressed on throughout the year editing what I had written and creating the rest of the novel as I wanted it to be. I researched more thoroughly and ended up chucking quite a bit of what I wrote for NaNoWriMo. Again, part of that was my fault, but I also wondered if one 50,000-word novel every year is what I wanted. Is that what the creators of NaNoWriMo want?

I suspect and sincerely hope the purpose of NaNoWriMo is to keep people writing because that’s what I did. Before I knew it, November had rolled around again, and with it NaNoWriMo. I wasn’t finished with my first novel, so why on earth would I abandon it for the added pressure of creating a new novel. Admittedly, I had no new ideas at the time, and I didn’t want the burden of coming up with one. Also, there was no time to research even the slim ideas that passed through my head.

Instead, I cheated, and I cheated grandly! I signed up for NaNoWriMo, and without a single ounce of shame, I re-entered my novel, The Secrets of Dr. John Welles. Dr. Welles’s story was almost complete, but I needed a little motivation to finish the missing chapters and tie it all together. NaNoWriMo provided this inspiration by keeping me on track with a daily word goal, but it also became a beneficial editing tool. If I edited my daily word goal, I counted it along with any new writing.

What I achieved wasn’t another half-baked novel, but rather a well-written, well-edited novel with which I was extremely pleased. A titch more editing after the fact, and Dr. Welles was ready for the hands of beta readers.

I took a couple years off from NaNoWriMo, but the point of the contest was always close to my heart. I knew I couldn’t devote time to a new novel and make The Secrets of Dr. John Welles all I wanted it to be.   Then there is the fact that when story inspiration comes to me, I have to begin which sometimes means starting before NaNoWriMo starts. Yes, there is Camp NaNo, but my heart belongs to the original taking place in November.

When NaNoWriMo rolled around this year, I was already a little over halfway through my current novel. During the month of October, I had to set my writing aside to prepare for my son’s Eagle Scout Court of Honor. When I was ready to restart, good ole NaNoWriMo once again came to the rescue as a means up jumpstarting my writing. Although I didn’t sign up with the official website, I created a spreadsheet to track and tally my daily writing goal. I’m using it to finish the current novel, for which I am prepared research wise, as well as for any writing I do that can be published including my blog posts.

Yes, that’s cheating because it’s not a single new novel of at least 50,000 words. But again, I have to believe the heart and soul purpose of NaNoWriMo is to keep writers writing. That is what I am doing.

Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose

I first spied Francine Prose’s book, Reading Like a Writer, while shelving at my former job. I sneaked a few moments to read the first few pages and Reading Like a Writerinstantly fell in love. The sentence that resonated with me, “Like most–maybe all–writers, I learned to write by writing and, by example, by reading books,” combined with, “Long before the idea of a writer’s conference was a glimmer in anyone’s eye, writers learned by reading the work of their predecessors,” confirmed for me that I had found a kindred spirit. Her passion for reading and writing and the process of learning by indulging in both was the best piece of advice I had ever heard. Mrs. Prose’s comments awakened in me what I always believed to be true: great writing is an organic process that comes from creating beyond outlines and plot-pointed structures with perfect character arcs.

Great writing begins with close reading and follows with careful consideration for every word that will become a sentence, which will become a paragraph. This isn’t to say that Mrs. Prose or I believe writing should be utter chaos without any structure, but I trust if one applied her approach to their own writing, he or she would see amazing growth in how they create characters, employ narration and dialogue, and present details and gestures.

Woven throughout the book are examples from great writers that will back up what Mrs. Prose is teaching. You don’t need to be familiar with these authors or their works to appreciate them. Another reviewer I read proclaimed his dislike for Mrs. Prose’s book because he didn’t know any of the referenced works. I suspect he thought Mrs. Prose was being pretentious; I encourage you not to be intimidated by her knowledge but rather delve into the suggested reading list as soon as possible.

Another aspect of the book that appealed to me is Mrs. Prose’s admission that while there are rules in writing for the express purpose of guiding us, rules are, essentially, meant to be broken. And if you’re brave enough to ride off the reservation of writing rules, make sure you’re breaking them brilliantly.

Regardless of your preferred writing style or approach thereof, I highly recommend reading Francine Prose’s book. I would be truly surprised if you didn’t take away something positive from the experience.

The Ever-Evolving Art of Writing

I remember the moment I understood that my writing is art. It came after watching a YouTube video of Neil Gaiman give a speech to a graduating class. Prior to that, I believed art was created by masters who worked a lifetime producing museum quality pieces. What a thrill to know that I am creating art.

makegoodart_gaimanBut my discoveries didn’t stop there. As I set out to, per Neil’s advice, make good art, I found that what I wrote kept changing. Fortunately, it changed for the better. I learned some things that I’ll definitely employ and other things that I’m sure will not work for me. One thing I came across, and have blogged about before, is pantsing versus outlining.

Let me clarify: I hate labels. Once you label something, you’re obligated to define it. After you define it, you must maintain it. This leads to the messy business of judging someone who doesn’t agree with your label. That causes more labeling of those who aren’t like you.

What I’m saying is, while I still adhere closer to the pantser end of the spectrum, by the end of my novel, I discovered I’m somewhat of an outliner, too. Go ahead and create a label for that, if you dare.

My outlines probably don’t conform to what one might find in a writing workbook or to those created by other authors. However, I have my color-coded, multi-tabbed spreadsheet of information created so that I don’t to forget all the wonderful ideas that flooded my head when I first decided to write a novel. Unlike traditional outliners, my ideas aren’t all solidified prior to the beginning of my writing; I like to surprise myself, leave a little wiggle room, add some things and remove others.

So, maybe I’ve been producing something a little closer to an outline than I originally thought? I can think of two outliners who are probably happy-dancing right now.

I will never judge anyone for the way in which they choose to create their work of art. That would be like criticizing someone for being a hands-on learner while you’re a book learner. In return, I’ll ask the same of everyone else toward me. At the end of the day, we’re all artists.

Today, I’m stocking my Writing Toolbox with a piece from NY Book Editors called Planning to Outline You Novel? Don’t. This one tips the scales toward pantsing. Whatever style you choose to create your novel, just remember that it has to meets your needs.

Are You a Pantser?

There is much debate on which way to write a novel:  Outline/Plot vs. Pantsing.  Each side can provide plenty of evidence to support their chosen method of writing, showing why their way is best.  So far, I’ve never seen the conversation turn into an argument.  The discussion usually ends with one side giving the other a sideways, eye-narrowed, head-tipped look of pity for not seeing the error of their ways.  It’s actually quite funny.

I find this debate always surfaces shortly before NaNoWriMo starts.  The following link by Janalyn Voigt offers advice on her site livewritebreath.com for those who might consider and/or choose pantsing.  In my opinion, the points mentioned are only the beginning of pantsing.  Since it’s not a formal writing style, I can’t imagine too many rules actually exist.  (Admittedly, I’ll be looking for them.)  Guidelines, however, probably abound.

I believe I fall closer to the pantsing end of  the writing spectrum well short of insisting it is the only way to write.  I’m not against outlining, but like most things in my life, I never limit myself to one of anything.  I have outlined scenes for my novel, THE SECRETS OF DR. JOHN WELLES, usually to clean up during the editing process  and when research needed to be conducted.

So, whether you outline/plot or pants it, I hope you enjoy Mrs. Voigt’s suggestions.

Pantsing:  Writing By the Seat of Your Pants

***I revisited this post to ensure the links still work, and while they do, you may be required to choose the option of opening them in a separate window.  But, please be assured they are still present and working!

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