Wednesday, 23 October 2013

A Neater Way To Nano

What Is NaNo?
I entered for NaNoWriMo last year, and am planning to enter again this year. For those who don't know what that means, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month and takes place every November. It's a free contest, with hundreds of thousands of entrants every year, and the idea is to write a 50,000 word novel in one month. If you hit 50,000 by the end of November, you are officially a 'Winner!' (There's no prize except kudos.)


Last year I managed about 44,000 words, but that was largely because I didn't write some days during the month, as I had a busy schedule. (When don't I?)

This NaNoWriMo will be the same: I'm finishing a book right now which is unlikely to be done before November 6th. This means I'll have no time to prepare a synopsis or think about characters properly - I'm not even 100% sure what I'll be writing this NaNo, as I have several projects on the back burner - and will lose at least one week out of the four allowed. So it's unlikely I'll manage more than 35,000, I would guess. HOWEVER, I will still follow my own unique method of approaching NaNo, regardless of my need for extra speed.

How Most People NaNo
The accepted wisdom is that the NaNo entrant just slaps down any old words in any old order, and as long as it's vaguely literate, and moves the plot along, that's acceptable. In fact, it's broadly considered the ONLY WAY to approach the NaNoWriMo experience.

Editing of the novel is done AFTER November. Indeed, many entrants fully expect to be editing their 'finished' book for the next six months or more.

How I NaNo
I can't work like that. I'm a fast writer, don't get me wrong. I regularly finish novels in 6-8 weeks. But impatience comes along with that speed. When I've finished a novel, that's it. It's finished. Next, please. I'm happy to hand it over to my editor for any suggested revisions to the plot, and then a copyeditor for changes at a language level - luckily, these tend to be light. But I dislike having to go back over the book myself - except for a very general check for foolish errors and inconsistencies - before sending it to my publishers.

My opinion is that, if you edit as you go along, by the time you type THE END, your book really is finished. If you edit as you write, you can send it straight off with a clear conscience. No need to put it away for a few weeks, then revise and edit for a few months before considering it finished.

Of course this presupposes an editor or two down the line who will catch any major issues! But it has to be added, even editing your book for six months may not make it 'perfect'. If there is such a thing as a perfect novel, which I don't personally believe.

My Neater Way To NaNo

  • Think about your novel in terms of sentences, not chapters. Each sentence builds and supports your novel. If it's a wobbly sentence, further down the line your paragraph - and even your whole novel - may fall over!
  • When writing each sentence, consider balance and sense. LISTEN to your sentences. They are not just a means to an end, but an end in themselves. A happy sentence makes sense and looks balanced.
  • Don't be afraid to be poetic in your prose. Or staccato if that suits you better. But be consistent. Set out your prose style on the very first page, the very first sentence - hopefully one that suits both you and the book you're writing - and stick with it. Sometimes it may take a few chapters to find the right narrative voice. Then you may want to go back and adjust earlier writing to match it. But only early on. Don't change styles mid-book or you will flounder horribly in a quagmire of your own making.
  • Avoid moving on to a new sentence until you are pleased with the one you've just written. If you absolutely must move on, highlight that sentence in red and go back to it at the end of your writing time.

  • HOW TO WRITE SWIFTLY WHILE ALSO SELF-EDITING: try the following ideas.
  • Getting the words right first time often means being SPECIFIC. Not a red car but a maroon Ford Fiesta (or hatchback if you want to be less specific). Not a dog but a Labrador. Don't take this to extremes though. If you draw too much attention to an object, it becomes 'important' and the reader will wonder why. Though obviously if it IS important - the killer was driving a maroon Ford Fiesta - that's okay.
  • Plan your book. If you loathe pre-knowledge of your plot - um, why??? - then at least sketch out vaguely what should happen in each chapter or group of chapters. This will avoid the pitfall of writing at a tangent for 10,000 words and realizing later it adds nothing and has to be cut.
  • Think: why does this scene exist? If it does not reveal character or move the plot forwards, cut it.Try to do this BEFORE you write it. (See above for planning.)
  • All dialogue should reveal character. But avoid dialects and foreign languages, they almost never work except for a few words put in for flavour. He's Scottish. We get it. And don't include rambling dialogue to indicate character or you will bore your readers. Just suggest it: 'Mrs Hubbard continued to talk long after I had ceased to listen. My attention was focused on the body in the rocking chair.'
  • Charge straight into scenes: don't introduce them, don't set the scene or drearily recap what went before. Don't info-dump ('The house had once belonged to my great-aunt, whose suicide in 1986 while I was studying Zoology at university led to my father's revelation that he too suffered from the same family illness ... ') but reveal backstory in drips, here and there.
  • Overall, avoid anything extraneous to the dynamic interaction between characters which forms the basis of most great novels. Setting and landscape may be important in your novel - it always was for Hardy - but in that case, think of setting as a character and use it in a similar way. Make the setting actively do things, not just 'be'. Think of the moor in The Hound of the Baskervilles: it's practically a character in its own right, deceiving people, sucking the unwary into the bog in an almost malicious way.
  • All the above will allow you to write swift and lean prose. Nothing unnecessary, everything serving a purpose. And above all, get the sentence right before moving on, and you will not need to waste months of your life editing your novel once NaNoWriMo is over.


  1. This is so different to my approach. Certainly for longer stuff I need that dirty first draft to find out where the story's actually going. I can see me working more like this in the future for shorter novella though. Weirdly, I actually quite enjoy the self-editing bit (much more than writing 1st drafts to be honest)! Always really interesting to hear about different writers' approaches though, especially when they are really different from your own.

  2. This is fascinating. I do a lot of editing as I write too, much, much more in the first 10K where my characters are forming, and significantly less towards the end. So I start out usually with about 1K a day, but can build up to an average of 5K and sometimes 10K towards the end. Some great tips here, and I so agree on the scene stuff - one of the things I take out a lot is setting it up and then recapping!

  3. Like Alison I am a dirty-drafter, so these are things I would tend to do at second-draft stage, but it's all excellent advice for general writing, not just for the mad scramble of NaNo. I wish I could plan...

  4. Argh, I wish I could somehow persuade more people that it's possible to write FAST and CLEANLY at the same time. Really and truly it is. I can do it, and I'm not - contrary to popular opinion - Superwoman. It does take a while to get used to clean speed, I admit. But it's not unattainable, honest.

  5. You can write a book in 6-8 weeks?!! *faints*. I'm an edit-as-I-go-along type and need to speed up. I'll try out some of these tips, thank you x

  6. I'm going to try it your way, EM. I always edit my blog posts as I write them and touch them up afterward, but don't usually feel a need to do big edits once they are complete. Your edit as you go suggestion may work better for me than last year when I did not manage to complete the novel writing task or end up with any draft, rough or clean. And for the record, I often think of you as Superwoman and wonder how you get everything done that you do. Thanks for taking time to put together this helpful post. It's much appreciated and if I can get myself together, I may share it in a link on my blog if you don't mind.

  7. You share all you like, mate! Superwoman x

  8. Louise, it's not actually that hard to write a book in 6-8 weeks, especially if you are able to work full-time on it, as I generally do. Roughly 40-50 days at 2000 a day gives you between 80 and 100,000 words. 2000 a day is perfectly possible. But many people only have a few hours a day in which to write, which makes life much tougher. And of course I don't work at that pace all the time, that would probably kill me! I have a rest between books, and often have to stop writing in order to do proofs or copyedits etc. :)

  9. Great post. I'm glad I'm not the only one who writes this way - never written more than one draft in my life!

  10. Oh bless you, Lesley! I feel less alone now ... :)

  11. Great post. I tend to write reasonably finished first drafts too. Because it feels less messy. Although I am much enjoying doing Nano for the first time this year. Though I have to admit I am a Nano rebel I have discovered, according to their regs because I am not doing quite what I am supposed to. What's new! Anyway, thanks for your post.