Thursday, October 13, 2016

5 Lessons I Learned from NaNoWriMo by Caroline Starr Rose

It was with a bit of reluctance I decided to join National Novel Writing Month in 2013. For those of you unfamiliar with NaNoWriMo, it's a month-long challenge to produce 50,000 words on a new piece of writing. (Chris Eboch ran an excellent post on NaNo earlier this week.) I'd tried NaNo in 2009 and failed miserably. I never, ever was going to do it again. But that fall things came together in such a way that joining in made sense:
  • My verse novel, Blue Birds, was off with my editor
  • I was at the point with my research for a new novel that I was itching to get started
  • I read this blog post by Darcy Pattison
  • My critique partner, Valerie Geary, promised me peanut butter cookies if I made it through
I didn't sign up officially. Instead I created a contest of one I called Fake-o NaNo*, where I aimed to write 1500 words a day six days a week. I missed one day, had a good number of sessions I didn't hit 1500 (and a couple I wrote more), and felt finished with the draft a few days before Thanksgiving -- the exact day Blue Birds "flew" back to me in a big padded envelope.

Here are five things I learned from the experience:
  1. Slow and steady is my typical writing mantra. But sometimes fast and furious is just as important. Typically, I write verse novels and picture books. It's a sloooow process, especially when I'm initially drafting. But this novel was in prose, something I hadn't tried for seven or eight years. Throwing words on a page was a very liberating, non-committal way to reintroduce myself to this form. With my first NaNo attempt, I got stuck during the first week and decided to stop. This time around was no different. I faced the same impossible rut one week in. But I kept moving, mainly by sticking to the next lesson I learned.
  2. Sometimes you just have to write about the writing. While I'd kept a journal for this book since the previous spring, I still had a lot of exploring to do. Many days I found myself writing about what was working in the story and what wasn't. Things I'd have to look further into, characters I needed to add, relationships I needed to develop. Really, the draft became a running commentary, an in-the-moment chance to reflect on my ideas (or lack of them).
  3. Practice holds the fear at bay. The creative process is a scary thing for me, and beginning (and finishing) a first draft is my biggest challenge. By holding myself to a daily goal, I was able to break through some of that fear by simply showing up and doing the work.
  4. Embrace the mess. The "draft" I finished with was most definitely the messiest, worst thing I've ever written. But it was such a great experiment in getting words down, feeling out characters, and sometimes learning exactly what I didn't want to write about (by first doing just that). Knowing I could toss it all took me in some directions I might never have discovered if my approach had been more careful.
  5. Did I mention the cookies? Committing out loud to a friend kept me honest. And the cookies were a great pay off!

In February this NaNo novel hits the shelves as Jasper and the Riddle of Riley's Mine. As I think back to that draft I created three Novembers ago, the finished book holds little in common with it. But it was the starting place my story -- and my character -- desperately needed. Without that month of steady work, Jasper wouldn't be the boy he's become. I'm sure of that.

What are your plans for National Novel Writing month?

* I hadn't heard of the so much fancier "Faux NaNo" at the time, which I don't think is an official thing, just another name for a make-your-own version of NaNoWriMo.


  1. I have never been brave enough to tackle NaNo. Between my full time teaching job, coaching job (which is pretty much year round), and three kiddos, just the thought overwhelms me. I do hope to give it a shot one day, though.

    Jasper looks wonderful, Caroline and I can't wait to read it!! Thanks so much for sharing this backstory with us. (P.S. Valerie used to be my critique partner, too--I LOVE HER!!) :)

    1. YES! I remember that. She's fabulous, isn't she? Sounds like you've got PLENTY keeping you busy. Write at the pace you can, I say.

  2. I've attempted NaNo before, but it's just never worked for me. I can't always move on in the plot until I've revised the previous chapter (and then go back and revise the other chapters). It's a slow two steps forward, one step back process that I can't seem to shake. It just doesn't work well with NaNo. THAT SAID, I need to get some serious word counts going if I'm going to make any progress with my WIP. I agree, sometimes the messy pile o' words just needs to BE there in order for you to make sense of a story.

    1. I'm not sure I'll ever do it again, but once it was over, I was so glad I had something to work with...even though a huge part was tossed, and then another huge part was tossed after the next round of writing. That's the way it goes sometimes, yes?

  3. Thank you for sharing this post! I started writing because of NaNo many years ago. I haven't missed one since, and although this year I might do a combination of drafting a new story/editing an existing manuscript, I love the energy of the whole NaNo experience!
    Congrats on your NaNo book! What an inspiration! My 2012 NaNo is on submission right now *crossing my fingers*


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!