Things I learned from NaNoWriMo
Outlining doesn’t have to kill creativity
(In fact, it can free you to be more creative.)
I read a great article about a month before NaNoWriMo 1 in which a confirmed ‘Pantser’ 2 discovered the joys of partial outlining. She realised — and taught me — that you don’t have to outline everything. You get a partial outline down and then, when it starts to feel like a slog, start writing. Which is something Daniel Pinkwater told me he does, in an interview years ago, and he’s pretty successful. But somehow it took me until now to get the message. Plus she went on to say that she feels free to start outlining again, once she reaches a point in her novel when she’s slowing down.
So that’s what I did.
It occurred to me that this is exactly what I do with short stories, it’s just that with a short story it is entirely possible to hold all the outline in your head. Usually I have an idea, and a sense of where the story will end, then I start writing. Once I’ve written a few paragraphs I get a sense of what kind of story it’s going to be, the twists will occur along the way and exactly where it’s going. But there is only one plotline; there are only one or two characters that count; and only 1-2,ooo words to cram them into.
With a novel I knew I couldn’t hold everything in my head, and that thought intimidated me. Until my brilliant new friend pointed out that outlines don’t have to be complete, restrictive or done by anyone else’s method.
So I outlined my book, with lots of scenes that I knew would happen at the start and vague ‘this sort of thing happens here’ for the rest of it. Every time I got stuck, or my word count slackened, I would take a day to outline the next section. Inevitably, the next time I sat down I’d be at my day’s wordcount and beyond it, before I’d even been to the cookie jar. 3
Inspiration Comes Second
Sure, you can wander around the world looking for inspiration, but I have found 4 that it is only when I start writing that I,
- Start to write well 5;
- Become inspired;
- Find story ideas and bits of dialogue leaping out at me from all around.
There were days when sitting down and typing felt like — as they say in Scotland — pulling teeth. But because I was determined not to fall behind in my wordcount, I sat and wrote. Slowly. The first 300 words were torture. It took forever to reach 600. But once I was past about 750 words, things started to fly. If I could just get those first 600 words down, I knew I could reach 1667 6
I came across a great passage in Russell T. Davies’ book about writing for the new Doctor Who series. I’ll quote it again and again because it is true and simple and brilliant. He’s horrifically behind on a deadline. Everyone is waiting for him to deliver pages — the production crew, the cast, everyone — and so he’s panicking and smoking too much and going for long walks, trying to solve the problems he’s written his characters into 7
Finally at some ungodly hour, he types,
“…I couldn’t work out how to do it, where to do it, when. All day, gone. Pissed off. Then I sat down to write, with no solution, and … thought of it! Immediately. Obvious. Simple. If I’d started sooner…ah, the only way to write is to write. For all my banging on about what to do if you’re really stuck on something, there’s nothing dumber than sitting there writing nothing at all.” 8
Get Away From The Desk
And once I had my story up and running, going out into the world was an excellent thing. Grocery shopping let me overhear how people talk to each other, or dream up solutions to plot problems. Working lunch duty at my children’s school gave my brain a break from thoughts of my characters. Walking around town gave me illustrations of buildings, cars, posters, people, smells, trees, memories.
It’s all very well trying to pay attention to these things when you’re not working on a project (and if you’re a writer then you do, you must, you can’t help yourself), but they take on a shimmering urgency when you’re deep in a work. So get out into the world.
Ration Your Reading
Of course, the first thing any aspiring writing should be doing is reading, but it has to be the right kind of reading if you’re going to read and still have time to write.
I discovered that I was limiting the amount of links I followed to fascinating articles, even from people I respect and admire. I limited the magazine reading. I scanned Facebook, rather than plunging in. I didn’t check my ‘celebrity Twitter’ list for a month and we all got along fine. I did not read the back of cereal packets, the BBC news site, blogs or forums.
I did read a little on Wikipedia to help me out of a technical jam in my novel, but I resisted clicking on all the links in the article. And I stopped at the end. I did make time to read books by authors I admire and who inspire me to sit down and write. I did watch TV shows written by writers who make me gnaw the furniture with envy at their skill. Anything else, I deemed a waste of Time I Could Be Writing.
People Can Be Surprisingly Supportive
Tell people you’re writing a novel and they 9 get really excited for you. I have friends and family who were checking in and demanding to read the book when it’s finished. And I have to say I did not expect my wonderful husband to be so enthused about the project. It inevitably meant more work for him, as he gave me time away from the kids, took care of extra loads of dishes and laundry, tidied while I wrote. But he was genuinely excited about the project and didn’t seem to resent the extra work at all. (Actually I suspect he might have been glad to have me out from under his feet some of the time. He’s terribly organized). That’s not to say he wasn’t relieved when I took back some of the household duties at the end of November. But my point is, people can surprise you with their supportiveness if you’re doing something that makes your eyes light up.
There’s tons more that I learned, (I’ve made some notes for next time) but I’m stopping now. To get back to the novel.
Shouldn’t you be writing, too?
- So maybe this was the first thing I learned: if you’re going to write articles about writing, a great time to post/promote them is October! ↩
- One who writes by the seat of their pants, eschewing outlines ↩
- Another thing I learned: don’t worry about the diet toooo much while writing. The hours sat in front of the keyboard will eat up most of my snacking time, so when I do snack, it’s not disastrous anyway. ↩
- Again and again and again ↩
- Duh! ↩
- The number of words you need to write every day to reach 50,000 in 30 days ↩
- If he truly were the heir of Douglas Adams, no doubt he would have been taking long baths too. ↩
- Russell T. Davies, Doctor Who, The Writer’s Tale – The Final Chapter, BBC Books 2010. My emphasis. ↩
- The good ones, the ones that matter ;) ↩