Three Things I Learned This Year’s NaNoWriMo

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This November was my first ever attempt at NaNoWriMo (even if I didn’t “officially” sign up). This venture wasn’t easy, but it did show me useful ways to tweak daily writing habits—good habits that will help me draft a story faster. Here I’ll share with you those three tips I found most vital.

Before this, I thought: “Me? Right a story in one month? Nah!” I’m a slow snail writer, purebred. Writing anything bigger than a short story in one month just wasn’t feasible! But I kept hearing about this NaNo thing, year after year, and how all these other writers were drafting entire novels in mere 30 days. Each time I would sigh and turn my face away, thinking I could never live up to such a time-constraining challenge! So, why did I change my mind this year and give NaNo a chance?

Maybe it was the writing bug that bit me, or reading the blogs of other writers who were excited for the upcoming challenge, or maybe I just wanted to rebel against myself this year 😉 . But either way, I took up the NaNoWriMo glove and dove in without a thought!

Okay, it wasn’t entirely “without a thought,” as the studious writer in my head made preparations before November began. Which leads me to the things I’ve learned from this writing challenge that’s helped me, and hopefully will help you too, to draft up a story better and faster.

1) Outline the plot. Yes, I know many say this, but let me add to it. I love surprises as you write along, those fun unplanned scenes that pop up in your head and work great with the story, so I’m not super stingy or tight about following an outline. But what the outline does do is keep the writer brain focused: What are the themes? What’s the main message I want this story to get across? What are the goals of each character, and are they following them consistently? What is the climax the story is leading up to? How does it lead up to that point, and will it be resolved? Answering basic questions like these in my outline kept me focused on where the story was going and what I needed to do next, so that I didn’t find myself floundering or running into writer’s block (which would waste valuable NaNo time). Outlining was also a big help when it came to pacing the story.

For tips on outlines, see this Helping Writers Become Author’s article series: The secrets of story structure.
For tips on pacing your story, see this She’s Novel article: How to nail your novel’s pacing without selling your story’s soul.

2) Create character profiles. Answering a list of detailed questions about your characters ahead of time will allow you to connect with them, understand who they are and how their personality works, which in turn will keep you consistent while writing their character throughout the story. You can go beyond appearances and clothes, and really dig into who they are, their faults, good traits, bad habits, temperament, etc. Knowing these things about your character is what will give them depth and make them relatable to readers. It took me two days to write up profiles for my characters, but I know it saved me a lot of time in the long run, because by the time I’d finished with the questions, I knew these people well and could get inside their heads and see the world through their eyes (okay, that sounds creepy, pardon 😉 ).

You can browse through links to character questionnaires you can use here: Getting to know your characters.

3) Do some world-building ahead of time, but do most of it as you write. I left much of The Fairy, The Hunter, And The Quest For Fhern’s world-building to do as I wrote the story. I was concerned that doing this might slow me down, but it would’ve taken longer if I’d tried to plan out every detail before writing. I did have the basics for the world already set, but all the details were made on-the-go, or on-the-write, 😉 and surprisingly it didn’t hinder my word count much. I did stop and take time to imagine what the fairy village and Fhern’s house looked like, and what unique plants the forest they lived in should have (and what monsters), but I wasn’t overwhelmed as I had been with my first novel Strayborn (release 2017) because I kept writing.

With Strayborn, I had done ALL of the research and details beforehand—and still ended up doing even more during the first draft—and that really slowed me down (it took over a year to write!). That’s why I went with a different approach for this novella, to see if I could do better.

Doing most of the “Googling” and research as needed, instead of trying to do everything ahead of time, worked and saved me time. I recommend you try this with your next story. And remember, you have draft #2 to add all the details and expand your world-building! With the story already completed, you’ll have more time to focus on all those details we writers and readers love.

So to recap: outline, character profiles, and do most of the research on-the-go. This strategy is the reason a slow writer like me was able to write a story in one month. Give it a try, and see how it works for you.
~Happy writing!

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© 2016 E. E. Rawls and
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15 thoughts on “Three Things I Learned This Year’s NaNoWriMo

  1. Great job, E.! I think another blogging friend who was doing NaNoWriMo made a similar comment about research and world-building – that she did a good chunk of it as she went along, not in advance. I didn’t do NaNo (and I really don’t know how I would’ve pulled it off, having a day job and whatnot), but I can see how your tips could help another writer who takes the plunge.

    How many words did you end up with, btw?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thanks! I understand that not everyone can take the NaNo plunge. As it is, I wrote a short novella, not a 50k novel like the challenge requests. I’m not sure how I’d do writing a full novel that quickly.
      I do hope the tips here can help other writers, or at least offer them a good starting point.
      I have 25k words done, but if you count the extra chapters I’d already had written for the blog, the novella finished at around 30k. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Great things to learn! I usually do my research in the second draft, because I often discover things that I didn’t know I needed researched until then. XD

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s happened to me too, glad you pointed it out! Sometimes it’s too hard to think of all the details during the first draft, and are better left for the second draft when you have more time to concentrate and research. I’ll have to do this with a few scenes in my novella.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh, yes, outlining the novel is a life-saver when you’re trying to complete a draft quickly. I’m definitely a planner, I can’t write if I don’t know where I’m going with the plot.
    I’m glad NaNo was such a positive learning experience for you! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Those are great lessons to have learned! Outlining plot, characters and world are the only way I keep sane when I start a new story. Plus it’s so much fun to explore all the possibilities and routes that the story can go beforehand, even if some things change along the way 🙂
    Glad that NaNoWriMo went well for you and that you came out of it with new insight 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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