If you're a working author, or an aspiring one, you have probably heard of this annual writing contest.
Several years ago, I eagerly signed up for my first NaNo contest. I retired that year and took a couple of online novel writing classes to jump into my third career. I had the first half of a detailed story outline finished by October and thought I was going to write the Great American…well, you know.
I got through 22,000 words that year before I ran out of outline--and ideas.
If you've never written a book, that's about 90 pages. Not bad for a month, actually, but I wasn't going to make the 50,000-word magic number needed to get the "Winner!" banner on my NaNo page.
Discouraged, I didn't finish the last week of the event. Ninety pages in in the first twenty days of November days wore me out, especially the last week, when my family began to grumble about dust on the furniture and ask, "what about Thanksgiving, and Black Friday sales?"
The next year, undaunted, I signed up again. The challenge was addicting.
I only wrote 7,000 words and quit.
But throughout the next year, I edited and polished the 29,000 words I had, and added another 20,000 thousand more. I'd written and polished enough, in fact, that I started entering the first chapters in writing contests, and began to win a few.
The summer of the third year, my budding book, Song of the Ancients, won first place in the prestigious Pacific Northwest Writers Contest. I attended the conference in Seattle, pitched my book to agents and editors in attendance, and got a request for a full manuscript. "Is it done?" The agent asked. "Sure is, just over ninety-five thousand words," I lied.
That fall is when I learned what it's really like to be an author.
I came home from the conference in a panic. I had just committed to send a full manuscript to an agent, when in reality it was barely half-finished. I wrung my hands. I cried. I berated myself for not telling the truth.
For one day, while I unpacked.
Then I went into my home office and started writing. I mean, really writing. I wrote all morning, took a break to eat and shower, then wrote again. Some nights, when the words flowed, I'd write until 3:00am. Then I'd get up in thee morning, spend some time with the family, do the breakfast dishes and a load of laundry, and start again.
I wrote the second half of the book, a little over 50,000 words, in four weeks.
And that, folks, is the same thing people commit to do each year for NaNo.
Granted, you don't have to turn your NaNo manuscript in to an agent. In fact, please don't. Editors and agents cringe at the increase of manuscripts they experience after NaNo ends.
None of those books are ready for publication. In fact, mine wasn't ready either, and that agent rejected it. But she did make enough comments that I decided to send it to a professional content editor.
Armed with his 40-pages of content comments (yes, he gave me a lot of feedback. He suggested some major POV consolidation, pointed out places where the action sagged, some passive voice, and, most importantly, showed me the places where he, "was tempted to skim.") I was positively rearing to get to re-writes during NaNo Year Four.
But…according to Nano's website, you aren't supposed to do that. You're supposed to start fresh on a brand-new story for your thirty days of literary abandon, not work on an existing piece.
Screw that! I had a novel I had sweated over for nearly four years, on the brink of becoming something publishable. I wasn't about to switch storylines in mid-stream.
Note: Even though the NaNo mods tell us to play by the rules, they also say that the main objective of NaNo is to encourage people to follow their dream and write. They shake their finger at you with one hand, and nod their blessing with the other. It's a game, for heaven's sake.
So I rode the Nano wave of enthusiasm and re-wrote all November. It was glorious. I knew in my bones the book was improving. I also realized during re-writes, that my antagonist was all wrong, and completely revised him as well.
I only counted brand-new passages in my word count that year, so I didn't come anywhere close to the 50,000 goal. I just wrote. Tightened. Re-read and wrote more. Continued through December and January and February.
By March, the book was ready.
Song of the Ancients published in May. Yes, you can find it on Amazon.
Five months after Song of the Ancients was published, I suffered a stroke in my left frontal lobe, the part of the brain that controls speech, creative thinking, and all the functions grouped under the category of "higher level cognitive reasoning."
In the hospital I showed the neurologist my new book. "I don't know what I'll do if I can't read or write," I told him. "It's such a big part of my life and who I am."
He told me that might be exactly what would save me. "A non-writer might be using this much…" He held his palms apart six inches…"for vocabulary and creative thought. But you use this much." He extended his palms another ten inches.
First, I will always love that doctor. I thought about his words often during my six months of recovery and therapy. By Valentines' I was writing emails. By March I could compose a blog, re-learn my passwords, and figure out how to post the damn thing (although, to be honest, I can't blame all of my technology fumbling on the stroke).
For the last year I've been back to work on my next novel. The working title is Crescent Moon Crossing.
So here it is 2019 and I’m back at National Novel Writing Month to finish Crescent Moon Crossing—once again writing the second half of an existing novel. For me, that is approximately 35,000 words.
It’s going to be a steep climb to get the novel draft completed in November, but I’ve learned some lessons from these years competing in NaNo:
1st – If you want to be a professional writer, you MUST write new novel words every day. I’ve struggled with this. I write every day. Some days it’s my blog, or critiquing other writers’ work. Granted, many days it’s work on my own novel, but even then it’s not always new pages. I tend to edit as I go. My critique partners tell me two things: “The chapters you bring us to critique are so polished!” And then, when they find how long I’ve been working on them, it’s, “So just finish the damn thing. It’s a first draft, girl.”
2nd –When it comes to NaNo, re-read rule number 1.
3rd –Don’t stop writing until you’ve hit 2,000 words each day. Confession time. For me, that adds up to full-time work. I average 300 words and hour, unless I’m sprinting. It my output doubles.
4th – Do an hour of writing sprints EVERY DAY!
5th – When NaNo ends, don’t back away from that keyboard! Honestly, I won’t be able to write 6-7 hours a day in December. That’s just life. But I will commit to completing one scene or 800 words EVERY SINGLE DAY except Christmas Eve and Christmas day. That commitment will get Crescent Moon Crossing completed by New Year’s Day.
What a nice gift for 2020.