I’ve spent the last day or so in a haze. This haze has consisted of a few sets of words, combining and buzzing and circling around my head like a cloud of midges:

  • holy crap
  • I’m done
  • 50,000 words
  • I finished NaNoWriMo

So, yes, I actually completed NaNoWriMo (A day ahead of schedule!) and the experience has been extremely illuminating. Here are some of the things I feel I’ve learned by taking part. I’ll add more items to this list in another blog post a few days from now.

Just because I’ve written 50,000 words doesn’t mean I’m done

The rule for NaNoWriMo is that if you’ve written 50,000 words, you’ve “won” the event and have written a novel. However, most novels are significantly longer than this. A typical debut novel published by a publisher is between 70,000 and 100,000 words. At best, writing 50,000 words means your work sits comfortably in the “novella” category. I can tell that my novel will be much longer than the 50,000-word minimum, as there are lots of holes I have yet to fill; for example, I still have no idea how the story will end. I think, at best, that I’m between halfway and two-thirds through.

Despite this, I can understand why there’s such a focus on the 50,000-word benchmark: It’s a nice round number, and it’s probably in the upper limit of what a fledgling novelist can accomplish in a month. Thus, it’s like a good workout: It’s doable, but it still forces you to push yourself in order to build muscle.

This thing is nowhere near publishable

This goes right up there with the story being incomplete. Even if it were complete, though, I would not consider sending it to a publisher – or at least, would not do so without some heavy editing. My goal right now is to prove that I have the discipline to finish a novel. However, just because a novel is completed doesn’t necessarily mean it’s good, and since it’s a first attempt, I seriously doubt it will be. My plan right now is to finish the darned thing and just let it sit untouched for a few months so I can see the flaws more objectively when I pick it back up.

“Pantser” versus “planner”

During November, I did a lot of catch-up listening to old episodes of Mur Lafferty’s I Should Be Writing podcast. Within the show, several episodes mentioned the distinction between outline (“planner”) and discovery (“pantser”) methods of writing. Some writers feel that they need to discover the plot during the act of writing, while others feel that they should plan out everything that happens in the story before they sit down to the keyboard.

I don’t know whether it’s because this is the first time I’ve tried writing a novel, but my attempts to plan out the story failed. I found I was much more comfortable writing in the moment to see where the story took me. A lot of the time, I went down detours I never expected to encounter. Then the fun was in trying to make sure those tributary streams all flowed to the same river. Which brings me to…

Wattle-and-daub, or: Writing like an Impressionist

I mentioned in a previous post that I didn’t write the story linearly. Instead, I would focus on a scene and try to see that scene in my head to fill in the details. Or I would think to myself, “Well, something needs to happen in this scene here. What will it be?”

What amazed me, though, was the sheer amount of the world I had created that remained unknown to me. A lot of the time, when I discussed the story with friends and family, they would ask me things about the characters, plot, and setting, and I would answer “I don’t know.” I didn’t know about where my military commander came from. I didn’t know the span of time over which my story was taking place. I didn’t know whether one of my characters came from an abusive home or not.

In all honesty, it felt like there were images in my head, but they had the colouring and contrast of an Impressionist painting. One detail would be vivid, but the rest were all covered in black. As I worked harder, I either uncovered the black spots to reveal colour, or found places for new black spots to form. It’s like nothing I’ve ever experienced, because I feel that since this information is coming out of my head, I should know about it already. I was expecting writing for NaNoWriMo to be more like creating a painting than creating a statue out of Lego.

The million-word threshold

ISBW brought another concept to my attention as I was catching up on old podcast episodes: That of the million-word threshold. Raymond Carver is thought to have said that writers need to write at least a million words before they get all of the crap out of their systems and finally write something well.

I have no idea how true this is, but if so, then I’m 5% of the way there. Onwards and upwards!