What I learnt from NaNoWriMo 2016.

As stated in my previous post, I began NaNoWriMo 2016 having done some character development, some world-building, and a rough outline of the first half of the planned story.  I trusted that I could figure out the rest of the story as I went.

I’ve learned a lot from this NaNo experience.


I’m getting faster at drafting.  In my first year of NaNo, I struggled to write 300 words in 20 minutes.  Now in my third year, I’m easily making 400+ words per 20 minutes; across the month I averaged about 1200 words/hour, and 2-3 hours (including breaks) to achieve it.  This was good, because this November was definitely busier than in the past, and sometimes I didn’t hit the keyboard until about 10pm at night — but still could knock out the words and get to sleep by midnight.  So NaNo writing pace is entirely achievable in a few hours, and that’s good news for someone with a busy life!

Leave out the boring bits.  Not the hard bits, the boring ones.  I’ve learned from July Camp and NaNo that my writing boredom is a good sign that the story isn’t going anywhere, and it’s time to move in a different direction.  Generally, I can identify why I’m bored: this scene isn’t moving the plot or character arc forward, or my POV character is being too passive — both of which aren’t good for the story anyway.  This was good to know: I’m learning how to trust my own writing instincts to create a better story.

Knowing the plot threads helped keep me on track.  There were several plot threads I had going: the main plot, and the subplots surrounding character development.  My goal was to use NaNo to write the skeleton of the main plot, and to leave the subplots for later.  Knowing the shape of my plot threads helped me determine the purpose of every scene, and thus which plot was advancing, and which conflict needed to be addressed and resolved.

Sometimes, writing forward gets you out of plot holes; sometimes, you just dig yourself deeper.  This was my biggest lesson from this NaNo.  Significant plot holes started showing up in the main plot about halfway through NaNo.  I’d had the paradigm that the way to overcome them was to keep writing, and indeed I’ve been able to get out of some plot holes by writing until I found a way out.  (And of course, the NaNo wordcount is a main source of pressure!)  But in this case, I ended up writing filler that didn’t go anywhere, and scenes that felt incoherent for the plot.  The draft completely stalled by the third week of NaNo, and I made up the remaining 10-15k words with world-building and freewriting.

I ran into plot holes because I hadn’t established the foundation of the conflict that drives the main plot, and I MUST stop drafting to deal with them.  It all boils down to conflict, the foundation of plot and character arc!  In this case, I didn’t world-build enough to get a good understanding of the conflict that drove the main plot.  As a result, I didn’t know the directions the story would go!  So I should have stopped drafting when the plot holes started appearing at ~30k words, and gone back to my world-building and character sheets to reassess the main conflicts.

In spite of these learning hurdles, I won my third NaNo for the third time.  Writing 50k in a month isn’t easy, but it isn’t an overwhelming challenge either.  I’m getting faster at writing!  But what have I learned about my drafting process?

I can’t world-build and write stories simultaneously. I think it’s because they use very different parts of my brain: I world-build with left brain and produce encyclopedia entries in my world wiki, and I write stories with right brain, which (I hope) read like proper stories.  I have to consciously transition from one form of writing into another, and I don’t think I can do both in the same day.

As a result, I have to be strategic about what I plot/plan/world-build before I start drafting.  It looks like “writing prep” involves generating all my planning documents, and then… setting it all aside when I draft.  I seldom look at my world wiki or planning documents while writing — they’re all front-loaded into my brain when I create them, and then form the background scenery on which I paint the story.

My process is shaping to be a messy, drawn-out mixture of plotting and freewriting.  Plan a bit at the start, do world-building, write character sheets, and work out conflicts and plot lines.  Then discovery write and spill everything onto the page.  When stuck, stop, replot and revisit all the planning docs, then keep writing.  This initial discovery writing may actually be “draft zero” and unfinished, until replotting happens.  If the unfinished drafts I wrote for both Camp and NaNo 2016 are anything to go by, if I’m to produce a clean first draft and not “draft zero”, I will need to stop regularly for reorientation.

I’m a bit worried that this reorientation will kill my writing momentum.  But it’s something to experiment with next and discover.

So this is the approach I’ll be taking when I rewrite A Dirge for the Amphiptere from draft zero into a proper manuscript.  (The planned start is end of Dec / start of Jan.)  We’ll see how it works out.

And finally, the last lesson I learned from NaNo 2016.

I didn’t have to try to make my epic fantasy epic — it grew on its own.  A Long Gaze of Fire is turning out to be a duology, or at least, a big two-part novel.  Considering that my previous stories are novella-sized drama/literary stories, it’s relieving to know that I didn’t have to try to “make” this novel epic.  On the other hand… there’s a lot to write before reaching The End!

But for now, Long Gaze is going on the shelf to cool.  The end of another great NaNoWriMo!

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