NaNo in February?!

Today, I’m pleased to present Julie Holmes from Facets of a Muse! Julie writes adult mystery with psychic elements, mystery with a touch of romance, contemporary fantasy, and epic fantasy—and she’s got a decade of NaNoWriMos to her credit! That’s amazing. Keep reading to see how NaNoWriMo reshaped her writing process, and click here to see a sample of her novel Daughter of Pele. Thanks for visiting, Julie!

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First, thank you, Emily, for writing our first guest blog post for the Meet Your Main Character blog. It was a great post! Thank you for inviting me to try to explain my own writing process. Sheesh. I just do it. Now I have to think about it? Seriously, though, understanding why what I do works for me points me in a direction for fine-tuning my process.

To all those novelists out there: has anyone ever asked you how long it takes to write a book? What’s your answer? A year? Two? Five? Been working on it since college and your oldest child is graduating from high school this year?

Been there, and realized if I wanted to write down all the books I had in my head before I get to that big writing studio in the sky, I needed a better method. I had half a dozen books begging to get out of my head, and once there was room, more were ready to be mulled about by creative brain cells. There’s no way I’d get them out during my lifetime unless I wrote every day, the advice given by just about every writer who makes a living at it. But come on, that’s hard to do along with everything else going on. You know, like family and work.

Enter NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month. Some ten years ago, I read an article in the Minneapolis Star Tribune about a group of local writers who participated in the event every year. NaNoWriMo = Fifty thousand words in thirty days. Fifty thousand? In a month? Okay, so 50,000 words is about the length of The Great Gatsby, so it wasn’t like War and Peace, but that’s, like, a whole book. In a month.

Opportunity! In order to write those 50,000 words in a month, I’d have to write every day. If I could get into the habit of writing every day, I’d get the books out of my head, and become a better writer through practice. You become better at anything if you practice it. So I penciled NaNo onto the calendar for November.

In order to write a book in a month, I needed a plan. I wrote my first two books during the fifth grade through to my college freshman years, “pants”-ing it, that is, writing “on the fly”. No road, no map, just what I built in my head and anything extra made up on the way. That may work for a lot of writers, but I needed something different if I was going to write a whole book in a month. Maybe I should try an outline. And hey, since I’m on a roll here, how about testing the whole process on a fresh, completely new, no-mental-synopsis-yet story idea.

Gulp. I was committed to doing this, but oh, boy. I found Karen Wiesner’s First Draft in 30 Days. Perfect! That’s exactly what I’d be doing. She uses a system that lays out the characters, settings, timelines, motivations, story evolution (conflict(s), short- and long-term story goals, roadblocks, showdowns, etc), beat sheets, and free-form summaries of the beginning, middle, and end. I recreated her worksheets on the computer and spent a month filling them in. I decided to write in the morning, so I trained myself to get up at 4:30 am (still do) to write for an hour and a half or so before everyone else got up for the day. Now I was all set.

I wrote almost every day that November, and though I didn’t make it to 50,000 words that first year, I created a habit of writing every day. I also learned the value of outlining my book. If I could write a brand-new story idea, what would happen if I tried to rewrite one of my old books? The next NaNo, I totally overhauled the second book I’d ever written, and “won” that year’s NaNo. The bonus was I ended up with a stronger story than my pantser original.

In the years since, I’ve learned some things:

  1. I need a concrete target to work toward, not just a “get to the end of the story” target. A “get to the end of the story by the end of the month” goal works better for me, otherwise there’s not enough pressure. Visualizing my progress, like I can with the NaNo progress chart, helps too.
  2. Outlines work well for me. They give me a chance to brainstorm the story, including character and timelines. I use them as a map through the story, but if the characters want to take the scenic route, I’ll let them.
  3. That inner editor will torpedo a NaNoWriMo victory every time, because she makes you go back and rework something in your rough draft. Hey, it’s a draft, it isn’t supposed to be good yet. Send her on vacation or lock her in a box for the month. I send mine to the Caribbean. I figure that way she’s too busy enjoying herself to bother me, and she’ll be all recharged when I start revising.
  4. I lose my “write every day” habit, so I need the annual reinforcement.

Now, with a decade of NaNos and eight completed novels under my belt (along with a few I didn’t reach “The End” on), I know I can do it. I can write 50,000 words in a month. With my last couple NaNos, however, I haven’t had “The End” success, which is frustrating. I outlined, planned, and wrote, but I just couldn’t get there. Part of that had to do with rewriting the story with a dead body this time, which changed the story line. I didn’t want to wait until November to write it, so I did something crazy. I decided to pick a month and do a self-imposed NaNoWriMo. I don’t know what I was thinking when I picked February, the shortest month of the year.

Guess what? It worked! Granted, I posted my intentions on my blog, so I was accountable to my followers, which added pressure to succeed. And even though I surpassed 50k words in 28 days, the story wasn’t done. I kept it up, and finished the story two weeks later.

Woo-hoo!

Every writer has his or her own method that works for them, and sometimes it takes a few tries to figure out what works best. For me, a NaNo approach works, including an outline written ahead of time. Afterward, I shelve the project for a month to get some distance, then call my inner editor back for revisions. And more revisions. Then send the manuscript to my writing sisters for comments. More revisions. After CPs and beta readers get their eyes on it, and more revisions, I’ll have a polished piece to add to my collection.

Now, if I could only find an agent…

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