Using NaNoWriMo for Quality, Not Just Quantity

I want to write just a little bit about NaNo for people that might feel a little discouraged in the wake of the chaos whirlwind that is enthusiastic participants committing 800+ words to the page during a 15 minute writing sprint.

I’m a guy that gets maybe 300 words in 15 minutes if I already know what I’m trying to write about.  This is time spent actually writing, not letting the blank laptop screen and the click of others’ keyboards hypnotize me.


A lot of regional leaders for NaNo have outgoing, go-get-em personalities that help drive events and activities.  It kind of comes with the territory it seems.  I’ve known a few leaders that are a little more reserved, but they seemed to be co-leading with someone else that tracked the timer, handled word count prizes, did the spreadsheet to track the cumulative group total, ran the Facebook group, ran the Google calendar, etc etc.

I like these write-ins (write-outs?  Depends on where you’re from) for the social aspect.  If you come regularly, you are automatically just part of the crew.  You don’t have to talk about yourself if you don’t want to, you can just have a fun conversation between blocks of writing time and a bite to eat.

I am consistently a low word-count writer at these things.  The woman that handwrites her NaNo projects writes about 10 more words than me on average during a 15 minute sprint (allowing for word-count technology discrepancies, I guess).

People at some of these write-ins sometimes feel like they’re not keeping up if they’re at the low end like me—you can hear it in their voices sometimes when people sound off their word totals once the timer beeps.

The only thing that should have you down about your progress in the story is if you don’t like the story anymore.  Period.

There’s a bubbly obsession out there with word counts, not in a way that is judgmental of those that don’t have big numbers, but rather in terms of measuring their own performance.

Caring about what you write

The old standby advice out there is to “turn off your inner editor” and just get to writing.  They say, don’t backspace, don’t doubt yourself, just write.

Turning off the internal editor for me I guess means something a little different, because I have to love what it is I’m writing in order to keep going.  It’ll be a far cry from perfect, it’ll be lacking necessary plot fixes and foreshadowing and wordsmithing, but I will die on the hill of being asked to write something I don’t (at some level) love working on.

My 300-words-in-15-minutes experience is one that I’m proud of.  My progress is thoughtful.  If I don’t know where the story is going, I am in a sense “just writing” to find where it goes, but I’m not sneezing out five pages of dialogue that could have been said in five lines.

Vomiting huge numbers of words without backspacing is a way to treat a problem in your own creative drive, but it’s not remotely close to how I’m going to write a book, a chapter, or even a scene.  If you’re not happy with your story anymore, maybe the big word dump is what you need to find your feet again, but I personally would caution you against making it into your only tool for putting words to the page.

Find time enough to meet your word goal, whatever it might be.  If you get behind on a given day, you don’t necessarily have to break your back the next day doing double duty.  Just meet your daily goal, whatever it is.  I feel the zen of writing taking over when I’m in the regular rhythm of it, not strapped to the rollercoaster of 500 words one day and 2,800 the next and 1660 the next.  Sure, some days you’ll get more than your goal done, no problem, but don’t put yourself under the gun if you were low the day before.

The traditional daily NaNo goal is about 1667 words a day to meet 50,000 by the end of the month.  Despite writing only 300 in a 15-minute “sprint”, I will have so many blocks of writing time when I dedicate myself to it that I’ll be way over the monthly goal by the end.  I don’t do it because 50k+ words means I’m done, but because I loved writing this thing so much that I invested all of that time.  Because I was thoughtful about every section I wrote, I rarely come away from something ready to trash it.  Revising to actually make it great is another step, but at least I loved what I produced.

I write for the thing I produce at the end of it all.  I don’t want the exhilaration of the moment to be the drug that makes more words appear in my document that I’m not going to use.

All that good and bad advice

Try to categorize the advice you hear and read, try to figure out what works for you, what only sometimes works for you, and what absolutely never works for you.  I know that I’m working hard to produce something I want to hand to someone else and have them entertained or moved by it, so I’m going to pay attention to advice that I feel helps me accomplish that.

Here’s a piece of advice you should inspect and then make a decision on its utility to you:

Get excited about a project, and then strive to write some words every single day that you think are good enough to essentially make it to the final draft.

I don’t mean that you should spend an hour wordsmithing as if you’re on your final draft and it’s sink or swim—just put words to the page that you know essentially belong to the story.  Sometimes you’re going to find that what you wrote doesn’t belong, and that’s ultimately fine too.

If you want to up your writing game, make NaNoWriMo about the habit of writing and not just the passing mile markers.

And when November’s done, don’t stop.

Ideas for NaNoWriMo

The big month is days away, or maybe it’s already started and you trashed your previous story idea.

Let’s remember one very important thing about writing:

NaNoWriMo is about forming a habit.  You’ll probably want to be invested in the story you’re explore, but don’t worry if the idea itself isn’t turning into the greatest story this side of the Mississippi.

Look for Action

Action doesn’t have to mean car chases, explosions, or squirt gun fights.

Action could be almost anything, framed in the right way.  Some examples:

  • excitement (fantastical places, anticipation)
  • hard work (I have to get this done before Z comes home!)
  • failure
  • argument
  • making plans
  • emotion

Action can be centered on a person, a place, or simply an idea.

Combine the unexpected

Take a really good adjective like controversial, and apply it something that isn’t normally described that way.  What on earth would make a mountain deserve that description?  What does that even mean?  You tell me.

If you’re looking for a magical angle on your story, connect the magic to something in the world, not just the characters’ mystical inner strength.

Do any of the following spark some interesting what-if scenarios?

  • Magic that only nature can use, like animals or plant life
  • A skill or magic that fades with age (a mid-life crisis could have a whole different meaning if your only redeeming magical talent fades beyond your ability to use it)
  • Food that grows naturally to the size of a house (your main character is probably mighty tired of eating the same thing every day, but there’s just so darn much of it)
  • Miniature planets
  • A castle under the ocean
  • A pet made of enchanted sand
  • 200 people living in the same house
  • Space orphans (??)

Don’t worry if you’ve seen your idea somewhere before.  You’re allowed to tell the story that’s in your head.  NaNo is for forming the writing habit.

Where to start

Your first scene should show us a character that we need to meet, and do it in a place that suggests the kind of tone for the story you want to tell.  If you know your story is going to be about a band of friends, you probably shouldn’t be giving us a James Bond-style opening scene.

Ideally you’re going to write your opening scene in a way that gives us a sense of character, of place, and of conflict.  Conflict is a vague term here—see the Action section above.

You’re looking for a way to tell us the one thing about a character that I need to know, as the reader.  The same goes for setting and conflict.  Don’t kill us with all the nitty-gritty details just yet, but focus on a few really potent characteristics of the people or plot so that we can settle into the story you’re about to tell us.

What do the following scenes suggest to you in terms of the style of story they’re going to tell you?

  • A heist
  • A star blowing up
  • Rationing supplies on a damaged ship
  • Looking wildly around at all of the new sights
  • A streetside violinist
  • Exploring abandoned wreckage

Who knows?  Maybe you’ll finish your story and realize you’ve got the wrong beginning for the ending your made.  That’s fine!

How to start

It was a dark and stormy night…

Don’t worry about a zinger of a first line.  The first line in your story doesn’t have to be the first line you write.  I can only write a great first line once I’ve written all the way to the end.

Avoid descriptions that don’t touch relevant story points.  This isn’t to say that you should ignore the big bright world around the characters, but you don’t want to kick this story off with a pretty mundane description of the sort of mountains we’ve all seen before.

On the other hand, if this character has never seen mountains before, well now it’s important!  Describe those mountains in the way your character would react to them, not how you as the author see them.

If this story is about a starship battle, I definitely don’t need to be reading about what color hair this man has.

On the other hand…

If the setting for your story is a starship battle, but the main character is an entertainment companion to keep stress down on the battlefront, maybe this man or woman cares a lot about the texture of their hair before going out into the wartime banquet dinner.  Maybe it really does merit a description.

Just be sure to get to character action ASAP.  You can’t string me along for 1000 words without giving me something engaging to think about.

Don’t give up

If your story really loses its momentum after a little while, it’s not a statement about your ability to tell a story.  It’s very likely that the story just isn’t interesting enough to merit being told.

Even if might mess up some earlier part of your story, adding twists in the name of keeping the story going is always worth it.  When you read back over this bad boy, maybe you’ll notice that the twist wasn’t all that great, but if it kept you going, then it worked.

Here are a few bandaids for your story if you sense it losing the momentum it once had:

  • What if that guy last chapter was lying?
  • Is she agreeing to go along with this plan, but privately disagrees?  What does that lead her to do when she exits the stage and goes about her day?
  • Horrific weather stops your characters from moving ahead as planned.  How do they cope with the frustration?  Maybe one of the group is relieved.  What does spending a night together in a stressed atmosphere do to your characters?
  • She just really really needs to bring the instrument with her, okay?  Maybe she’ll tell you why if she trusts you a little more.
  • Someone dies, but not at the hand of anyone the characters expected.

Good luck and write every day!



NaNoWriMo 2016

With NaNo just a few weeks away, I decided to start thinking about what new thing I wanted to tackle.  I like 50,000 words as a target for the month, but most of the projects I’ve planned don’t fit that goal.  My current plan for The Fifth Norai will take it only to 10,000, and a project still in the planning stages called Unanimous 20 will be just 20,000.

So let’s add another!

As I continue with the revisions for Holder of Ash, I’ll let November be dedicated to an in-world novella following the character Fuaennashe Kojt during the climax in Holder of Ash.  We don’t see much of her while once main characters kick it into Hero gear, but she does offer an interesting little side story nonetheless.

It’s a horrible name for a book, but I’ll call it Fuaennashe for now, and I expect I’ll have a few things to write about the process once November begins.