Dispatches from NaNoWriMo: Flailing Up Word Count Hill

[Cross-blogged for Leland Quarterly]

Before I talk about me, I want to mention that yesterday was Donation Day! The Office of Letters and Light is a non-profit organization and needs donations to keep NaNoWriMo and the Young Writer’s Program running. If you think NaNoWriMo is awesome, take a moment to make your tax-deductible donation here.

Somewhere between the 15th and 16th was the halfway point of NaNoWriMo. Thanks to the other things in my life, I’ve been playing catch up for most of the last week. I’m trailing at 21,297 words when I’m supposed to hit 28,333 by the end of today. But never fear, I have learned something in Week 2: when I get going, I will steamroll through thousands of words a day.

Must... pass... gray... line...

Cases in point? Day 8: 4,333 words. Day 13, 3,681 words. So the 7K+ words I have to make up to be back on schedule? No sweat.

The surge on day 13 was also aided by my first ever write-in! Well… my first successful one anyway. On day 9 I attempted to spearhead my own write-in, inviting fellow Stanford writers to join me at the CoHo—but the CoHo was packed and my writing buddy never found me (possibly because I left for Tresidder). I did, however, learn the Awkward Write-in Size-up. Remember that most NaNoWriMo participants don’t use their real names or photos of themselves on the website, which means when someone says they’re going to join your write-in, you sit there scanning the face of every last person who looks your way, hoping for a hint of recognition. As the organizer of this write-in, I wore my trusty husky hat to make myself more noticeable. So I stared down a lot of people who were actually just looking at my hat.

And c’mon, it’s a pretty sweet hat.

But like I said, this attempted write-in was a failure. The write-in on day 13 was significantly more successful. I met three other Peninsula NaNoWriMo writers at Happy Donuts on El Camino—same thing, the Awkward Write-in Size-up and trying to match faces with squashed Twitter profile pictures, this time made more difficult by the lack of interesting hats (our chicken-hatted coordinator came late). But once we established ourselves, we all got into the writing zone and each hammered out a solid word count. (We were also writing for Big Gain, a competition with the East Bay to see which side could gain the most words-per-participant that day in honor of Big Game. The Peninsula won. Just saying.)

An interesting side effect of writing in a public place as opposed to your own room is how little things about the setting will maneuver their way into your story. While at Happy Donuts, the delicious smell of a breakfast sandwich made me seriously consider adding a scene in which one of my characters would eat bacon. At one of the past write-ins, the music at Panera Bread apparently inspired one writer to throw in a beach cabana. Smells, overheard conversations, quirky passersby, and music can all distract you from writing until the frantic determination to bump up your word count forces you to make use of that lost time.

Smell that and try not to write about it.

Music isn’t always a distraction, though. I listen to a lot of movie soundtracks while writing to set the ambiance of the scene I’m working on. It helps get things moving when I only have a bare bones outline and just need to start writing. So far I’ve listened to the Batman Begins soundtrack, a French band called KYO, and a smattering of Debussy piano pieces to great effect. And if I really just need some awesome music to power me through, there’s the Russ Chimes Soundcloud.

So what happens when I get rolling? Well, for one thing, I stop making sense. It seems that for a lot of NaNoWriMo participants, this isn’t a problem. After all, the point is to get to 50,000 words, and at some point we should stop caring how we get there, right? I’ve heard some crazy tricks on how to get to 50K: write out the names and phone numbers of characters when they send text messages, spell out Greenwich Mean Time, etc. But something about that doesn’t seem right. Here’s my personal philosophy on this: mess with the plot, not how you write. Add intrigue, introduce new characters, develop new subplots—but do not expand contractions and write about the inexcusably mundane details of characters’ lives. If the story isn’t going to reach 50K, throw in some more plot points, but don’t try to stretch those couple words out by overcomplicating (and thereby sacrificing) the prose. I want to come out of this month with a story that I can go back through without having to completely rewrite. Sure, a lot of my novel will be revised out during editing, but I have plenty of material to get me to 50K. I’m embracing NaNoWriMo for forcing me to write every day, to get this story written instead of just festering in my head. But I don’t want to let NaNoWriMo simultaneously ruin the novel it has helped me to write.

Some tips and tricks from week 2 on writing fast drafts:

  • Dialogue first: for dialogue-heavy scenes, to ensure I still make sense, I write out the entire dialogue first with only cursory reactions from the characters. Then I go back through and add in what the characters are doing and thinking. This helps keep my thinking fast-paced but coherent, speeding along the writing.
  • Acting it out: sometimes when I’m strapped for ways to describe what my character’s doing, I rejoice in the fact that I don’t have a roommate to judge me and walk around my room pretending to be my characters. It helps for picking up those minor details, like how a character’s posture changes or how their mood affects what they do with their hands. This is probably why people say writers are crazy.
  • Like I said, music: the right music can set the scene’s ambiance, making it much easier to conjure detailed images of the setting and write about them. If there’s actually a specific sound or song playing in the scene, YouTube and Spotify will do wonders for adding that noise as I write.
  • Roadmapping: if I have to stop for some reason, I like to write out a quick blurb on where I want the scene to go next; or, if I just finished a scene, where the next scene will pick up. This makes it easier to pick up the pace again when I come back.

Time to go rack up that word count some more!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *