Don’t Delete, and Other Trite (and True) Advice: Tips from a NaNo Veteran

Wow, maybe it’s because I remember the days when NaNo was a strictly once-a-year event, but it feels like we were just here, just standing on the brink of another writing challenge, eager and optimistic about the project we were about to embark on.

How’d that go for you all? It, uh, didn’t go so well for me.

I’ve already talked about why I feel like Camp might not be the optimal environment for me, as a writer, but I also know that it’s the first exposure to NaNo for a lot of people, and figured – as someone who has had some successes during the November run – I might be able to offer some general NaNo advice prior to this July’s camp session.

Don’t delete anything.

This is the meat-and-potatoes of NaNo advice, and writing advice in general: never delete, at least not on the first draft. During NaNo, this is partly a practical approach to the word count goals – after all, it’s word written, not words used in the final draft – and from a creative standpoint, trust me, you are going to think of something “better” to say mid-way through a LOT of sentences, but when you reread through your draft a month later, you might realize that what you thought was genius when it popped into your head a month ago strikes you as trite and contrived when you approach it with a fresh eye. You’re sure you had something better than that originally… if you could just remember what it was. Don’t put yourself through this. If you aren’t in love with the way a sentence or a scene is going, write it twice. Leave both versions in. Deal with it later. More often than not, what winds up in the final piece will be a Frankensteined amalgam of both attempts. Remember, especially during NaNo, everything you write has potential value. You just might not be able to see it until later.

Don’t take a day off.

This one is hard in November, at least in the States, since Thanksgiving rears it’s head right in the thick of the action and leaves anyone hosting family and friends to make the terrible decision to either shirk their hosting duties or their writing duties for four days (psst – hosting usually wins out). Camp months have the benefit of not usually having any schedule-wrecking holidays, but in the States falls during school vacation months (Spring Break and summer recess). That’s great if you’re a student, but not so much if you’re a parent.

We all know that the daily recommended word count during NaNo is 1,667 – that will leave you at exactly 50k on the final day. But if you know that there is going to be a stretch of time where you are less able to write, up your daily goal by roughly 400 words, and aim for 2k a day. If you’re writing 2k a day and lose four days hosting Thanksgiving, 2k a day (even with 0 word counts for those four days), leaves you above the 50k goals by month’s end. And 2k a day, even assuming a full 10 days of Spring Break sans writing, will leave you at 40k.

And I do not, by any means advocate skipping those days entirely. Honestly, if you get on a good enough streak, it is far and away more than possible to build up enough of a buffer that a few zero word days won’t affect your word count timeline – still, don’t do it. The greater effect a string of zero word days has isn’t on your schedule, it’s on your motivation and momentum. The longer you stop the longer it takes (and the more effort it takes) to get you started up again.

Don’t get caught up in the theatrics of prep.

There are threads every year – you see most of them during the November run, but they certainly crop up during Camps as well – about things like novelling soundtracks, playlists, snacks on hand, reward charts, care packages, survival kits, etc. These are great motivators for some people and keep them happy and motivated for the month, so I’m by no means dismissing them as a concept. But don’t get caught up in all of it, because for most of us, sure, it might be nice to have a thematically appropriate playlist that embodies the spirit of your novel and a customized moleskin journal with color coordinated pages – but it’s not necessary. All that’s necessary – absolutely necessary – for NaNo is something with which to make a mark, and something on which to make a mark. Lined paper and a pen. A tablet. A laptop and a quiet spot. That’s it. I’ve seen people stressing about not having a survival kit yet and not having a goals/rewards chart, or not having finished compiling their playlist and, hey – just breathe. Do you have a pen and a piece of paper? Then you’re good. Everything else is secondary, and should be helping you. The minute the accouterments start bringing you stress instead of relieving it, it’s time to abandon them. They aren’t filling their assigned role.

Don’t get caught up in other’s word count, and don’t visit boards that you know are going to make you feel bad or inadequate.

I want to say upfront: I love the camaraderie of NaNoWriMo, and I have never had another writer shame me or make me feel bad intentionally – all my interactions with fellow NaNoers have been full of support and constructive critique (when requested). That being said, the very nature of some boards, or even the word count bars of some users, have been known to bum me out when I’m already feeling low. It’s discouraging, when you feel like you’re struggling to string two words together, to see someone else discussing long term plans for a trilogy while their word count bar is a solid green, boasting 50k+ ten days in.

Should it? Should another person’s success make you feel lesser? No, of course not. NaNo isn’t a competition, it’s a self-directed challenge – the only person you are hoping to best is your past self. But, whether it “should” or not, sometimes when you’re struggling, the last thing you want is to be around people who are sailing through the very task that you are laboring over.

If you can figure out what’s tripping you up – is it plotting? Are you having character issues? Are you still stuck on world building? – visit those threads or associated adoption threads, to get the ball moving. If you just want to commiserate, join the NaNoWriMo Ate My Soul thread. Buoy yourself up by offering support to others. Stay away from the other threads until you are in more rational headspace and seeing other people who are doing “better” (word count wise) than you won’t paralyze you into stagnation. The social aspect of NaNo is wonderful, but only if it’s helping you; and sometimes, we all need a little time to ourselves to recharge and regroup.

Don’t neglect housework, friendships, or daily rituals, and don’t feel tethered to a computer.

You see a lot of people telling their loved ones, “see you in December!” (or May, or August, depending on what run you participate in), or lamenting what the state of their house will be after a month of virtual neglect.

No. No no no no no. I mean, you do you and all, but I’ve found social isolation, clutter, and deprivation to be poor motivators. Not seeing my friends and sitting in a messy house do nothing for my creativity; and sitting in front of computer ad infinitum, in a messy house, without seeing my friends is, at best, a recipe for stagnation, and at worst, a very real blow to my mental and emotional health.

I don’t gain momentum from standing still; stillness is anathema to my creativity. Forcing myself to sit in front of a computer without breaks for productive movement, or without room for conversation and social/emotional recharging does not help me. While there is a fine line to walk between maintaining a physical and social environment that encourages good mental and creative health and using social obligations to avoid work, it’s a balance I’d recommend you seek out. Your mental health, your friends, your home, and yes, your novel, will be grateful for it.

Don’t feel pressured to share your writing, and don’t feel ashamed to share your writing.

Writing is a deeply personal act, even if the writing itself isn’t inherently personal, but writing is also a communal act of sharing. There are arguments to be made on both sides regarding sharing one’s writing, and while participation in an event like NaNoWriMo generally (not always, but usually) suggests a desire to share one’s writing eventually, never allow others to pressure you into sharing before you feel ready.

Sharing your writing opens in up to critique and criticism, which is not inherently bad – in fact, it’s essential – especially when constructively given. We only learn and grow from listening to critique, and learning to separate constructive critique from abuse is a priceless skill for anyone involved in a creative pursuit. That being said, until you feel emotionally ready to subject yourself to the potential for critique, do not feel pressured to put yourself out there. Build up to it. I know a number of people who opened themselves up to critique without being mentally and emotionally prepared for it, and the critical response put them off writing for years. That’s not what should happen; critique should be a means to grow and improve. If you know, in your heart of hearts, that you aren’t ready for that – that critique, at this stage, is only going to hurt your future work instead of improving it – hold off. Work on your novel. Read and practice offering constructive critiques on others’ work, and see how they respond. Find writers you trust to be honest, but kind, and build a working relationship with them.

Sharing your writing is something to aspire to, but you don’t have to do it right away.

Don’t forego editing and revising if you plan to publish.

I get irrationally angry at people who criticize NaNoWriMo as something harmful to the publishing industry, or who accuse it of encouraging “bad writing.”But I get equally annoyed at people who churn out a first draft during NaNoWriMo and immediately assume they have a finished manuscript ready for submission.
NaNoWriMo DOES encourage “bad writing,” in that basically ALL FIRST DRAFTS ARE BAD. And if you try to submit an unedited, first draft NaNo manuscript – or literally any first draft manuscript – you are almost certainly submitting something subpar at best or a genuine trainwreck at worst.

And it’s absolutely fine for your first draft to be a trainwreck. But you can’t submit it like that and expect it to get picked up.

Editing is hard. For most writers I know, editing is way, way harder than writing. Once you get into the right head space, writing can become almost automatic. But editing is targeted and deliberate – editing is painful and self-critical and requires you to tear apart writing you often poured your heart into. Editing is also absolutely essential if you want to get your work published, read, and appreciated.

If you’re doing NaNo just to prove you can (which is completely valid!), a first draft might be all you need to satisfy your curiosity. But if you want to share your writing with anyone beyond your closest friends, you need to edit that thing. Probably extensively (I know I do).

So now that you’ve heard mine, what are your wise words for people attempting NaNoWriMo for the first time? What are your tried-and-true methods, or your cautionary tales?

In spite of myself, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t going to at least make another attempt at Camp (what can I say, I’m a sucker for a challenge). Looking forward to writing with you all in July and beyond.