NaNoWriMo: Stumbling Upon Six Lessons in the Craft of Writing At Warp Speed

Andrea Collier, our NaNoWriMo correspondent, hits 45,800 words. With less than 5,000 words to go she takes stock of the lessons that NaNo has offered her: write with your senses, take advantage of the beats, believe you can write a novel more than you can fail at writing a novel, plus more.

Day 22: One of the miraculous things about this is that I have been able to tackle it without severe disruption to my life. I think it was because I have not taken it too seriously. I sit down, I think about where I want this to go and then I write. The goal is the number of words, not the quality or the plot. If it was quality and plot, I would be closer to 5,000 words. I have just gotten out of my way. The getting out of my way is a lesson I will take to the next phase. And there will be a next phase. There have been points when I just thought that I would get it done and then give it up. But I want to really hunker down with it. I once heard mystery writer Loren Estelman say that he has so many books because he doesn’t allow himself the luxury of not using his work. If he starts it he finishes it. I am thinking that prolific writers do that. And I know this to be true in my essay work. I use everything in one way or another.

I will tell you that all I can think about is December. This has been the longest month of my life. I want to do all the things I haven’t done since I started this. I was looking forward to picking up my travel schedule, but then the TSA decided that they wanted to make out with us at the airport. I will wait until the hysteria of all this dies down. But I will do other things. I’ll go to parties, and start playing my 300 Christmas songs on my playlist, and one Dreidel Song. I will sort out ornaments. And do online Christmas shopping.

And here is my big announcement—you heard it here first. The next 30 days will be devoted to essays. I will let my little novel breathe for the most part and focus on creating new work. I love essays more than anything else. Maybe I love them because I have actually been able to sell them. I cannot say the same for fiction—but then again, this year’s NaNoWriMo has been the longest consecutive time that I have put into it. And it has been good for my writerly ADD.

Here's what I've learned along the way about craft:

1. Write with your senses. When I didn’t know where I was going, I would write about the big five-sight, taste, smell, touch and hear. This will serve me well when I go back to revise and edit. I asked myself questions at key points. What does she hear now? Why is she grinding her teeth? Does she know that her pants are too tight? And what response is she trying to elicit? Is it hot outside or is she having a hot flash (a question that I ask myself every day).

2. Write fair and balanced. It’s a novel, you don’t really have to do this, but when I think about characters I know they all have reasons for doing what they do. Nobody gets to be a villain for no reason. And maybe the person isn’t a villain but a damaged person who needs something to fill that hole. So in order to give myself something to work with on each of my characters, I am asking them why they do what they do. I want to give them something that makes them characters, not just cartoon players.

3. Take advantage of the beats. When I saw For Colored Girls, one of my critiques was that the drama was non-stop. As soon as one awful thing happened, in the very next frame something else awful happened. This went on for over two hours. It is like riding the electric bull for two hours. There were no beats. I had no point to catch my breath. This was a lesson for me. I may not have written the beats in, but I put a post it tag in when I thought you the reader would need a moment to rest, and my character needed to process.

4. You gotta laugh. This may be one of the flaws of my project. Because I also write about life and death issues in my regular life, I have made the commitment that there needs to be humor somewhere in my fiction. Literary fiction doesn’t usually have this, so I have pretty much written myself out of a whole category. Oh well.

5. Believe you can write a novel more than you can fail at writing a novel. When we enter a new category of writing, or venture into a type of writing that has not yet embraced how faboo we are, our confidence is not there. This past week I started typing in the word AUDACITY right into the manuscript when that critic started harassing me. I could feel it creeping up behind me, daring me to shut down. Instead, the Pee Wee Herman secret word for the week was AUDACITY. It shows up in the middle of sentences. What does it mean? It means that my critic, evil writer child is asking me “How dare you?” So I type in AUDACITY and then keep going. It means I hear you evil critic. And now I have to get on with it. I believe I can do this. If Bristol Palin can be in the finals of Dancing With the Stars, I can do anything with words. ANYTHING.

6. Stop thinking about the bestseller list. There is so much that comes before that—including spell check.

At day 22, where are you dear She Writers/SheWriMos? Have you forged ahead? Have you put NaNoWriMo down for other pursuits, or paying work?

Andrea King Collier is a Lansing, Michigan based freelance writer and author of Still With Me...A Daughter's Journey of Love and Loss (Simon and Schuster) and Black Woman's Guide to Black Men's Health.


Photo: Jurvetson/Flickr

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Tags: #process/craft, nanowrimo, time management

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Comment by Judith van Praag on November 27, 2010 at 12:29pm
Hi Andrea, How are you faring on day #27? This was my first time participating in NaNoWriMo. I loved every bit of it. Early on I was invited by another SheWrites member Kit Koning to join the NaNoWriMo Warriors group on FaceBook. The group members write like fiends during Word Wars several times a day. I swear I wouldn't have been able to write as fast as I did without having that community. I even had time to respond to Nay-Sayers. on my blog. At some point I had to battle my interior editor, she was keeping me from going with the flow. then got friendly with her. On the 21st I made it past 50K, but since I got hooked on the discipline of productivity I'm still visiting the Word War Warriors group, only now I'm spending my time with the group reading my manuscript, editing and revising along the way. What a wonderful adventure this was.
I hope you're doing well, and have just been too busy to report here. Looking forward to your next post!
Comment by Karima Grant on November 26, 2010 at 4:24am
Stop thinking about the bestseller list. There is so much that comes before that—including spell check.

I love this. Putting it up on my wall!
Comment by Clark Lohr on November 23, 2010 at 9:45pm
eeexcellent. Thanks for the list. 3D characters, Humour, all that.
Comment by Gillian Ramos on November 23, 2010 at 5:50pm
The phrase "type in AUDACITY" reminds me of the scene in Up in the Air where George Clooney asks Anna Kendrick if she's mad at her computer, and she says, "No, I type with purpose."

This is a great list, I'll definitely hang onto it for next year.
Comment by Carleen on November 22, 2010 at 11:21am
Love typing in AUDACITY. Take that evil editor!

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