It's November! That means it's National Novel Writing Month, and I'm once again writing a new novel instead of editing an old one. If nothing else, it's a great way of keeping from obsessing over agents (still very little to report on that front. Waiting to float to the top of the slush pile, I imagine).
For the past few years, I've managed to arrange to have the first week in November off work to really get cracking on the writing. This year, it's only four days (because the month had the poor taste to begin on a Tuesday), but I've got the 30th off as well just in case I need a sprint to the finish. It's actually starting to look more like I'll be spending the 30th playing the new Pokemon game, because after three days I have 17,000 words written. Enough to be able to take an evening off and write a blog post, if nothing else.
Yes, it's a little over the top. But this is my 12th year doing NaNo. If I hadn't learned a few things about how to get a first draft written in that time, there'd be no point in keeping doing it. So, here are the things that I think have contributed to this most excellent beginning:
1) Experience - 12 years has taught me a lot about how I work best. I know that I need a plan before I start, because 'pantsing' is too much like hard work and I'm happier knowing where my story is heading. I also know that I do well with writing sprints - short, focussed bursts of writing followed by 10 or 15 minutes of goofing off and reading Twitter.
2) Bigger targets - The official NaNo target is 50,000 words, and for a long time that's what I aimed for. And that's what I got, year in and year out. I wasn't entirely happy with that, though, because I knew that that's actually right at the bottom end of the range of novel sizes. Most published novels are longer. Fantasy and sci-fi, in particular, are a lot longer. But something about having a target for the month of 50,000 meant that my stories never ran much longer than that. I'd tell myself it could be longer, then I'd hit 50k and the whole thing would wrap itself up in the next five thousand or so.
Then one year I ended up aiming for 100,000, split across two novels (it's a long story). Writing that much nearly killed me (figuratively speaking), but I made it. The following year, I decided to set myself a goal of 75,000 in a single novel. I figured it would allow my story more room to breathe, and encourage me to stretch myself. It worked. I've been writing longer stories ever since, but still within that 30 day timeframe for the first draft.
3) Good advice - Pacing was my bugbear for a long time. My stories always came out badly paced, because it's difficult to tell as you're writing. Things that feel like they're taking forever to write actually rush by when you read them back. Then a friend pointed me at the book Save the Cat, and its wonderful Beat Sheet. Theoretically aimed at screenwriters rather than novelists, the beats are nevertheless a great way of working out when different things should happen in the novel. I've had much better first drafts since I started using it, and just like the plan it gives me something to aim for. If I know I need another ten thousand words before I get to the next Important Plot Moment, then I can just knuckle down and get on with those ten thousand words.
4) Confidence - A lot of this is related to the other points. Years of doing NaNo have taught me that the moments when I'm sure the whole thing sucks are transitory, and will pass if I just push on and keep writing. Writing longer books has made me more confident of my ability to get words down. But most notably, the improvement in pacing has really done wonders.
I first used Save the Cat two years ago, for Shadows in the Nursery. And I got a first draft that was worth editing, for the first time ever. A first draft that I successfully turned into a complete second draft, and even a complete third draft. I'm sure that success had a knock-on effect, because last year with Iron and Gold I wrote significantly more in that first week off, and indeed broke the 100k mark in November without it almost killing me (figuratively speaking). Iron and Gold, as we know, has been through multiple drafts in the intervening year and is now my first novel to be clogging up agents' slush piles. That feels like an achievement, regardless of any response I might get, and it's pushing me into writing even more this year.
And there we go. Put that all together and that's how I've written a scary number of words in just three days. Though ultimately, of course, it all boils down to that simple mantra: Butt in Chair, Fingers on Keyboard. Everything else is just how you get there, and stay there.
There's still a long way to go. I think I have, maybe, about 15% of the book written at this point. Plenty more left to write before I can relax and start playing Pokemon.