So, it’s November. It’s NaNoWriMo time – almost a week in so everybody is probably feeling pretty good! In my experience, the two week point is usually when I start to slack. I thought I would finally take a break from all of my university work to post this blog post – the tips I’ve found useful for actually completing pieces of writing, from one, young, unpublished writer to another. Or, you know, whoever is reading. Hello.
Finishing projects is something I always struggled with, as evidenced by all of my failed NaNoWriMo attempts and short stories. It’s why when I write fanfics I always write one-shot-fics – anything multi-chaptered and I know it’ll never get finished. However, I think I’ve sort of figured it out now. I actually won NaNoWriMo last November, and although university has put a hold on the redrafting process, I still came out of the month with a shiny and scribbly fully formed first draft.
So, how did I make that leap from beginning to end? How did I achieve this big improvement? Well…
IDENTIFY THE PROBLEM
Where was I going wrong? That was obviously the first thing I needed to address. I found that, for me, all of my incomplete projects seemed to stem from a loss of steam. I would get very excited about an idea, jump in, write 10,000 words – and then I’d be exhausted, and bored, and I’d have no idea where it was really going, and I’d just… sort of… drift away…
It was also, of course, caused by no real plan time-wise. Spit out 10k in the first couple of days, feel proud, take a few days off, fall behind, feel stressed, feel guilty, drift away.
HOW DO I SOLVE THE PROBLEM?
I wasn’t sure if I was going to partake in NaNoWriMo last November. I’d tried to do it while juggling school before and it hadn’t ended well. I was leaning away from it – and then I got an idea. It was sitting in my Friday 4PM American Literature lecture at uni that I got the idea, and I couldn’t shake it. I decided that if I could organise my time effectively for uni then setting aside an hour or two a night that would otherwise just be spent clicking around the internet couldn’t be too difficult. And that was really it – one decision that solved the “I’m awful at organising my time” problem. I decided to organise my time*.
Now, the steam problem – that took more thought. I had my idea, which was all well and good, but that obviously wasn’t enough. I had to plan enough that I knew where I was heading. I didn’t have a super detailed outline, because I knew I wouldn’t have the time in the one month I had to prepare to properly research everything I needed to, but I had something. I had an ending I needed to reach, I had flimsy character outlines/relationships, and I had a problem that needed to be solved. For me, that was enough to get me through November and come out the other side with a very (very, very, very) rough draft.
HAVE A GOAL
Now, I know NaNoWriMo comes with word-count goals, but that’s not the sort of goal I mean. I mean, every night when I sat down to write, at the beginning of my writing session, I thought, “Where do I want my characters to end up at the end of this chapter?” Sometimes fulfilling the goal meant reaching a problem for my characters to solve, sometimes it meant finding a new clue, and sometimes it meant finding an answer. But every chapter brought me closer to the Ultimate Goal – the ending I’d planned. If I was ever writing something that wasn’t steering my characters towards that goal, I knew it was unnecessary and that I was in danger of straying so far off track that I was unable to find it again. I’d reel it back in and direct my characters towards the goal.
I love engaging subplots – but what was important for me in the 30 days I had was telling a story from start to finish. If I got the bulk of it down, I could add more in later.
DO MORE THAN THE MINIMUM WHENEVER POSSIBLE
The daily word count goal for NaNoWriMo is 1,667 words. That didn’t give me enough wiggle room to be comfortable. That meant I would just about manage to scrape in a win – take the wrong day to slack and it’d be chaos. Instead, I set myself a minimum daily word count goal of 2,000. I knew I could do it – I could write 1k in 30 minutes when I was on a roll, so 2k wasn’t too much of a push. And then, I made sure to write until my characters had reached the goal I’d set them. If 2k didn’t hit it, I kept writing. The combination of these two goals – the story goal and the word count goal – helped me tremendously, and gave me enough wiggle room that eventually if life got in the way and I didn’t have as much time or energy, taking a day to write a little bit less didn’t really hurt me at all.
DON’T SLACK JUST BECAUSE YOU’RE AHEAD OF SCHEDULE
If you take a look at my stats from last November, you’ll see that sometimes I was as much as double my target word count. I still wrote something every day. Sometimes I didn’t hit my 2k target – sometimes I only managed about 200 words, because sometimes life happens. But I was comfortable enough.
By ‘don’t slack’, what I really mean is – try your damn best to write every day. Write something. Writing 100 words is better than writing 0 words, and it keeps you in the habit of writing every day. Taking one day off can lead to two, and before you know it you’ve lost a week and a half. Write something.
TAKE ADVANTAGE OF THE HELP AVAILABLE
Basically, word sprints were my saviour at times. I followed @NaNoWordSprints on twitter, and you have no idea how far just “write as much as you can in 20 minutes” can get you in your story. And it’s fun – people are having a laugh, sharing their accomplishments, sharing snippets of their story… it’s refreshing, and encouraging.
Writing buddies are godsends, and if you have the ability to go to a real-life writing meet up (with people you feel comfortable with, of course), take advantage of it! You’re writing because you love writing – so enjoy it.
I took a creative writing module in my second semester of uni this year, and for my portfolio I decided to write a 3,000 word short story (because I suck at poetry. Shout out to you poets. You rock!). Without going in to too much detail, my tutor kind of screwed me over with late-notice absences, lack of contact hours and just general time-wasting. I ended up writing my entire portfolio in the last… three? Four weeks of term?
I used a lot of the same techniques I’ve listed here. I had an idea, and I set myself a goal. The limited word count was a little tougher on me – I had to give enough detail that the story made sense, but every word was precious. I broke my story into three parts with three goals, all leading to the ultimate end goal. I ended up writing my whole first draft in one night.
I took advantage of feedback when it came to redrafting. In uni, we do an exercise where you read out your own piece, and then you shut up. You’re not allowed to say anything while the class discusses your story. You’re not allowed to explain or correct them. You just have to listen. It’s useful because when you publish a piece of work, you can’t chase down every reader and correct their interpretations. It meant that I could hear if something was unclear, or if something was so subtle that it wasn’t picked up at all. I could see if people were behind the characters I wanted them to be behind, and I could see if imagery was interpreted in the way I intended – if it wasn’t, that was my fault, not the fault of my readers. If my metaphor was so washy that nobody really got it, it was because I’d written a shitty metaphor.
I found it especially useful because I’d experimented a little with form and voice. Most of my short story was written in free indirect discourse, closely following one character. It allowed me to explore her attitudes, thoughts and feelings from a third-person voice. However, I broke up the parts of my story with a second, non-human voice – the voice of the sea, to be precise – and I felt that this needed to be distinct. I wrote these sections in first-person and in free verse (so, I guess, sort of poetry? But I still wouldn’t say it was good poetry). I experimented with position on the page – these sections were as much a picture as a poem. It was fun to play around with that.
Which is sort of my last tip.
Let me know if you have any tips or tricks you find useful, or if you share any of mine! And, of course, I’m just a nobody on the internet, so feel free to think my tips are all dumb and ignore them entirely.
*This was probably helped by my then-recent decision to start keeping a bullet journal. The satisfaction of colouring in one of my to-do boxes was as good a reward as any.