There is a buzz in the fiction writer’s community as the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is upon us. Every year in November, many aspiring writers take the challenge of completing a minimum 50,000 word first draft of their novel in one month. This challenge has produced success stories like Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen and The Night Circus by Erin Morganstern.
I know what you are saying: “I want to write a novel too, but 50,000 words in one month? Come on!”
I know exactly how you feel. I took over five years to finish writing my first novel, Kumbhpur Rising but changed gears and finished the first draft of my second novel The Dark Road in exactly 30 days (though not in November). Since then my writing pace has picked up a bit. Here are some things that I have learnt along the way on how to soldier on to finish your first draft in 30 days.
- Shut that door: In his excellent book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King talks about willingness to shut the door on the rest of the world before you begin to write. It need not be a physical door. What I think SK means is you should be willing to make a gesture, symbolic if needed, to signal that you are now taking all other distractions off the table and focusing on your writing alone. In my case, my colleagues at work (when I am writing in my office) or my family members at home, know if I have my laptop open and the earphones in my ear, it is a signal that I am writing. Symbols play an important role in writing, so decide what is yours.
- Think of it as a job: As counter-intuitive as it may sound, but to finish 50,000 words in one month, you have to approach it as a task that needs to be chipped away on a daily basis. When I work on a novel, I write every day for 6-7 days followed by a day’s break, but in an uphill challenge like NaNoWriMo, perhaps you should be prepared to write for at least 15 days on the trot followed by one break. Using this formula, if you are writing for 29 days, your task is about 1700 words per day and that is exactly how you need to achieve it. Whether the book you have in mind is a short one like Breakfast at Tiffany’s or a 1500+ page tome like A Suitable Boy, every novel is written one word at a time.
- Speed is more important than accuracy: Yes, you read that right. Most people find the 50K words in a month target daunting because they automatically assume it is 50K words of the finished product. It is not! What you will have at the end of the month is an unedited, rough, first draft of your novel where your primary goal was to finish telling the story in a stipulated time. If you have publishing aspirations, you have to accept that the first draft is at best about 1/3rd of the overall work. I finished writing The Dark Road in a month, but from there on, till its publication, I rewrote the story at least four times with the help of my editors.
- Resist the temptation to share: I am part of a number of writers’ communities on social media and sharing excerpts from the work-in-progress seems to be the “in” thing these days. As writers we all crave validation from our peers and sharing your work with sympathetic friends is a good way to get rid of those persistent pangs of self-doubts that all of us go through while writing. But resist the temptation. For an amateur writer who is writing for the pleasure of it alone, it is very easy to lose focus. And one of the easiest ways to lose focus is by allowing yourself to get a little bit of gratification that comes from sharing excerpts. Think of the project like rice cooking inside a pressure cooker! You are not helping the process by constantly letting some steam out by sharing excerpts.
- Think of it as the first draft: There is always the danger of the dirty first draft being too dirty. You don’t wish to produce 50K words of unintelligible gibberish, do you? So what are the things you need to get right the first time? To me, the old Hollywood adage of ‘Movie has to be there in the first cut’ applies, meaning your underlying theme and the main story needs to come through clearly even in the first draft. While writing The Dark Road, the underlying theme was about how a teenage girl’s life is changed forever when she wakes up one night to find her parents have disappeared without leaving a message for her. And when I remember the first draft, as messy, unorganized and untidy as it was, the basic theme was there to see.
- Prepare an outline before you begin: I don’t write the outlines of my novels before I start writing. I know plenty of good writers who don’t and plenty of good writers who do. This is your basic writing style preference that you would do well not to change for the sake of NaNoWriMo alone. However, if you like to write the outline of your story, you might wish to get that out of the way before the month begins so that all days of November are available for writing alone.
Finishing a long fiction project is one of the most gratifying and motivating experiences of a writer’s life and if moments of self-doubt or frustration come along the way, trust me the end is worth it. A challenge like NaNoWriMo is an excellent way to put your resolution of writing a novel to test.
Go for it!
Read Mayur’s novel and short stories here.
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