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Get What You Want from NaNoWriMo – Part 3: Quantity Over Quality

October 29, 2012

Back to Part 2: Something to Prove

One of the great benefits of National Novel Writing Month is that it gives us external permission to suck, which is difficult to grant ourselves. With the focus on quantity over quality, we free ourselves to make a mess, be as incoherent as we want, and get words on the page whatever way we can.

One Million Words, Ten Thousand Hours

As practice getting words on the page, NaNoWriMo can take you once step closer to your ten thousand hours or your one million words of crap. It’s an opportunity to put words on the page without worry, inhibition, or self-censorship. In effect, it can serve as one long, sustained, 30-day exercise in freewriting. If you’ve been reading my blog for any length of time, or even if you take a quick glance around, you can see how I feel about freewriting.

But letting go and seeing where the story takes you can be hard. By inclination, I am a plotter, and as much as I laud the many virtues of freewriting, the No Plot? No Problem! approach to NaNoWriMo has been my least successful so far. I’m willing to let some of the small stuff slide, but I tend to cling to my major plot points and intended character arcs with the tenacity of a tentacle monster squeezing the life out of its victims. While I can’t blame it all on anal-retentiveness (college gets some of the credit), the three years that I didn’t hit 50k words were all years that I didn’t plan ahead of time. On the other hand, the “see where it takes me” approach has worked for me a couple of times.

Many before me have described their strategies for producing words regardless of content or coherence, and the NaNoWriMo forums are a great place to start, but here are a few things that have helped me keep going in the years that I discarded planning:

  • Strong, clearly defined characters create conflict. Conflict creates story. If you don’t have the course of your novel plotted out, characters can and will sustain the life of your story. As long as they have distinct personalities and specific things they want and fear, they will make things happen with or without a roadmap.
  • Dares can serve as a jolt of “inspiration” when you’re not sure where to go next. Pick out a dare that fits your story, or throw in something completely random to see what happens. You can find dares (and leave your own!) in the forums. I also posted weekly dares last year, and will again this year.
  • It’s just practice, and it doesn’t have to make sense.

But letting the words pour out onto the page can be about more than simply practice.


My second year of NaNoWriMo was by far the most difficult, and not only because it followed on the heels of a first-year win, with all the accompanying pressure to repeat my previous performance. I was just a few weeks into one of the most difficult periods of my life, and the things I struggled with came out through my writing in ways I never expected.

I didn’t go into that November intending to write a fictionalized account of my own circumstances. In fact, the story I set out with was about the middle-aged mother of a young, dragon-slaying hero, but that got scrapped a few days in. I started over on the fifth day of the month with nothing but a character who had a problem in common with me, and no idea where she would end up–I didn’t even know her name for three days. I ended with a thinly-veiled semi-autobiographical tale that will never, ever see the light of day.

I am immensely grateful for it.

That story taught me a sort of honesty on the page that I had never achieved before. By watching what my character went through, I was able to recognize and put a name to those same things in my own life. At the same time, it pushed me to my emotional limits, to a point that was perhaps further than I was ready to go. It was painful and difficult, but it became one of several factors that began a healing process I couldn’t acknowledge I needed.

You may set out to write a fictionalized version of your own life, but even if you don’t intend to, it can also creep into your story before you’re aware of how close to home it really is. Either way, it helps to be prepared for what your mind may throw at you.

  • The fast writing and lack of self-censorship that comes with NaNoWriMo can help you to reach deeper and dig up thoughts and emotions that you may have held down for a long time. Be ready for the content of your own words to surprise and maybe even scare you.
  • Make sure to take care of yourself, whether that means taking time for yourself to be alone and process, insulating yourself with the company of friends and family, or finding someone to talk to and share with about what you discover. If it gets to be too much, there is no shame in taking a break or stopping altogether.
  • Likewise, remember that you are not your character. Even if your character is based on you, your character can think different thoughts, have different reactions, and make different choices than your own. You have the power to change the course of their story at any point.
  • Your health, both physical and mental, comes before your word count.

Neither of these approaches, nor that of the previous post, is likely to result in something you’ll ever want to publish for the world to read, but that’s okay. Not every word you write has to be intended for an audience.

The next and final post of this series, however, will focus on writing that is (or will be).

Next up: Jump Starts and Test Drives

5 Comments leave one →
  1. October 30, 2012 12:44 am

    Words of experience are much appreciated. Also, someday I would like to hear about a middle-aged mother of a dragon-slaying hero. I am suddenly envisioning a co-written graphic novel about a pair of middle-aged mothers of heroes who have to save the world. Or at least a ferocious maneating owl. That last bit was purely spontaneous.

    • Anita M. King permalink*
      October 30, 2012 8:31 pm

      That story’s still lurking somewhere in the back of my mind. Not that I have any idea where I intended to go with it anymore.


  1. What If It All Means Nothing « What If It All Means Something
  2. Get What You Want from NaNoWriMo – Part 4: Jump Starts and Test Drives « Anita M. King – Writing Window
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