Making Sense of NaNoWriMo

One of the greatest boosts to my second novel, tentatively titled “Pilgrim Soul,” was National Novel Writing Month, known to writers as NaNoWriMo. Each November, participants pledge to complete the first draft of a novel by writing at least 50,000 words. Thanks to the organizers of this annual challenge who created a web platform to track your progress and send inspirational emails to keep everyone motivated—and to the friends who helped me stay honest as I posted my progress on Facebook—I managed to get to November 30 with 50,000 words, two years in a row.

Writing during NaNoWriMo is an interesting experience. My process normally involves thinking about characters, plot, and motivation until a movie of the story begins playing on a virtual projector in my mind. Once the movie is running, I write down what happens. Editing is a matter of tightening language and noting gaps in the plot that require shooting another scene. But during those two Novembers, my process became a stream of consciousness, putting words on the page by plowing through writer’s block or problems with characters to reach the daily targets I’d set for myself. I wrote linearly and along the basic structure of the novel, but without consideration for the place these new scenes would take in it. I wrote and wrote and wrote. No problem, I thought. I’ll take care of that in the editing process.

Now I have 100,000 words. 100,000. That’s a lot of words, and about 15,000 too many for the story I want to tell. No problem, I thought. I’ll solve that in the editing process. I had directed the movie of Chapter 1 in my head many years ago, so finalizing the text was a breeze at the start. Hey, this is easy! But then I turned to Chapter 2. Uh oh. Chapter 2 is a mess.

ImageYikes! This isn’t going to be as easy as I thought!

Editing wasn’t a matter of tweaking the basic narrative. It became the hard slog of reviewing all the content, determining what belonged in the chapter and what was merely backstory. As I tried to prune words I began to wonder why I’d written them in the first place. Placeholders appeared out of nowhere, with directions to research road-building on Long Island in the 1920s or the status of Native American tribes of New York. Before I knew it, I was stalled, pen over paper, wondering if I needed to slash and burn the entire text and start again.

Instead, I put my pen down and walked away. I thought about the story, the characters, the narrative. I realized that I had crammed too much into Chapter 2, and the funny thing is, I remember doing it. I remember that stream of consciousness where I let the narrator, Sophie, take over. Sophie had a lot to say and it felt like she knew that NaNoWriMo was her one opportunity. In a way, she told me her life story. It’s now my job, as her biographer, to weave a coherent tale of her adventures from Long Island to Paris and beyond.

Once I’m done with “Pilgrim Soul,” I’ll be interested to compare the experience with what I remember from revising my first novel, Damaged Goods. I wonder which method will stand out as the most valuable. Perhaps I’ll find that editing varies from book to book—who knows, maybe I’ll invent a whole new technique for Book 3! But for now, I’m picking up my pen again and returning to Chapter 2. I’ve got a lot of work to do.

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