What I Learned From Binge-Writing Nine Bad Novels

This year, I will write my tenth terrible novel. I do this every November; it's part of the NaNoWriMo tradition. I've never published these novels, but I grow as a writer and as a human being every time I write one. Let me tell you why it's worthwhile.

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What Is NaNoWriMo?

National Novel Writing Month (or NaNo for short) is a challenge to write a 50,000-word work of fiction during the month of November. Anybody can write a bad novel anytime, but the official NaNoWriMo challenge is run by a nonprofit and an army of volunteer coordinators.

The rules, which nobody enforces, are simple:

  • You may only write your novel during the month of November.
  • A novel is defined, for these purposes, as a work of fiction totaling at least 50,000 words (think Of Mice and Men).

You "win" the challenge if you produce the novel by the end of the month. Paste its text into a "validator" on the NaNoWriMo site, and you can get a printable certificate and a few coupons from sponsors. That's all.

As you're planning and writing your novel, you can hang out on the forums or join local write-ins. (A lot of the fun is commiserating about how difficult it is to write a novel in a month.)

Lesson #1: You Don't Find Time, You Make Time

50,000 words in a month is 1667 per day. (For reference, this article that you're reading is about 1400 words.) At an average typing speed, you could finish your day's quota in an hour. But that assumes you already know what you're going to write.

In reality, writers (a) need to think about what they write, and (b) have to check Twitter and clean their house for a few hours before they are ready to write. Those of us who write for a living have practiced suppressing these urges, but I write non-fiction for a living and it's still hard to switch gears and jump into a novel.

The Psychological Benefits Of Writing Regularly

When you attempt to envision a writer, I imagine many of you see a quirky recluse, hunched over a desk in some cabin, crumpled paper strewn about as they obsessively work on the next great Australian novel. But writing is so much more.

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If you are motivated and diligent, it probably takes about two hours a day to write what you need to. If you were great about planning ahead, and you type fast, one hour might do it -- but don't expect every day to go that well. And then the bad days? I won't put a number on them. It's too depressing.

Here are the strategies for making time to write:

  • Figure out what your writing time will displace. If you get up early or stay up late, you have to make up the sleep somehow. Your lunch break or evening TV time might be better candidates.
  • Plan ahead. Maybe you need to ask someone to watch the kids, or maybe you can get some writing done on your commute if you remember to bring your laptop. At the very least, carry a notebook everywhere so you can turn random downtime into a few handwritten pages or an outline of your next chapter's plot.
  • Be ready to write. Three 20-minute blocks of time would do the trick, if you could sit down already knowing what you're going to write. Anytime you're busy but not writing (doing chores, exercising), think about what should happen next in your story.

To be honest, I'm not sure where the time actually comes from. Three of the nine years I wrote novels, I had a one-month-old newborn in the house; during at least two, I was travelling and still somehow made the time. Sometimes, the only thing that kept me going was knowing I would have to write 3333 tomorrow if I say "stuff it" today.

Lesson #2: Shitty First Drafts Are the Best Kind

In 2015, with seven bad novels under my belt, I wrote my first nonfiction book. Like my NaNo drafts, it was to be 50,000 words long. Also like them, I had to write very quickly (three months, including research). But unlike those novels, this book had to be good.

I still wrote it the same way: calculating how many words I had to write each week and each day, and plunking my butt down in the chair whenever my schedule said it was writing time. After agonising over the first chapter for days, I realised that I could not make each chapter perfect the first time.

I started writing chapters quickly, badly, with notes about what to fix when I had the time. Pretty soon the book was flying along, and I even had time before deadline to go back and edit it to perfection. If I had insisted on polishing each chapter as I wrote it, I never would have finished.

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Contrary to our romanticised notions, writers don't just sit around all day, drink coffee and scotch and wait for inspiration to strike. Like any other job, they have to be disciplined and productive.

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I've been lucky enough to mentor first-time NaNo writers, and every one of them has complained sometime in the first week about how their story sucks and they want to start over, or they want to go back and fix a plot hole that resulted from something they wrote days ago.

Don't do it.

Rewriting might make your first chapter better, but it will not get you any closer to your goal of actually finishing a draft of a novel. As NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty says, revisiting what you've already written is like turning around in the middle of a marathon to try to run the earlier kilometres better.

You also have to stop judging your writing in the moment. Lay down a sentence you don't like? Close your eyes and type the next one anyway. Some writers will turn off their monitor so they can't see what they have written at all; others swear by Write or Die, a tool that blares bad music if you stop typing.

When Writing Your First Draft, Don't Be Afraid To Write Like Crap

Filling a blank page with words is hard. Fixing a bunch of terrible words is a little easier. If you're having trouble getting started with your writing, do what you're afraid to do: write like crap.

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But most importantly, you have to lower your expectations. It's just not possible to write something as complex as a novel and have it be perfect on your first try. (Maybe some experienced novelists can do this, but neither I nor, probably, you are experienced novelists.) I got off on the right foot by reading Chris Baty's No Plot, No Problem before my first NaNo.

So when anybody would ask if a novel written in a month-long haze of caffeine could possibly be any good, I gleefully answered that of course my novel will be terrible!

The truth is, you don't even know what your novel is about until you write it. You might think it's a courtroom drama, but then you decide to liven up a boring scene by having your lawyer kidnapped, and now she's on a spaceship and the space story is so much more interesting. Even if you keep to your original plan, you'll know your characters and your world well enough by the end that you can tell the beginning wasn't quite right.

And that's why you write another draft. But don't worry about that now. Edits are for December.

Lesson #3: Stories Matter

For 50,000 words to pass as a novel, they have to convey some sort of story. While you can get away with adding words in the form of song lyrics and overly long descriptions of mundane things, you do eventually have to introduce characters and make them do something.

Learning to craft stories is probably the biggest lesson I've learned from NaNo, even above learning to manage my time and write quickly. As you might guess, these skills pay off in my job as a journalist, but storytelling is key to communicating in a variety of professions and hobbies.

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'A good composer does not imitate; he steals,' Igor Stravinsky supposedly said. Faulkner allegedly phrased it as 'Immature artists copy, great artists steal.' Steve Jobs put it most simply: 'Good artists copy, great artists steal.'

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I started learning about stories with the simple advice in No Plot No Problem to make a list of things you like in stories, and a second list of things you hate. As you write, include things from the first list (magic, robots) and do not include things from the second list (punch-by-punch fight scenes, boats). It helps to spend time thinking about your favourite stories and characters, and why you like them.

In broad strokes, you need a beginning that sets up the story, a middle where a bunch of stuff happens, and an ending that ties everything together and makes the whole story worth reading. I enjoyed procrastinating from writing by reading this extensive series of blog posts on three-act structure, but you can also just steal a plot from somebody dead who won't mind, like Shakespeare.

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