National Novel Writing Month: An interview with a veteran

Notice: This post initiates the academic year for this blog! Submissions to Beyond the Shelf are solicited and encouraged by MLISSA from past and current members of MLISSA. Submissions can be e-mailed to jacob.siefring@mail.mcgill.ca.

By Jacob Siefring

Did you ever want to write a novel? Then read on! National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, as it’s abbreviated, is a website (and more) dedicated to the goal of helping individuals achieve the realisable goal of writing a novel, defined loosely as a narrative of 50,000+ words. It’s run by the Office of Letters and Light, a self-described ‘tiny but mighty nonprofit.’ November is the original month for novel writing, but events also take place during June and August.

To gain an understanding of what it’s like to participate in NaNoWriMo, I submitted a brief questionnaire to a Andrea Black, a recent graduate of the School of Information Studies’s MLIS program. She generously supplied the following responses and advice.

Successful NaNoWriMo participants get bragging rights, improved writing skills, a draft of a novel they've written, and this emblem, commemorating their persistence.

1. How many times have you done NaNoWriMo? How did you first hear about it?

I’ve just completed my third NaNoWriMo event and am gearing up for my fourth in November. The main event is in November each year with smaller “Camp NaNoWriMo” events in June and August. I’ve done two in November and one in August so far. I honestly can’t remember when I first heard about it: it was probably two or three years before I decided to give it a try.

2. Prior to NaNoWriMo had you written much fiction? Short stories?

I wrote a lot – poems, short stories and one novella in addition to nearly daily journaling – up until about my second or third year of university. Around that time, I started to get so burned out from reading textbooks and writing papers that I basically stopped writing and reading for pleasure for the better part of a decade. It wasn’t until I decided to do NaNoWriMo that I got motivated to start writing again. It’s great because I’m such a perfectionist when it comes to my writing that I find it hard to even get started. With NaNoWriMo, you don’t have time to worry about editing: if you’re going to get out 50k or more words in a month, you need to ruthlessly squash your inner editor. You can always edit in December. I find that frees me up to be creative and just let my ideas flow onto the page.

3. What are the titles of the novels you’ve written?

I’d prefer not to answer this. They’ve got working titles but they’re sort of silly.

4. How would you describe them? (individually or considered together)

The first two are meant to be YA fantasy and the third is… some kind of mainstream/supernatural fiction that could pass as either YA or adult, depending on how I handle the editing stage. They’re not of publishable quality in their current form, but there’s enough there to form the skeletons of what could be pretty decent novels someday (at least I’d like to think so).

5. Have people read your novels? Who?

My mom and my grandma are the only people who have read them. I haven’t done any editing; they’re all still in the first draft stage and they’re really rough (typos; I altered a character’s personality partway through the first novel; in the second novel I changed from third person to first person perspective in chapter 10 because I decided it would work better, etc). I’d be embarrassed to let anyone else read them until I had a chance to edit. My mom loved them, but she’s biased. J My grandma is not a fan of fantasy, so she didn’t really get them. She still insists on reading them though, which is nice of her.

6. Do you write on a computer? Are you partial to any particular writing software?

Yes, I do my writing on a computer. My handwriting can’t keep up with my thoughts. Also, I can’t always read my own handwriting.

I’ve used Word, which wasn’t ideal, and I’ve used Scrivener, which I love. Winning NaNoWriMo (i.e. making it to 50,000 words in 30 days) is mostly about the satisfaction of winning, but you also get a printable certificate and discounts on writing software like Scrivener and Storyist – I bought Scrivener after winning my first NaNo. When I write the way I did for my last novel (unplanned, just sitting down and writing whatever came into my head), Word worked fine, but it’s not the best tool for organizing a novel. Scrivener lets you separate your chapters or scenes, keep notes, character sketches and research all in one place, and compiles your writing into an official manuscript ready for submission to a publisher when you’re finished. It also has a full-screen feature that helps cut out distractions while you’re typing and a split-screen option so you can view your notes while you’re writing. I’ve found it really flexible. It even has templates for papers in Chicago, APA and MLA styles: I used it a couple of times for that last year at school.

7. How do you organise your daily quotas? Do you map out a chapter/scene schedule to correspond to the month in advance?

If you write 1667 words every day, you’ll finish on November 30th (or 1613 words per day to finish on August 31st). For my first two novels, I ended up falling really far behind in the first week or two, and then the stress that caused helped me to really buckle down and write during the second half of the month. For my third novel, I actually finished a week early. Unfortunately, it seems that when I start out with a certain word count in mind, my story ends up naturally coming to a conclusion around that point. If I’m feeling ambitious, I’ll try aiming for 75,000 words on my next attempt: I know there are some rare and amazing people who exceed 100k. We’ll see. November tends to be a pretty busy month.

8. Do you know the ending of your novel when you begin it?

I planned out each of my novels very differently. For the first one, I had a very detailed outline before I started. I knew exactly where the story was going and had a basic outline of what would happen in each scene. For the second one, I had a very broad outline and really only planned a chapter or two in advance. I didn’t know how it was going to end until I found myself writing the ending. For the third one, I hardly planned at all. I had a basic premise and that was it. That strategy actually ended up working really well for me, except I had no idea how the story was going to end. The last four thousand words or so were really tough to write.

9. Do you feel that your handling of narrative elements like character, plot, and dialogue has improved with your continuing participation in NaNoWriMo?

I do. Practice makes perfect, as they say. I’ve deliberately chosen different styles (tense, point of view, etc) for my novels just for the experience, and I definitely think some facets of my writing have improved. I’d like to try to work more on character development in my next novel: in my last one I was very plot-focused.

10. Do you seek to publish your novels?

No. However, I like the idea that if I do decide to become a published author some day, I’ll have several manuscripts to work from.

11. Can you share any tips for balancing the demands of work and/or school with your daily writing sessions during NaNoWriMo?

Warn your friends and family ahead of time that you will have virtually no social life for a month.

Figure out what your priorities are. If you need human contact but don’t want to sacrifice writing time, find a “write-in” in your area or enlist a friend to write with. Schedule time to do homework, grocery shop, etc. I didn’t clean my apartment or exercise for a month.

There may be days you ask yourself: “What am I doing?” Keep in mind that even if you don’t ‘win,’ you at least have more of a start to your novel than you might have otherwise, and it’s great writing practice. Hitting 50k words and finishing a novel is an incredibly rewarding experience: it’s definitely worth it.

Thanks go to Andrea Black, MLIS ’12 in Librarianship,  for supplying responses to my questions. If you see her, congratulate her and wish her luck as she gears up to writes her fourth novel!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This blog is kept spam free by WP-SpamFree.

Blog authors are solely responsible for the content of the blogs listed in the directory. Neither the content of these blogs, nor the links to other web sites, are screened, approved, reviewed or endorsed by McGill University. The text and other material on these blogs are the opinion of the specific author and are not statements of advice, opinion, or information of McGill.