Writer peeps tell me they’re doing NaNoWriMo, which is Esperanto for “I’m trying to write a novel in a single month, and I’m 10k behind already, so I’ve quit my job and divorced my husband. I vaguely remember that we had some kids. Ready for a sprint?”
God bless all who sign up for this. I believe a novel is the toughest thing a writer can tackle, and the most rewarding.
It’s just that 30 days is a bit insane, and I say that as somebody who writes insanely fast. Related post: Why are all writers lazy bums?
If a friend of mine said they were doing NaNoWriMo, I’d want them to have a good experience and not pull their hair out because they missed two days of writing at that wedding and now they need to write 3,000 words a day and IT’S NOT HAPPENING.
It’s great that there’s a national month encouraging folks to write a novel. I just don’t want new writers to bang their head against the wall and feel like a failure if it doesn’t happen. You’re not a failure. The math is stacked against you for NaNoWriMo.
So here is what I would say to that friend wrestling with word counts and freaking out, or to anyone considering doing NaNoWriMo next year.
1) Spend all of October training for this literary marathon
For writers, a novel is like running a marathon. You don’t pop up off the couch on Nov. 1 and bust out 26.1 miles. You’ve got to train and build up to it.
Ignore the veteran pantsers and their crazy “I never outline” ways. Anybody writing a novel for the first time on Nov. 1 should spend October doing this:
- Read SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder and STORY by Robert McKee
- Figure out what primal story, per Blake the Snyder, you’re going to write—that’s your genre
- Watch movies (hey, this homework stuff is tough) or read your favorite books in that genre, and see how those movies and books do setups and payoffs, reversals and revelations
- Map out a three-act story, using Blake’s spiffy Beat Sheet, and if you want to get technical, he breaks Act 2 in half, so you’re really looking at four Acts
- Figure out your story on that one-page Beat Sheet, and do whatever research you need for the Writing of Many Words
2) The goal is actually more than 50,000 words
You might say, “Hey, mister, fifty thousand words is a lot to write in a month. Don’t make this any harder.”
Sure, 50k is a lot. We’re talking about 1,667 words per day, every day. Except 50k is a novella, not a novel.
It’s more like half a novel.
Google it. Go on, I’ll wait.
Okay, not really. I’m over there, watching funny cat videos.
So: Literary agents, publishers and book peoples have all these standards for word counts when it comes to novels of different genres, and if you’re going to run a literary marathon, let’s make sure you hit 26.1 miles, not 14 miles and call it a marathon.
Chuck Sambuchino is an editor, author and expert on what agents and publishers want in different genres. Here’s a TL;DR version of his post about word counts for novels: “Between 80,000 and 89,999 words is a good range you should be aiming for. This is a 100% safe range for literary, mainstream, women’s, romance, mystery, suspense, thriller and horror. Anything in this word count won’t scare off any agent anywhere.”
Therefore: you’re really shooting for 80 to 90k. Which leads us to Number 3.
3) Make it NaNoDecemberO to stay sane and married
Trying to hit 50k in 30 days is hard. The math, it doesn’t add up.
I know full-time authors who write one book per year. Maybe two. If they wrote 50,000 words a month, they’d be cranking out six to ten books per year.
Which doesn’t happen.
Not even Stephen King puts out six books a year, and he (a) writes faster than anybody, (b) has decades of experience writing fiction and (c) has the money to spend all day doing nothing else, if he wants.
People doing NaNoWriMo typically are not independently wealthy, retired or able to call on decades of fiction writing experience. I bet most folks have full-time jobs and kids and life. So asking them to write at least 1,667 words a day is asking a lot.
Especially when the real finish line is really 80,000 or 90,000 words.
- 80k words in 30 days is 2,667 words per day
- 90k in 30 is 3k a day
- People expect three bullets, except I don’t have another set of numbers on this point, so here’s the start of an infinite set, just for you: 1 2 4 8 16 32 64 128 256 512 1024 2048
That’s crazy talk. Old school authors like Hemingway would count their words, words printed on these things called typewriters, doing it by hand with a pencil. And they’d call it a day when they hit 500 words, going off to drink bourbon and watch bullfights, because 500 words a day is roughly three books a year.
Let’s make it NaNoDecemberO and give you two months to write a full novel instead of a novella.
- 80k words in 60 days is 1,334 words per day
- If you go long at 90k, that’s still only 1,500 words a day, less of a workload than NaNoWriMo’s 1,667
- That’s right: write fewer words per day and actually have a full novel instead of a novella, and really, this is a third bullet point where I didn’t have to think too hard to make it three, though if this turned into four, people would feel weird, so three is just the right number of bullets, always, even with a crazy run-on sentence like this with all kinds of commas and no period, none at all, even though I hate commas and have a long, long love affair with the period, but not the exclamation mark, which should be taken out behind the barn and shot
Therefore: go ahead and turn it into NaNoDecemberO.
It’s okay. The NaNoWriMo police won’t come to your door and take away your keyboard. You’ll get more sleep and your friends and family will thank you for doing something incredibly hard in 60 days instead of 30.
4) No matter what, don’t set a goal of more than 2k a day
You might think, “Hey, I’ve got a free Sunday coming up, and I’ll spend six hours writing, 2k an hour, so that’s 10 to 16k, easy.” Might happen. Probably not.
It doesn’t matter what kind of writing you do or whether you write an hour a day in the morning or all day as your job. Reporters, screenwriters and authors all seem to hit the wall at 2k a day.
Though you can edit all day. Hmm. Interesting. Write 2k, then edit like a madman. There may be something to that.
HOWEVER: Let’s say you can go all out and hit 3k a day, every day. You’re going to miss days. Weddings, anniversaries, holidays, soccer practice, late nights at work. It’ll happen. If you need 3k a day, and miss a day, now you have to make up for it with 6k tomorrow. Ugh. Even spreading that out over a week would be tough.
Don’t be a literary tough guy and set yourself up for painful falls. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. 2k a day or less is smart.
5) Don’t do it alone
Writers are friendly and helpful. Ask. There’s no such thing as a dumb question.
And find some people to trade chapters with and such. You don’t want vague happy nonsense like “it was great” or vague critical nonsense about how they hated chapter 2 and don’t know why.
Find a few fellow writers who need critique partners. Everybody needs beta readers.
Or omega readers. :)
Yes, that’s an inside joke. And a good one. I’d throw down a double-sized happy face, if I knew how.
6) Let’s turn January into NaNoEditMo
The secret to all writing is editing—and the longer a piece of writing is, the more editing love it needs.
Don’t bother with critique groups where people read chapters aloud. Are you really going to read 80,000 words to the group? Might take six days. Not gonna do it. Wouldn’t be prudent.
There are all sorts of books, blogs, web sites and secret societies when it comes to editing fiction. Dive into it. Learn all about editing, and practice on things you steal from the Interwebs or pull down from your shelf.
Because you can’t edit yourself. Not at first. It takes experience bleeding on the pages of others before you can turn your own pages red.
The way to learn is from horrifically beautiful writing and amazingly bad prose. Mediocre stuff doesn’t teach you how to edit.
One thing will pop out fast: story and structure matter more, over the long term, than the quality of the writing. You’ll probably enjoy entertaining trash in the genre you’re writing far more than literary novels where every sentence is a poem, and this is true if the genre novels are insane stuff about a zombie pirate in love with a robot ninja from the future.
Also: Yes, somebody has probably written that exact book. Bonus points if anybody can point me to the cover of that novel. I’ll do a blog about this zombie-pirate/robot-ninja shebang.
Also-also: NaNoScriptMo would actually be fun and practical. A screenplay is about 15,000 words and that’s 500 words a day. Hemingway would approve. Then he’d drink a whiskey and watch a bullfight.
More posts to make your brain implode:
Guy Bergstrom. Photo by Suhyoon Cho.
Reformed journalist. Scribbler of speeches and whatnot. Wrote a thriller that won some award (PNWA 2013). Represented by Jill Marr of the Sandra Dijkstra Literary Agency.