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Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Don't Let NaNo Ruin Your January

There is a board on the NaNoWriMo forum dedicated to reaching 50,000 words. A noble goal: after all, isn't that what we're all there for? But some of the suggestions that I've seen (not necessarily in that forum) seem counterproductive at best to me. What I love to see in that forum are threads for encouraging one another,

We've reached the final stretch of NaNoWriMo, the last seven days in which everyone will write like crazy, trying to reach 50,000 words. There's even an entire section of the NaNoWriMo forum dedicated to reaching that elusive 50k. However, I've seen suggestions there and elsewhere that seem counterproductive at best. Sure, they'll get you closer to that beautiful purple bar on your profile, but will they really help your book?

Tricks that Almost Never Work

Spell out all your contractions

No, just don't. It may add lots of words to your word count in a semi-legitimate way, but it won't be much fun come January when you have to go back and decide which ones need re-contracted.

Rehash the plot to a new character

Sometimes the plot needs to be rehashed for believeability. But in the final draft, you know it will suffice as, "I told my sister everything that had happened since she left for France last week," rather than a whole conversation.

Have a flashback to the beginning of the book... and copy-paste the first scene

No. Pretty please don't do this. This doesn't help you find the story. It doesn't help your editing process. It doesn't help anything at all.

Give characters really long names/titles

Imagine if every reference to Voldemort in the Harry Potter series was "He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named." An extra five words every time someone mentions him. Five words you'll probably delete later. How many times does that full phrase appear in the million-word series? Not many. Even worse if you do this at the end, using find/replace to beef up a character/place name just to hit 50k.

Write Every. Single. Line. of dialogue

Obviously, you should write all the dialogue that belongs in the book or gets you closer to understanding the book. What I'm talking about are the pleasantries and small talks that happen in real life and never, ever happen in novels (unless they're used as foreshadowing, but that's a topic better suited to revision). It will add words to your story if you write, "Hello." "Hi, how are you?" "Fine, you?" "Good I guess." "So what did you do today?" "Not much, just played video games. You?" "Well my sister's in the hospital." That's a given. But in the final book it will almost certainly look like two characters approaching each other and one of them saying immediately, "My sister's in the hospital."

When all else fails, add aliens/a zombie apocalypse/a meteor crashing/etc.

The further along you are in your novel, the worse an idea this is. I often see it advertised as prompts for sprints or for people who are stuck, "just to shake things up." There may be a few times it's worked and prompted the story to go in the direction it was always meant to go. But for the love of revision in January, don't go adding these things to a contemporary just so you have the words. What's the point of writing them when you know without a doubt they'll be deleted the moment you re-read?

Tricks that Can Work

Write a scene from a non-POV character, or outside the timeline of your story

This is the kind of suggestion you should take if, for instance, you're having a hard time getting to know a character, or want to explore a character's history to see how it would be affecting their present. There is a lot of value in this, even if it is the kind of thing you're going to immediately cut come January. (You are going to cut it immediately, right?) The catch lies in not getting so distracted from what you actually want to write that you can't get back on track. This should be a quick troubleshoot, a diagnosis... not the new program.

Add a fight

Fights are always appropriate in books, regardless of the genre. You have battles, fist fights, gun fights, cat fights... all of them can not only add words but conflict to your novel. The trick here is to keep it organic. It's important to be true to your characters and the story, but you don't have to have best friends being besties all the time. It can be useful to think about a verbal fight in terms of "What's the worst thing she could possibly say right now?" and then, of course, have her say it. Even if the fight doesn't stay in the final book, you may have learned something about their relationship dynamics.

Relentlessly describe everything

Unlike including every bit of dialogue you possibly can, this can be useful. There are two ways in which I mean it, too: first, describe all aspects of the setting and make sure you're using all five senses (assuming your character uses all five senses). Make sure you personally know the setting and the layout so that the scene begins to come to life around your characters. Second, if you aren't sure which way to word something, use both. I know there are times I have to stumble through a paragraph of description before I hit on the perfect two- or three-word phrase I was looking for. The way to make sure you ease into January here is to make sure you cross out the words you know you won't keep. Don't make your future self do more work than s/he has to.

If a scene isn't working, try again

Sure, you're not supposed to edit during NaNo, but what about a do-over? Wondering what that scene would be like if a different character were present? Thinking a witty line of dialogue might have sent the plot off in a completely different direction? There's no use not trying. In the end, one or both of the scenes will have to go, but you should be closer to finding your story in the process.

The Litmus Test

In my opinion, whether these methods of padding your word count are "good" or not comes down to one question: Does this further my story and/or my understanding of the story? If the answer is yes, then do it. If the answer is no, you might want to rethink which is more important to you: winning NaNoWriMo or eventually having a polished novel that you're proud of.

What are some ways that you power through the last week of NaNo?


Mirka Breen said...

All the above can be a master-list for bad writing advice, which brings home the point that word-count marathons do not make good novel writing.
Write a good book.

Ash Krafton | @ashkrafton said...

Great advice! What's funny is how we try the same things in reverse when our word counts are too high. I'd gotten really creative with contractions when writing my first book.

Shortcuts are so tempting, especially in a word count sprint like this. But it's a first draft--and first drafts are allowed to be spontaneous, rough, and clumsy.

Just please, please, please--use good craft when editing. For the love of books everywhere... use good craft. :)