Monday, November 24, 2008

NaNo Done, and Lessons Learned

I finished the draft of the NaNoWriMo book on Friday afternoon. I didn't technically "win," as it came to just over 40,000 words, but it's appropriate for that kind of book, so I figure I accomplished what I wanted to, and I learned a few things along the way that I can apply going forward:

1) There is something to getting started with the writing as early in the day as possible.
I think this is because it cancels out the procrastination response. Even when I am not procrastinating, when I want to write but there are other, more immediate priorities in the day or when I've made a point of scheduling my writing time later in the day, my brain seems to feel like that means I'm putting off the writing because I don't want to do it. And that makes it harder to do when the time rolls around, so that I really am procrastinating. I'm still not a morning person and I still don't see myself ever being one of those writers who bounces out of bed at five in the morning and finishes my daily word count goal by eight, but it does seem like if I get any writing at all done before lunch, it makes it that much easier to settle down to write later in the day.
Going forward: I'm going to try to keep that up and write at least a little as early in the day as possible, even if my plan is to do the bulk of my writing later.

2) Creativity and work feed on themselves and multiply.
The more I wrote, the more I was able to write and the more great ideas I came up with along the way.
Going forward: I need to keep up a steady production schedule and never let myself get to the "nothing" level for more than a few days.

3) I need weekends.
I did much better when I allowed myself breaks, especially on a busy weekend day. I need that time to recharge and step away from the work.
Going forward: Keeping up the steady writing pace during the week means that I can allow myself weekends off unless I really am on a deadline. I can also allow myself the occasional holiday from work, as long as I'm in the habit of getting right back to work.

4) Both "pantsing" and "plotting" have their benefits.
I'm going to have to do a lot of reworking on this book because I was mostly making it up as I went along. That means there's a lot of what I call "plotting on paper," where I didn't know what the characters should do next, and that means the characters didn't know, so I have lots of scenes of the characters talking about what they should do next. In revisions, I'll have to cut those talking scenes and just jump to them doing what they decided to do. And that means I'll have to come up with more scenes to replace the scenes I've cut. I also struggled with the climax of the book because I hadn't developed the characters well enough to have a clear-cut character arc.
On the other hand, not planning means I'm open for really cool things to just occur to me in mid-stream. For instance, this book contains one of my favorite characters I've ever written, and he was entirely unplanned. He started as a utility character, just part of the scenery -- what in opera they'd call a spear carrier. But as soon as I wrote his first line of dialogue, he sprang fully formed into my head and came to life in wonderful ways that ended up affecting the plot of the entire book. That can happen to some extent even with detailed plotting, but if I had plotted in detail, I might have pushed back against the directions this character started leading me. For a mad moment, I even halfway considered reworking the whole book with this character as the main character and changing the focus and outcome, but then I decided that part of what made him so interesting was the fact that he was something of an enigma to the viewpoint characters and that you got the impression he knew absolutely everything that was going on. He wouldn't be nearly as much fun if we ever got into his head and knew what his deal was. So, I left him alone, but he is a character who will carry over to any sequels, if I get to write them, and if this book ends up not going anywhere, I will rescue this character and use him elsewhere. I may even recycle elements of this character as the hero of an entirely different story. Seriously, I think I might have a minor crush.
Going forward: I have no idea. I think it might vary by book for me. Sometimes I need the detailed plotting, sometimes I need to wing it. I probably work best somewhere in the middle.

5) Concrete goals really help me achieve, but they also lead to overachiever syndrome, where I feel like I've come up short if I don't go beyond the goals to a significant degree.
Having a firm deadline and a specific daily goal helped me to achieve more than I have in at least a year, and I frequently went past the goal. But when I went past the goal, I seemed to reset my mental goal to be whatever I'd last done, and then I went from the point where I was achieving something but still having some balance in my life to going all-out and not having time for anything else.
Going forward: With my next project, I think I'm going to try a new approach, borrowing from something I did in my old job. My last two years in the corporate world, I worked out a deal with my boss to scale back to semi-part time and telecommuting. By working 30 hours a week, I still got full benefits, but as a part-timer, they couldn't make me work more than I was being paid to work (unlike regular professional employees, which meant I actually cut my working hours by at least 20 hours a week). My boss said my 30 hours could come at any point during the week when I had work to do. So, if I had to work 8-hour days earlier in the week, I could cut work off early on Friday.
I think that kind of weekly goal might work for me instead of an ambitious daily goal applied across the board. There are days when I'm on a roll and there are days when I struggle to get much done or want/need to do something else. The new plan is to have a doable daily minimum goal, plus a weekly goal that goes beyond that. And once the weekly goal is achieved, I can take time off. So, say I set a minimum daily goal of 2,000 words a day for weekdays, and a bonus weekly goal of 15,000 words. That means on some days I'll need to do more than 2,000 words, or I might need to work on the weekend. But if I'm really on a roll and get that 15,000 done by Thursday, I get a long weekend. Or I may take off during the week if there's something I want to do, then work on Saturday. Or, just going steadily, that's three heavy work days and two light work days during the week. And if it's just one of those weeks and I can only hit my daily goal without the bonus, then I'll have still made myself put in the time and effort to get some output. I hope that will allow me a few "all" binges while retaining some balance and avoiding the stretches of "nothing."

I also did something different with this book that in some ways made it seem to go faster. I'm not sure what the benefit really is or if it will end up being more of a pain in the long run. I normally write in manuscript format -- 12 point type, double-spaced, and all that. I put in chapter breaks as I write, and I measure my progress in pages. This time, I didn't do any formatting, just wrote in a smaller typeface (12 pt. Times), single spaced, and I just skipped a line if I knew I'd put a chapter or scene break there. Instead of counting my progress by pages, I went strictly by the word count. It may have just been a case of doing things in a different way, but sometimes it seemed easier not to have that sense of pages going by.

I celebrated finishing the draft by cleaning my kitchen, doing some tidying of my living room, and going immediately to work on completing a draft of The New Project. So now I am going to go write a few words before lunch.

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