That’s right! I “won” NaNoWriMo! Words written this month: 50,443. I was a bit of a NaNo rebel this year in that I was adding words to a work in progress instead of starting from scratch. If you count what I had before the month began, my novel now weighs in at a little over 66,000 words, which is approaching a comfortable length for a short novel.

Now that NaNo is over, I thought I would take stock of what I learned this year.

1. I need an outline – Before the month began, I spent some time planning out the major events of the novel by writing a short synopsis of each chapter. But I made the mistake of not setting aside enough time to do this all the way through to the end, so at around two thirds of the way through the month, I ran out of outline and lost my momentum. I found that I am not very good at just writing and seeing what happens. I need a slight hint as to the events and conflicts that need to happen in a given chapter. Without that, the writing is like pulling teeth. I actually ended up mostly skipping a day to outline the rest of the story, and then the next day I was able to get the words flowing again. Lesson learned!

2. I suck at description. At least, on my first draft. The vast majority of my novel suffers from what is known as “white room syndrome”, which is a writerly term for when there is not enough information about the setting so it feels like everything is happening in a white room. To be honest, for me this extends beyond just setting and also applies to introspection. Basically, most of what I wrote is dialogue. There are very few pauses to get an idea of what the characters are thinking of feeling, and the writing is weaker because of it. But even though I outlined most of the novel, I viewed this first draft as a way to figure out what the main plot points would be. Once that is sorted out, I will be able to go back and add in the description of setting and the introspection that makes the writing more vivid and engaging.

3. I like using history. As I have mentioned before on this blog, my work in progress is based loosely on the events of the Spanish conquest of the Incas. It takes place in a fictional world, but the main events of the real conquest are there in some form. And let me tell you, this is great for when you’re not sure what should happen next. Just take a look at what really happened! I think this year’s effort has far fewer plot holes than past years. The downside of this is that sometimes the real historical events are hard to believe. For example, the siege of Cuzco, where ~200 conquistadors and their few thousand native allies won against a besieging Incan army ~100,000 strong.

4. 1667 words per day, every day, is too much. Before NaNo, I had been cautiously getting back into writing with 250 or so words per day. This was not enough: I was done with my daily quota before I really got back into the writing zone. On the other hand, the 1667 words per day required for NaNo was too much most days. I found that I felt best at around 750 to 1000 words. Long enough to get into the story and make things happen, but not so long that I started to wish I was doing something else. I think going forward, this will be my daily goal.

5. Sometimes writing is not what you need to do. I mean, yes, this is obviously true in life. Stuff happens. For example I skipped writing on Thanksgiving. But what I mean is when you are working on a piece of fiction, sometimes the most productive thing is not to dump more words on the page. Maybe you need to look up some piece of research (for example, I spent a few hours one day looking up just how the heck did the Spanish survive the siege of Cuzco), or maybe you need to spend some time and really think about a character’s motivations , flesh out their backstory, etc. The main thing is to not get bogged down in these things. Don’t go off and spend a week researching lots of minutiae. Just find what you need and get back to writing.

All in all, I found NaNoWriMo this time around to be a bit easier than last time, and I think the end result is better than my previous attempt. I’ll be taking December off from writing: I have some work deadlines and lots of travel for work and holidays. But come January, I plan to throw myself headlong into editing. Hopefully I’ll be able to turn the raw material of my first draft into something fit for human consumption!