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For the NaNoWriMo crowd (and anyone else who wants to write a long piece fast)


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Many of you are familiar with National Novel Writing Month, known as NaNoWriMo (http://nanowrimo.org). The idea is that in one month - the month of November - you will write a 50,000-word novel. Actually, the point is that you'll write the first draft. If you explore the site, you'll see that it's all about writing so fast that you don't have time to think and self-censor, so you open the floodgates of creativity and great things pour out. Once you have your draft, you can spend December (and beyond) editing it, and sometimes that draft novel can turn into a real book.Two well-known books that began their lives as NaNoWriMo projects are The Princess Diaries, by Meg Cabot, and Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen.

I've participated in NaNoWriMo several times. On two occasions, I did produce 50K words (although, contrary to the rules, it was part of an already-existing piece rather than a freestanding novel); on other occasions, when I did try to create a new novel, I dropped out within a few days. The problem for me was a lack of planning--I started with this grand and glorious notion that I would write at top speed and create something fabulous, but my imagination just didn't keep up. This, as it turns out, is not unusual; as years have passed, I've been hearing more and more about people who spend October planning, researching, and even outlining so that when the clock ticks midnight on Halloween, they can immediately dive in to the actual writing without needing to wonder what they're going to write about.

If you're in this camp, you may be interested in something I received today from Writers' Digest. (Caveat: if you buy anything from WD, they will inundate you with emails to sell you all sorts of other cool stuff--books, seminars, webinars, tutorials, book bundles, and pretty much anything else that might be interesting to writers.) It's directed to the NaNoWriMo group, but it could be useful for anybody who wants to try this kind of challenge. It's a WD tutorial entitled, "How to Pre-Plot and Complete a Novel or Memoir in One Month, Part 1." (I'd post the link, but my tablet is not cooperating. A browser issue, I suspect. If you go to https://tutorials.writersdigest.com and search "pre-plot", you'll find it.) If you try Part 1 and like it, Part 2 is most likely coming soon. (I haven't tried any of their tutorials, so I can't vouch for them.)

One of the biggest issues for some writers is that in order to reach the 50K goal, you pretty much have to keep moving forward without editing, and some writers find this to be just too hard. Others are fine with the idea that what they end up with will be a very sloppy first draft with plot holes, clunky language, and wandering story lines that go nowhere and end up being cut. (Obviously, if you're trying to hit a word limit, you don't cut anything. I've known people who refrain from using contractions when they're writing that first draft, or they give their main characters compound names like Mary Ann instead of Marianne so the count will show more words.)

Tell us about your NaNoWriMo experiences. Have you tried it? If so, how did it turn out? Would you recommend that other writers try it? What do you think about pre-planning versus just plunging in?

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I've tried several times, without success. The closest I made it was about 41,000 words and my brain shut down much the way it did when I was studying for comp exams in grad school; once edited, that story was about 26,000 words.

For me, it's hard to sustain a story for more than 8,000 words. I'm sparse when it comes to description, leaving much to the reader to imagine. Perhaps it would be different if I were writing an original novel and not a fanfiction piece. :shrug:

I greatly admire those of you who write 20,000+ word stories routinely and hold my interest to the very last word. And I know a few of you consider 20,000 words "short!" :o

The outline challenge several years ago was difficult for me. It felt like I was trying to pound round pegs into square holes. When a plot bunny finally hopped along with characters I wrote with ease, the story flowed. Finding that plot bunny I could work with was one of the hardest parts. I haven't tried writing from an outline since.

While I may have a few jotted notes before starting a story, I have nothing like an outline or a list of scenes to complete. I'm definitely a panster instead of a planner.

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One of the issues, I think, is how big the idea is. We've probably all read books or stories that seem to have filler material. (One example, in my opinion, is the episode "The Lady and the Mountain Lion" - the whole subplot about the mountain lion seemed like filler.) Some ideas can be handled in a relatively brief piece, while others require much more development. You couldn't cover "Les Miserables" in 10K words without losing much of what makes it so powerful, and you couldn't convert Shirley Jackson's infamous short story, "The Lottery," into a novel without diluting it beyond repair.

That said, sometimes an author doesn't know how big an idea is. When I wrote "The French Piano Player," I thought the whole story was finished in about 19K words. It wasn't until dbird pointed out that there was dramatic potential in Joe's return to the Ponderosa that I realized there were unresolved issues around not only his return and adjustment, but also his drinking and his ability (or willingness) to love again. Each of these issues was big enough to require its own story, which I discovered when I tried to combine the drinking and the loving again into one - it was too much stuff.

Mind you, I didn't plan any of this. I was definitely pantsing. I didn't even understand concepts like the size of an idea - it was pure instinct, born of decades of reading what others had done and absorbing those lessons without even realizing it. But in all that reading and my own experimenting, I started to figure out that ideas are not one-size-fits-all. A story idea has its own parameters, and the author's job is to discover them, not to impose her own structure where it just doesn't fit.

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NaNo tells you to plan your story during October so you're ready to write on November 1. That doesn't work for me because I'm not a planner. I write the first sentence and go from there. I don't mind NaNo, but I do mind editing all 50,000 words at one time. I'd rather have smaller chunks to deal with.

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Excerpted from author Kristen Lamb's Blog:

Ah, November. National Novel Writing Month. I can almost smell the fresh office supplies, the hint of double espresso and sugar drifting on the wind. The beginning of November is full of hope, promise and inspiration, but by week two?

….yeah.

I have been running a series on structure and sure structure has the obvious benefit of having a coherent plot/story at the end. But, there is another benefit to plotting that we often don’t think about. Voice.

Plotting ahead of time gives a newer writer an advantage that most people don’t think about. It gives us a playpen to contain our baby writing “voice.” Voice is one of those aspects of writing that is tough to define and quantify. Yet, it is at the heart of who we are as writers. The more we write, the more mature our writing voice becomes. Leave an immature, unformed voice to wander off on its own, and it will be wandering around getting into everything and making a mess.

We will get back to voice in a second…

In my opinion, there is a mistaken assumption that creativity is birthed by removing all boundaries. Just a blank page, a keyboard and your wildest imagination and GO! I disagree. I believe that limitations, boundaries, and constraints are necessary for creativity to thrive. Don’t believe me? Take a tour of Alcatraz. There are few people more creative than prison inmates.

On the positive side, if humans were born with the ability to fly, would we have invented such a vast array of flying machines? If we could communicate telepathically, would we have invented the telegraph, telephone, cell phone, or even e-mail? It is our inability to do something that focuses our energy and generates dynamic results. Light is wonderful, but when focused it becomes a laser.

An author’s voice is what defines his style. Dean Koontz has a distinctive voice when compared to John Grisham or even Amy Tan. Voice is defined by how we use words to convey imagery. I believe that when writers are new, most of us possess a voice that is in its infancy. I propose that this voice will develop more quickly if given boundaries. If an author will choose a genre, then whittle all the ideas whirling in her head down to one kernel idea, she will be closer to finding her unique writing voice than had she just started writing.

How is this?

The writer has erected boundaries that will focus her creative energy instead of letting it dissipate like white light.

Think of the preplanning for a novel as a series of lenses. You are going to shine the brilliant white light that makes up the whole of your creative capacity. Ah, but then we erect the genre lens. Genres have rules. Picking a genre will focus that white light creative energy. Then, the next lens is the one-sentence original idea. The energy focuses even more. With these two lenses, it will be harder for us to stray off on a tangent. Then, want another lens? Even a rudimentary plot outline will concentrate our energy even more. Finally? Detailed character backgrounds will add a final lens that permits us to take on that novel with all our energy at laser intensity.

When we are new, many of us have a lot of favorite authors. Our infant writing voice (tucked in its playpen to keep it out of the adverbs) is much like a baby learning to speak. It does a lot of mimicking. I find it humorous when I read first-time novels. I can read the prose and almost tell what author that writer was reading at the time he wrote the section. The voice is all over the place. That’s normal. When we are new, we are experimenting and looking for the influence(s) that will eventually take root and hold. The trick is to get past this stage.

So what are some ways we can develop our author voice?

1. Erect Boundaries

We just discussed this and it could wholly be my opinion. I believe that even pantser writers (those who write by the seat of their pants) will benefit enormously by erecting even broad constructs. You don’t have to outline down to the last detail, but a general idea of where you are going and the stops along the way are great.

Normally, around mid-way through Week Two of NaNo, I start seeing writers hit a wall. I can almost guarantee most of them just started free-writing without even a general plan, and now they’ve painted themselves in a literary corner. Been there, done that and have the collection of T-shirts…and coffee mugs. Their mind locks up and they have no idea what to say next. Not wanting to be “limited” by devices like an outline, in the end, they are “limited” by the word-prison created by failing to plan.

So how can a “limiting” device like an outline actually bring more freedom?

Think of it like taking a road trip. When you begin a trip, how you decide to travel makes a huge difference. If from the beginning, I decide my trip will be by car, as opposed to by plane, train, bicycle, roller skates, or pogo stick, I understand my limitations. By car, I cannot, for instance, go to Hawaii. Then, if I choose an end destination, there are only so many possible logical routes.

Say I am going to go to L.A. Well, from Dallas, TX, there are only so many highways that will get me there. Also, I know some routes are just a bad idea. I-20 East is not a consideration. So I know I want to take certain highways to L.A. Now my path is much clearer. Also, since I know the main highways I need to stay on, if, along the way I decide to amble down a country road (pantser) to visit the Alligator Farm and World’s Largest Ball of Dryer Lint, I know that I just have to be able to find my way back to the highway.

But what kind of trip do you think I might have if I just began driving? Sure, I might uncover some great places and have unplanned adventures….but those unplanned adventures might not be positive. They could involve getting lost in the projects, circling the same landmark 50 times, or having a flat tire in the desert.

2. Read, read, then read some more.

The best musicians study all kinds of music and then blend elements with their own unique style. That is a great parallel to how we develop our own writing voice. Read other writers. What do you like? Try it. What did you hate? Lose it. What could have worked, but didn’t ? Modify it. The more you read, the more hues of color you add to the pallet that you will use to define your voice. You will have more subtlety, nuance and dimension than a writer who doesn’t read.

3. Write, write, then write some more.

Put it to the test. Does a certain style work for you? Did it feel natural or forced? When did you hit your stride? Can you push it to another level? Practice, practice practice. Jimi Hendrix did not start out his music career playing Purple Haze. Elvis, Axel Rose and Meatloaf began as a gospel singers. Picasso began painting traditional subjects in traditional ways. All of these artists practiced and studied and added new elements until they created something genuinely unique.

Nanowrimo is a wonderful time to mix things up, try new styles, take on a genre you’ve always loved but maybe were too afraid to write. Trying new things strengthens those literary muscles, so be brave.

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NaNo tells you to plan your story during October so you're ready to write on November 1. That doesn't work for me because I'm not a planner. I write the first sentence and go from there. I don't mind NaNo, but I do mind editing all 50,000 words at one time. I'd rather have smaller chunks to deal with.

I edit as I go because I found I can't do it any other way. I rewrite, take things out, put things in, and go from there. I know that they say that limits creativity, but it doesn't for me. As I go back and edit, I find that I get ideas about how to advance the story and scenes that I should write to fill out the story. Maybe it's because I write so fast and leave out so much as I write the action sequence that I have to fill in the rest when I go back.

I am a planner and I don't write anything except very short pieces without an outline, but my outlines are rather freeform and open to adjusting as I go. I do need to know where I'm going before I start, and I have sometimes written the ending before I've written the beginning.

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The trouble is, 50,000 words doth not a novel make. Not on its own, anyway.

I'm not decrying NaNo. It seems to work for some people, but the trouble is, if you pour out your 50,000 words with no thought to refining what you've written, what you end up with is....50,000 words that require refining. And that's a LOT of work! At least, it was for me. Almost overwhelmingly so. I can't remember how long it took me to hack the mutant monster into something that resembled a story I could actually work with, but it was one long and very trying period of editing and reworking - way more than I would usually have the patience to contend with. I did end up with a passable story at the end of it, but that story still niggles me, because - despite removing several large extraneous chunks that were like side plots or sub plots - it still has bits that shouldn't really be there. But I've left it because it serves to remind me that the NaNo dysentery method of writing really doesn't bring out the best in my writing.

My theory is, NaNo probably works much better for those that do lots of planning - and stay close to that plan. I did have a plan - of sorts- when I started NaNo. As much as I ever have. I had themes I wanted to explore; a couple of key OCs, a number of pivotal scenes. But normally, when a plot hits a bump, or a new angle opens up to me as the story unfolds, I can afford to stop and think about how that will fit, and the repercussions for the story as a whole. With NaNo, the focus was so much upon achieving that target of 50,000 words within such a limited time frame, those pauses so necessary to me - and the frequent need to backtrack or make changes to what's already happened to make sense of the new ideas/direction/whatever - well, that luxury isn't there in NaNo month.

So, my advice for NaNo is, be prepared for one heck of an editing task once the writing month is done.

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So, my advice for NaNo is, be prepared for one heck of an editing task once the writing month is done.

Unless you are journaling, I believe the point of ANY writing is to edit. The more editing, the tighter (and more reader-worthy) the writing. Yes, it's work that's not fun. I wager the majority of folks who participate in NaNo don't reach their goal (be it 50,000 or less, or a 100,000 or more). The goal of NaNo is to promote writing. Period. The bonus for the participant is being a part of an international phenomenon and enjoying the community year round. I've made friends through writing that I would never encounter in any other way because our walks of life are so diverse. Pantster or planner, it matters not. Everyone has their own method and I learn something new every time I attend a write-in or gather around the coffeehouse table to hear what problems and breakthroughs others have experienced.

Whether you participate in NaNo or BoNaNo or have your own "night of writing dangerously" . . . keep writing!

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The trouble is, 50,000 words doth not a novel make. Not on its own, anyway.

I'm not decrying NaNo. It seems to work for some people, but the trouble is, if you pour out your 50,000 words with no thought to refining what you've written, what you end up with is....50,000 words that require refining. And that's a LOT of work! At least, it was for me. Almost overwhelmingly so. I can't remember how long it took me to hack the mutant monster into something that resembled a story I could actually work with, but it was one long and very trying period of editing and reworking - way more than I would usually have the patience to contend with. I did end up with a passable story at the end of it, but that story still niggles me, because - despite removing several large extraneous chunks that were like side plots or sub plots - it still has bits that shouldn't really be there. But I've left it because it serves to remind me that the NaNo dysentery method of writing really doesn't bring out the best in my writing.

* * *

So, my advice for NaNo is, be prepared for one heck of an editing task once the writing month is done.

Unless you are journaling, I believe the point of ANY writing is to edit. The more editing, the tighter (and more reader-worthy) the writing. Yes, it's work that's not fun. I wager the majority of folks who participate in NaNo don't reach their goal (be it 50,000 or less, or a 100,000 or more). The goal of NaNo is to promote writing. Period.

I don't agree that the point of writing is to edit, but I do believe editing is an essential part of the process. (Mind you, I can go through four drafts of a tweet, so as you read this, consider the source.) I've cut or severely reduced most of what I produced in NaNoWriMo-ing my novel, but I don't think I expected to end up with a lot of usable material. For me, the experience was about getting back into the story and staying there without regard to whether I felt like working on. Astonishing what a deadline can do, even if it's a deadline that carries absolutely no consequences if you fail to meet it.

Probably my biggest takeaway from NaNoWriMo is this: if you're stuck on a piece and you don't want to abandon it, you may benefit from making yourself come back to it on a daily basis for a set period. Anybody can pick up a story once, shrug, and drop it, but if the story was worth starting and you really think the idea was sound, maybe it's worth more effort. Making myself get back into the novel every day for a month didn't produce much usable prose, but it did put me in the position, day after day, of thinking about the story line and the characters and how they were going to figure out their lives. I'm not at all certain I'd have done that without the intensity of somebody else's deadline. I seriously doubt I'd ever have said, "I'm going to keep working on this every day for a month and see if I can break through the wall," but because NaNoWriMo presented a rudimentary framework of time and word quota, I took a shot--and now, I'm working on Draft #4.

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In The Art of War for Writers, James Scott Bell lauds the credo of "write fast, edit slow." In the chapter entitled, "Write hard, write fast, and the fire of creation will be yours", he opens with an email he received from a young writer who loved the NaNoWriMo experience and said of it, "I have a touch of OCD so when I write a rough draft, I tend to revise it into oblivion before the first draft is done. With NaNo I am forced to forge ahead with the story. I love it."

Bell continues,

Forging ahead with the story allows it to live and breathe and take on new life.

So when you write that first draft, my advice is: Write hard, write fast.

Revise the previous day's writing, then move ahead with what's in front of you.

That's it. As fast as you comfortably can, until the first draft is done.

I contend that new writers would actually improve their craft--and chances of getting published--if they would write faster, especially at the beginning of their learning curve. Here's why.

First, you learn most about writing a full-length novel by actually writing a full-length novel. It is much more valuable to do this repeatedly than to hover too long over one unfinished (or unpolished) manuscript.

Second, you become a professional in the best sense of the word (well, maybe second-best sense, the first-best being getting paid). A professional is someone who does his job, every day, even if he doesn't feel like it. A surgeon can't refuse to operate because he's upset over the Laker game last night. A criminal defense lawyer can't ask for a continuance so he can go to the beach and dream of someday getting a client who is actually innocent.

And a professional writer can't sit at the computer playing Spider Solitaire, waiting for a visit from the Muse. A pro is someone who writes, whether inspired or not, and keeps on writing.

Bell then lists a number of writers who wrote fast novels:

- William Faulker wrote As I Lay Dying in six weeks, writing from midnight to 4 a.m., then sending it off to the publisher without changing a word. (You're not Faulker, by the way.)

- Ernest Hemingway wrote what some consider his best novel, The Sun Also Rises, also in six weeks, part of it in Madrid, and the last of it in Paris, in 1925.

- In one stunning stretch (1953-1954) John D. MacDonald produced seven novels of high quality. Over the course of the decade, he wrote many more superb books, including the classic The End of the Night, which some mention in the same breath as Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. Also Cry Hard, Cry Fast, which is the basis for the title of this entry.

So prolific was MacDonald that he was needled by a fellow writer who, over martinis, sniffed that John should slow down, ignore "paperback drivel," and get to "a real novel." MacDonald sniffed back that in thirty days he could write a novel that would be published in hardback, serialized in magazines, selected by a book club, and turned into a movie. The other writer laughed and bet him $50 that he couldn't pull it off.

MacDonald went home and, in a month, wrote The Executioners. It was published in hardback by Simon & Schuster, serialized in a magazine, selected by a book club, and turned into the movie Cape Fear. Twice.

Bell then lists other authors--Ray Bradbury, Jack London, John O'Hara, Charles Dickens, and Stephen King--and how they wrote fast, concluding,

One could go on, but the lesson is clear. Writing "genius," like any other kind, is 99 percent perspiration. These authors all worked extremely hard early in their careers to learn their craft. By writing relatively fast, they forced themselves to learn. Their books were not the product of small bits of inspiration, but rather steady, dedicated, intense work, day after day.

I do have writer friends who believe that writing slowly, carefully, polishing as they go, is the best way to produce quality work. That's fine for them. It may even be fine for you.

But I urge you to consider the idea of "the zone" that comes when you write your story quickly, intensely. Take time with your "pre-writing," whatever form that takes for you. Then follow the advice of Dorothea Brande, from her little classic Becoming a Writer:

Say to yourself: "At ten o'clock on Wednesday I will begin to write [the story]," and then dismiss it from your mind. Now and then it will rise to the surface. You need not reject it with violence, but reject it. You are not ready for it yet; let it subside again. Three days will do it no harm, will even help it. But when ten o'clock strikes on Wednesday you sit down to work.

Now; strike out at once. . . . [T]ake no excuses, refuse to feel any stage fright, simply start working. If a good first sentence does not come, leave a space for it and write it in later. Write as rapidly as possible, with as little attention to your own processes as you can give.

[brackets and ellipses in The Art of War for Writers]

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I need to stop reading these things. I know they're supposed to encourage and motivate me, but right now, they just fill me with a sense of failure and frustration. I just don't understand how these people really fit in full time jobs and family commitments and do all this writing! I suppose I could divorce my husband so I don't have to wasted writing time interacting with him....

I just can't sit down at the computer and start writing without any thinking time. And I've tried, I promise. At least, I can use short amounts of time to write if I've got stuff already written that needs reworking, but I can't launch into new creative stuff at the drop of a hat. I know we've already compared notes on our writing methods countless times and I am very, very envious of those of you who can do the ten minute thing.

Right now, I'm desperate to write. I've managed the odd short burst (short burst for me equals at least an hour, preferably two), in the rare slow times here over the summer months, and I've got a couple of stories I'm longing to give some serious attention to. I work at them constantly in my head, so when I have a clear day or half day, I know exactly where I need to go with them. I'd love to indulge my desire to write, but this is the real world. I have a business to run, and unfortunately it's pretty all-consuming. I also have a husband who doesn't give me a lot of space when he's at home (in a nice way). I don't make a living from writing. I love it. It's my passion. But it doesn't pay the bills and I have to be realistic about that. I'm depressed enough that I can't write anywhere near as much as I want to, so I need to stop comparing myself to these wonder people who seem to be able to hold down full time jobs, work on endless committees, raise their children, and save the world, at the same times as finding half an hour a day in which to write several best-selling novels (is there a shoot yourself icon?).

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Inca, you shouldn't consider yourself a failure because you have commitments called real life.

I have thoroughly enjoyed reading your stories, which to me is a greater meter of your success as a writer, and look forward to any story that you manage find time to write.

Thanks, BWF. Frustration makes me crabby, I'm afraid. Common sense tells me I'm not a failure just because of stupid work. But stupid work also means that even when there might be a free hour occasionally, I'm usually too zapped to write. As soon as I sit down at the keyboard, I'm struggling to keep my eyes open. I just find it hard to believe all these other people can write whole novels on top of their seemingly bulging lifestyles. I can't help wondering, if they can, why can't I? But the simple truthis, I can't. Not without putting even more pressure on myself than I'm already under with said stupid work. And said stupid work has to come first, however I would wish it to be in dreamland.

Winter is coming and then work pressure will lighten considerably, and I must content myself with looking forward to the writing time I will be able to make then. In the meantime, I must make tonight's dessert for my guests. Bleagh!

Unfortunately, there's very few of us who have the luxury of doing what we like best as our primary role in life.

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BluewindFarm

And honestly, who's to say that these writers do have such bulging lifestyles. I'm sure certain celebrities who have all these 'talents' for cooking and decorating and designing don't do it all themselves. They probably have a staff who come up with the ideas, so they can lounge around and take most of the credit. Or they have a staff at home to take care of the day-to-day running of their 'estates'.

For those who have a job outside of the home, for those whose job is in the house, with families, and who write (even if it is not as frequent as you'd like), bless you for somehow blending it all together.

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Plus, these people who finish their novel in a month can say, "yes," I wrote a novel, but then what? Did they try to have it published? Self-publish? Or, is it still sitting on their computer needing to be edited?

A lot of people can blast out 50,000 words without thinking twice, but did they use a beta or an editor? Did they edit it down so it's not repetitive and boring or did they just post their story or publish their novel without taking time to reduce it as much as possible and still make sense?

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I actually have no problem with churning out 50,000 words, when I have the time. Verbal effluence is one of my talents. But 50,000 quality words is another matter. I am one of those writers who believes how you tell the story is actually as important as the story itself. Language matters. Sentence structure matters. Images matter. I'm not big on plots - never was one who could hang a complicated story together (can't even follow a complicated plot on a film or the TV) - but I do try very hard to make sure every word I put down on the paper is the best I can come up with.

My feeling is, how long it took to write isn't what counts; how well it's told is.

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That's what I'm trying to say, Inca. Anyone can shoot out 50,000 words and post or publish but are they words worth reading?

I've done NaNo and it's an exciting way to write. Just go for it. Let the ideas come and get them down on paper. What I'm not fond of is editing those 50K words when it's over. That takes a hell of a lot more time than the original month it took to write that little novel.

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Anyone can shoot out 50,000 words and post or publish but are they words worth reading?

Of course not. They're just the roughest of rough drafts. They're a beginning. Anybody who finishes NaNoWriMo and thinks she has a finished, publishable work at the end of that month is fooling herself.

When I did NaNoWriMo to advance my existing novel, I produced 50K words, but I ended up deleting the vast, vast majority of that material. For me, the purpose wasn't necessarily to end up with a finished novel (which I didn't - there was still a lot more plot to finish). The purpose was to get myself back into that particular story, to make myself think about it in an active way, and to try to move the plot forward, even just an inch or two, because it certainly wasn't growing or progressing when it sat untouched. In the end, there were a couple notions that proved to be useful, and the plot did scooch forward a bit. After that, it was just a bit easier to convince myself to write something, anything, because even if it didn't work, it was movement, and it's easier to steer a moving car than one that's at a dead stop.

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