[Blog] Takeaways from NaNo2022

Well, look at that. Another November has come and gone, and a whole bunch of writers have emerged once more from their caves and coffee shops to blink owlishly and try to remember what life is like without an aggressively looming deadline. And, if they’re anything like me, they’re also feeling a heady mix of relief and something a little like sadness that it’s all over.

According to the NaNoWriMo website, this was my thirteenth time participating and my twelfth time reaching the 50K goal, so there’s clearly something about this event that keeps me coming back. Mostly, it’s probably the fact that it gives you “permission” to write some truly terrible prose in an effort to get enough words down on the page to do something with them later, which is something that I struggle with during the rest of the year. Also, the look on people’s faces when I cackle softly to myself and mutter something about writing alllll the words is pretty fun, too.

Generally speaking, I’ve tended pretty strongly towards pantsing it that whole time, too, with last year being the notable exception/paradigm shift in my writing strategy generally. So, naturally, I’d hoped to plan again this year; I even had my beautiful blank outlines all set up!

And then I ran out of time. And the first day of November was here. And my outline was most emphatically not.

Which leads me to the rest of this post and what new things I’ve learned about myself as a writer.

Now that I’ve tried it, I much prefer working with a plan than without one.

This one surprises me a bit. Because for years, I gleefully embraced the chaos of writing with No Plan and only the faintest inkling of where to go. Characters made decisions and caused trouble. Plots spiraled and careened and dead-ended and reappeared out of nowhere like squirrels that got into a big bag of espresso beans. I felt free to write whatever the heck I wanted with absolutely no concern as to whether it made sense or not.

If pressed, I can still do that. That’s basically what I did this year, though with admittedly a bit more of a roadmap to go off of than some of my other projects. I knew the themes I want for this particular story, and I had several solid scene ideas that I wanted to get down. But the overarching movement of the story? Not so much. Which, on a related note, is probably why my 50K devolved very quickly into a bunch of random scenes and descriptions with little to no linear cohesion.

But for the whole month, I had to fight the feeling that I didn’t have a story so much as a setting. NaNo always feels like something that gets you a Draft Zero– something that’s such a wild jumble that other rough drafts look at it and squeak in dismay. After having my last project at least follow some semblance of a plot, that feeling was even stronger for this one, which was actually rather disheartening.

Frustrating as it was, it was also helpful to write without a plan.

The biggest trouble/pitfall/danger of writing with a careful outline is that it can be really, really easy to lean into a bunch of lazy clichés in order to tick off all the boxes that You’re Supposed To. And if you’re coming at it from the outline first, before you even start writing, the temptation is only going to be stronger. At least, that’s what I’ve found for myself: “Ah, yes, it’s the end of Act II and time for the all-is-lost moment. Clearly I must kill off my main character’s best friend.”

But what I found when I had to just write without having those pivotal plot points already mapped out was that some of the ideas that fell out onto the screen were better than anything I was going to come up with while staring at a blank outline that needed filling in. They still need tweaking and a lot of work (and probably a ruthless editor) to get them as good as I want them to be, but the bones are good, I think. Really good. Good enough that I’m really excited about the possibilities.

I’m not burned out on the story.

This one. Huh. I can’t remember ever getting to the end of November and not just wanting to set the document (and all its backups) on fire. Or at least to close it and pretend it doesn’t exist for a month or two. And really, I don’t know if this is a side effect of free-styling it or just where my head is at the moment, but the fact remains that I am legitimately excited to go back now that I have the luxury of time and work on fitting the raw material I wrote in November into the outline I didn’t manage to make beforehand.

Because I think there’s a chance that it’s going to be even better than if I did it the other way ’round.

Outlining last year changed the way I write without an outline.

I think the best way to explain this is to say that planning or outlining or whatever you want to call it is another tool in the writing chest, and I can get at least some of the benefits even without going whole hog on it. The exercise of writing and (more or less) sticking to an outline last year got me thinking about structure and writing in a way I hadn’t practiced, and that’s made it easier to see where the random scenes that spilled out last month might fit into a cohesive whole.

I think– I hope– that that means I’m a better writer. A more focused one, at least. More experienced. And that’s pretty cool.


If you participated, how did your NaNo projects go? Really well? Not so well? Really… different? Feel free to drop a line in the comments! In the meantime, I’m gonna go try to get some work done on any of my at least half a dozen neglected writing projects. Like Tanner and Miranda.

Happy December, y’all!

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