This month is National Novel Writing Month (NaNo) where writers are challenged to pen a 50,000-word novel in 30 days.
Wait a minute, Scriptmag is a website for screenwriters. Why am I talking about novelists?
Because a challenge will do you good.
Everyone has a certain writing routine when starting a new project. For me, I outline like a fiend and then craft a one-page synopsis to get a feel for any holes in the story. Once I’m satisfied, I copy the outline into Final Draft, enter sluglines for each scene, and then vomit out draft one.
What I love about writing from an outline imported directly into my software is never having a blank page to taunt me.
When I discussed my process with a novelist, she smirked at the thought of outlining, claiming I needed to (in her best hippy voice), “let my characters choose their own destiny.” She even suggested I was a control freak!
She must be on crack.
Since I’m always up for a challenge, I not only agreed to try her commando writing style, I also jumped on the insane NaNo wagon. After all, if you’re going to do something, you might as well go all the way.
I pulled up my empty Word document and dared my characters to fly blind, fully expecting them to fall flat on their faces and beg me to make the decisions for them. I secretly wanted them to crash and burn.
But after completing NaNo, I plated myself a big ol’ serving of crow.
Top 10 Lessons I Learned:
10. Writing sprints are gold. If you make a call out on Twitter with the hashtag #writingsprint, others will join you for a 30 or 60-minute sprint to the finish, writing as much as possible. Remember in NaNo, word count is the goal. I was amazed how productive I was. So much so, I continue to do writing sprints to this day.
9. “Write or Die” isn’t just a great bumper sticker. There’s actually software by that name that turns the computer screen red and honks a horn if your typing slows. Writing under pressure keeps you from over-thinking and simply allows ideas to spew out.
8. Support matters. Having an online community during any writing challenge is essential. When you’re pushing yourself, having cheerleaders gives you the stamina to stay in the race.
7. Your characters are defined by the choices they make under pressure … and so are you. When you write, literally with a ticking clock, the pressure forces your brain to release control and truly let your characters run naked on the page. Sure, some are so ugly they should never be allowed to rip their shirts off, but others totally glow when you give them the room to shine.
6. Screenwriting isn’t novel writing … but that’s a good thing. Every screenwriter is taught to write tight and keep as much white space on the screen as possible. But we’re also trained to write visually. That economical writing may not help you reach a 50,000 word count quickly, but it will help you tell a story your readers can see, not just read.
5. Novel writing isn’t screenwriting. God bless the novelist who tries to switch it up to become a screenwriter. We have so many more rules; I pity the fool who jumps to the dark side. I’m not implying screenwriting is more difficult, just that it’s a totally different head space and rule set. Writers on both sides of the fence should cross over, if only to have appreciation for the other’s uniqueness.
4. Writing is therapy. The beauty of novel writing is you can crawl in a character’s head and actually write what they are feeling inside. I felt like Sigmund Freud, psychoanalyzing my characters. The exercise was great for character research and helped me get to know my characters quickly.
3. There’s value in vomit. When I write a script, I edit each scene before I move on to the next. But with the NaNo deadline looming, I pushed forward, not stalling the creative process. The plot turned in ways I hadn’t expected.
2. I am capable of far more than I thought. During NaNo, I was also taking the intense Screenwriting U’s Pro Series, with daily homework on top of my freelance jobs, and both my mother and husband had surgeries. When you have chaos and responsibilities looming, don’t assume your writing has to suffer. Sometimes pushing through and forcing yourself to write every day is exactly what you need to get through the stress life hands you.
And the number one lesson learned by challenging myself … drumroll …
1. I. Was. Wrong.
Yes, you heard me right. The Sicilian black belt admitted she was wrong. Go ahead, screenshot it, because you may never hear it again.
By my letting go of control, my characters did indeed decide their own fate, and both their internal struggles and external conflicts changed, too. Dare I say, the story was better for it.
Having said that, after completing the 30-day challenge in only 19 days, I went back through the 50,000 words of vomit and created an outline for the rewrite. In the end, I threw out all 175 pages of prose and started from scratch. But this time, I was writing an entirely different story, one that was raw and real, because the circumstances in which it was born were just that.
I promise you, changing your routine will expand your mind in ways you never imagined.
For those who want a challenge but have no interest in writing a novel, Script Frenzy is the screenwriting version of the event and takes place each year in April. And if you want to see the joys of writing sprints, follow me on Twitter @jeannevb and join the race.