All Words Are Not Created Equal

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We have only a couple of days until National Novel Writing Month begins. I trust everyone planning to participate in this illustrious event has an idea for what they’re going to write, or they’re existing in a state of near-panic. The NaNoWriMo emails and blog posts are scheduled to get writers excited and energized for November 1st. Then they’ll strive to keep the participants motivated, offer ideas for writers hung up on their storyline, suggestions for how to torment your characters, writing tips, cheer on the ones who fall behind in word count, and some tricks to increase your word count – actually, I’d like to talk about that.

NaNoWriMo isn’t all about word count. Yes, I know the challenge is to write 50,000 words in the 30 days of November, but that’s just the technical bit. To me, NaNo is about the experience. Not the experience of obsessing over word count, that’s a bad habit. I see it as the experience of writing a novel as a whole. You prepare: get your general story lined up – plot it if you can, then you have to get those first exhilarating and terrifying words ‘on paper’ to get you started. Once you have your beginning, then the experience is about continuing. Some writers have problems with this bit and NaNo forces them to face their bad habit and break it.

A common problem with new or inexperienced writers is that they edit as they go. By ‘inexperienced, I’m including those who’ve been writing for years. I’m talking about experience in terms of habits, not length of time or amount of effort. I feel like a bit of a hypocrite lecturing on this as I edit as I go. However, I have completed over a dozen novels. I know how to finish a book. For some, editing as you go keeps you from finishing your masterpiece. You hear this repeatedly, so I won’t dwell on it further other than to say the reason you hear it repeatedly is because so many writers have trouble listening to this advice: knock it off.

There are writers out there who have dozens of first pages/chapters. They get it down, then decide they’re not going to write that story right now after all. Maybe they think it wasn’t good enough, maybe they thought of something else that’s more exciting, or maybe they just don’t know where to go next. Knock that shit off too. Focus. Finish one.

I’ve written before about how when I write it’s non-linear. That’s largely to avoid writer’s block. If I’m midway through Chapter 3 and don’t know where to go next, I’ll think about it for a short time, and if I don’t come up with an answer, I’ll just skip ahead to Chapter 3 or 4 or 8. I know what happens eventually, so I’ll write that while mulling over how to get my hero from the edge of the precipice I left him on. Eventually I’ll either think of the answer, or write my way backwards until I get to that point and realize I made a mistake and he was never supposed to be on the cliff in the first place. It was cool to have him hanging around up there, but it wasn’t right for the story. A plot dead end. Writer’s block because of plot issues isn’t an excuse to stop writing. And yes, writing this way makes continuity a bitch. (Tip: Keep a really good story bible/style sheet, timeline, outline, etc.)

In NaNo, a lot of writers focus more on word count that they should. They don’t use contractions. They use wordy descriptions instead of something concise and the writing ends up loose and slippery instead of tight. It loses impact. I understand it, but I don’t agree with it.

NaNo is about pushing ahead and losing bad habits that keep writers from finishing books. It’s inadvertently causing some writers to create bad habits by encouraging this loose, ineffective writing and we all know how hard it is to break those habits. Yes, you fix a lot of that nonsense in revisions so I don’t usually fuss about it. In time, you start catching yourself as you write those unnecessarily wordy descriptions and correct yourself, then you stop using as many adjectives and adverbs in the first place. Better word choices is better writing. Still, I hate to see writers fall into that trap in the first place.

My challenge to all you NaNoWriMo participants this year is to use better word choices. Sacrifice word count for better writing. I don’t condone editing as you go, I still believe NaNoWriMo and first or second novels is not the time and place for that. But use the best verb in the first place. “He whispered” instead of “He said softly,” “She raced” instead of “She ran quickly,” and so forth. Ditch as many adverbs as you can. Then, when you hit your 50k, you’ll have a better manuscript – something you might be able to show a spouse or friend and know they’re reading your story, not struggling to follow the plot drowning in a sea of words.

Get more from your November, and good luck.

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