It was that time of year again and as usual, I didn’t participate in the NaNoWriMo like thousands of other writers. The goal was to write 50,000 words between November 1st and 30th–a word count I thought was impossible to achieve. How in the world could anyone write 50,000 words (that’s about 1.7k words a day) in such a short time? Are these all Stephen Kings who could write a novel in six weeks?
The answer is: of course not. Interesting how my own writing insecurities projected themselves onto the overall picture of other writers. December, however, was an eye-opener and allowed me to break out of the behavioral cycle that prevented me from finishing a first draft.
Writing 50,000 words in a month always seemed like a fairy tale to me because I was too a perfectionist–a trait that often catapulted me into fits of stress and disappointment.
Completing a novel’s first draft is a milestone for any aspiring writer, and this time it seems I will be successful, an accomplishment preceded by three story projects I couldn’t finish after months and years of work. None of them got past the first third of the overall plot.
But what was the reason?
The constant revision of the first chapters and forgetting that I should move forward with the draft. That was the reason. Plus, the hard work of transferring images and thoughts onto paper, as a non-native speaker, from German into English.
How was I ever going to produce 50,000 words when it took me three months to write a first chapter?
And then came the turning point arising from misery. I was writing a book whose story idea I still think is excellent (perhaps the best I’ve ever had), and I came to a point where I needed to figure out how to proceed. In other words: I got lost; I didn’t work out the complex plot in advance, resulting in the inability to continue. Although I love the characters, the world they live in, and the conflict, my quest for perfectionism threw me off track for a story that was only in its infancy–yet a story for which I received a lot of positive feedback, readers even pointing out its unique approach (from a literary theorist’s perspective, that’s a jackpot).
So I started writing a new tale–an approach I’m all too familiar with and usually meant the end of the previous project. I worked on the new narrative, following the same pattern that led me to abandon the other stories when a fellow writer announced on Instagram that she was doing a NaNo in December instead of November. And something, maybe gut feeling, told me: this is the right time to squeeze 50,000 out of me … during the Christmas season … and with all the stress …. and two small kids at home.
I joined my friend and guess what: hit the fifty thousand word mark with a nearly complete first draft of a story, and to my great amazement, without being stressed at all. Boom! What the heck had just happened?
Reflecting on this, I think two things helped me along.
First, I prepared for the NaNo by writing a fairly detailed plot outline–that is, I had an outline for each chapter. This became the backbone of my story because, believe it or not, every story needs a structure to lead the reader to the ultimate message you want to convey at the end of each narrative, no matter what genre you write in. Without a message, you won’t be recognized as a serious writer. I don’t need a MA in literature to arrive at this conclusion. There are hundreds of books on plot structures, and folks, these plot structures can be overwhelming, the many new terms as complex as an ingredient list for an eight-course French menu.
Although I’m a perfectionist, I never had the patience to sit down and organize a novel along the important bullet points of a story. Whether or not you want to stick to an exact plan suggested in those ‘How to Write a Novel’ books, it’s good (and at a certain point, necessary) to have an outline on hand. Especially if you want to reach 50,000 words in thirty days.
“But all the creativity gets lost!” cries the pantser.
Come on, don’t get carried away.
As a (former?) notorious pantser, I can tell you that your pantsing skills will/should come into play when you write with a writing plan. Whether you hit midpoint two or three chapters sooner or later doesn’t matter, at least not in the first draft. What matters is that you keep track of all the necessary puzzle pieces transforming your text into a successful plot structure that engages the reader. You can still go with the flow while staying within the planned framework, and that, dear writers, is indeed an uplifting thought, which brings me to my second point.
For the first draft, I worked with a completely open mind. When embarking on a writing challenge the size of NaNo, I recommend freeing yourself from any pressure (pst, the stress we put on ourselves with giant excavator shovels is, in most cases, self-imposed).
Yes, 50,000 words are the goal, but is it worth getting upset or feeling down?
Because let’s face it, most people who write or dream of a writing career don’t have a money-tree growing at home that gives them the freedom to write all day long; we have full-time jobs, children to care for, or other obligations that prevent us from writing whenever we want. For writers, this means sitting down as often as possible in the limited time they have at hand. So you write before work, after work (while at work), during your kids’ nap time, or think of an activity for said (young) kids so you can write down at least that one brilliant sentence that suddenly pops up in your mind. Yet every word, every minute of writing should be considered significant, and that respect should not start at 50,000 words. This casual attitude helped me overcome the challenge in the end.
My greatest achievement wasn’t the word count I put on paper over Christmas but that I could pat myself on the back for a draft so far from perfect my former writing self would have fainted. December was simply about getting the story out of me. Vocabulary, syntax, grammar, POV inconsistencies, plot holes … none of that mattered. I exercised my writing muscle and started thinking in wonderful ways as I wrote down this somewhat mediocre text. Suddenly my plotting mixed with pantsing, and with all the exciting ideas I had for the story, I really started looking forward to the arduous work of a second draft.
The first unpolished, raw draft is important because it gives you a glimpse of your story’s potential. Furthermore, completing a first draft, even if it’s a very unpolished version of your story, is proof that you care about it. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be sticking to your characters’ heels, coming to life in your narration for 70-80k words. And that’s a fact, okay?
I’m six chapters away from finishing my first draft, and I’m enjoying this moment right now, procrastinating a bit. Then I’ll take a break from the story before tackling the mammoth task of a second draft.
And in the meantime, maybe I’ll take a look at the other complex story I abandoned a few weeks ago. Preferably with the same remarkable insouciance I had during my NaNo writing? Wouldn’t that be awesome?
PS. The working title of my story is Firestorm and Jewelblood. Welcome to my writing journey.
2 thoughts on “On Writing 50,000 words”
Truly a magnificent achievement! Congratulations!
I tried my best, but summer isn’t kind to my brain. I barely squeezed 20,000 words.
I agree with your strategy. Plotting is essential to know where you’re heading, but leaving room for improvisation helps the creative juices flow. I always plot before I start, but the first draft changes drastically from what I first imagined. Characters tend to change the course of the story once you give them personalities XD
20,000 words is a lot, so even if you didn’t hit the word count, you should pat yourself on the back. Oh, and summer temperatures definitely turn my brain into jello 😅