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Using NaNoWriMo As A First Draft Tool

To most, November 1st is merely the start of a new month. One containing Thanksgiving and the onslaught of the holiday season. For writers, it begins the daunting event known as NaNoWriMo.

NaNoWriMo stands for National Write Your Novel Month. The goal over the 30 days of November is to write 50k words, a standard novel equaling around 200 pages. Winning means you wrote 50k. Losing means you did not. In the end, though winning feels incredible, neither means your book has failed.

What matters is you started writing it.

The purpose of a first draft: telling yourself the story. It does not need to be perfect or pretty or even make sense. I have learned to use NaNoWriMo as a tool to get my story idea out of my head and into a first draft. Is it an automatic bestseller seller? Of course not. The second year I did Nano and won, my first draft of my fantasy novel was a hot mess. I changed POV halfway through and changed the plot and villain. I upped the age of my protagonist somewhere in the middle and the ending was truly word vomit. It stopped making sense somewhere around the midpoint. I kept going. I knew I had a long road ahead of me to get this into a shape that resembled a book and this was merely the first step on that journey.

Now it is in its fourth draft and looks nothing like the first, thank goodness. I needed the messy draft to get to the heart of the story I wanted to tell. To spill it all out to sift through. We all need that disastrous first attempt. It is part of the process. It is dumping the puzzle pieces from the box onto the table and finding what fits where and what order to go in. You have to see all the pieces to get started and NaNoWriMo, with its crackling momentum, is the picture on the puzzle box.

For any first draft, don’t edit. Especially with NaNoWriMo. Don’t second guess yourself; the draft will be there to fix when November is over. I know, I know, easier said than done. But my best advice is to resist! Keep moving forward. Not editing helps in pushing the story out and keeps the imposter syndrome at bay. Wait for it to rear its ugly head when you read this draft. For now, enjoy the freedom of just writing. Ride the wave of tense, crackling exhilaration as the words pour from your fingertips.

If you are familiar with NaNoWriMo, you know the terms plantser, pantser and plotter. I fancied myself a pantser for the longest time: a writer who preps very little and wings it. In 2020, I decided to adapt more of a plantser, a mix of plotting and going with the flow. In editing my fantasy novel which I wrote with zero prep, I found I was having a harder time editing because I had to solidify the plot first and foremost. With my current work in progress, I plotted out a structure with Saves the Cat beat sheet. It was easier, flowed better, I hit my word counts almost every day because I had a guideline. The ending still was a wash but my characters revealed themselves and the themes glowed bright in every chapter I completed.

The beauty of NaNoWriMo is that all three of these types of writers work. It doesn’t matter what you are, we all have the same goal: to write 50k and tell ourselves the story. You can also use it to discover what kind of writer you are by experimenting as I did. Try winging it or plot it out within an inch of its life. Whatever works for you! There are no rules! Write how best it works for you to get your story told. Do not worry if the first attempt doesn’t fit quite right. There are always more opportunities to adjust your writing style and find what suits you.

Before NaNoWriMo, I never had a writing routine. I wrote when I wanted to, mostly for pleasure. When I decided I wanted to try the task of writing more than a short story, I turned to NaNoWriMo as a tool to figure it all out. From there, I got two first drafts of full novels. I unearthed how to write something longer than five pages. It was hard. Still, my two sparks of ideas formed actual book-like shapes. I couldn’t believe it. Even the two times I lost, I learned what worked and what didn’t. First drafts are all about discovery. It stings to realize an idea isn’t working or needs a lot more effort to become what you imagined it would be.

NaNoWriMo is a way to stumble upon that. To see the flaws and find the gems buried underneath. You can pull your true story out of the rumble of your NaNoWriMo draft, shake it off and get going on the second version, the one where it shines. Having a routine will help immensely with your second, third, fourth draft and get you closer to that finished book you’ve dreamed of.

Using NaNoWriMo as a tool for a first draft is something I encourage all writers to do. Honestly, I encourage anyone who has a big idea they want to see fleshed out to participate one year. It is free, it is fun and it is eye-opening. It does not judge if you have published books or this is your first time writing more than an assigned essay. It is for everyone at all levels. Use the structure provided to set word counts and chapter goals to finally get those voices out of your head and onto a page. It provides a built in community with resources and windows into other ideas that have been sitting in someone’s imagination for months, even years. It is an opportunity to throw caution to the wind, take a leap of faith and get writing. First drafts can be overwhelming. Starting with an event like NaNoWriMo reminds you that you are not alone. We all start from Chapter One.

And your story is needed.

Meet Rachel Riendeau

Rachel is a writer/actor in New York City. She writes original short stories, fairy tales and retellings of folklore and legends. Some are happy, some are terrifying, all have magic. She has a deep love for Disney, wine, cheese, Tarot, kittens, and being under trees blowing in the wind. She believes a day spent wandering in a museum can heal your soul.

You can find her on Instagram @lepetiterenard and on her website

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