November is over, and that means National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo) is also over. My goal for the month was to write a novel of 50,000 words or more. I first got word of NaNoWriMo near the end of October, and decided to take the challenge. I knew it would be difficult for me to complete this goal because of my busy schedule in November. While I didn’t reach the 50,000-word goal, I did manage to write just shy of 19,000 words during the month.

Having gone through the process, I think I now have a good idea of what’s necessary to reach the goal next time. I’ll outline the main points here.

First, you should learn your writing speed. I’ve found that I need close to three hours each day to achieve the daily output of 1,600 words. Writing dialogue requires even more time. This means that to achieve my goal, I’ll need to start cranking out fiction as soon as I get home from work. Saturday will have to be my catch-up day, with 6+ hours of writing. Knowing my personal writing speed, I think November is the wrong month for me to be taking part in NaNoWriMo. My wife’s birthday is in November, as well as the holiday of Thanksgiving in the United States. We didn’t travel this Thanksgiving, but my parents did come over for about a week–and as much as I like to write, my family comes first.

If I were in charge of scheduling NaNoWriMo, I would place it either in October or in January. There are no holidays in October in the United States other than Halloween, and that’s at the very end of the month. If you’re really close to finishing, you could get your spouse to do the candy duty. January is also nearly holiday-free, but some people could start the month at a disadvantage depending on how much drinking they do on New Year’s Eve. Both October and January are in cold and dreary parts of the year, at least in the Northern Hemisphere, so you can’t be tempted outside by a warm, sunny day. Since many people travel for Thanksgiving and Christmas, October and January may be better novel-writing months since people could be expected to stay at home during those months. And if you make New Year’s resolutions, January is a great month to fulfill your writing goal.

Although November wasn’t the best month for me, I was hampered more by my story than by the time. As I see it, a good story needs a setting, plot and characters. The story needs some place to happen in, whether it is inside a neutron star, in a mysterious factory, or in a galaxy far, far away. For years now, I have been contemplating a story in an interesting location. I was looking forward to setting a story in this location, and I looked forward to writing about it, but a detailed and interesting setting is insufficient to create a good story. A story needs more than a setting.

A story also needs a plot that will engage and entertain the reader, whether it is recovery from a horrendous disaster, a boy and his grandpa visiting a fascinating place together, or a rebellion against an evil empire. While I had an overall idea of what I wanted to do with the story, I didn’t have enough details in mind about how I would get through the plot. I guess it’s the difference between saying, “I’m going to drive from Los Angeles to New York,” and having a detailed map showing the exact planned route to take across the States, with hotel reservations lined up and an idea where one might take a detour to see the sights. I had a high-level plot in mind, but I spent far too much time contemplating the smaller scenes necessary to make the novel a reality. Sitting at my desk and thinking up a scene isn’t writing; it’s thinking of writing. And while thinking about writing isn’t bad, the goal for the month demands actual output, not just thinking.

The third critical part of a good story is an interesting cast. If you don’t have characters who can engage your reader, why should the reader care about the plot and setting? Would you rather read about an intelligent alien the size of a sesame seed, an eccentric candy-maker, or a crippled disciple of darkness? I think I have the most difficult time coming up with believable characters, and I found I spent too much time messing with unimportant details like names. I have a check-list of questions that I should answer about my characters before I can write about them. This list will help flesh out characters and turn them into people. The more I know about a character’s background and individual characteristics, the more rounded and believable that character will be. Once I have a detailed knowledge about the characters in my novel, I will understand better how they will react to the plot points they will encounter. I’ve heard it said that at times a character will refuse to do what an author intended him or her to do; it seems as though the character takes on a real life and changes the story. No, I don’t think that characters literally come to life and change your story, but I do believe that if you really know the characters, your familiarity with their preferences and dislikes has a tendency to change the plot in ways both subtle and overt–and that should make for a better, more believable story.

It was fun writing during November, but I learned that I’ll need to do more planning and background work to complete NaNoWriMo in future. I don’t think I’ll get the background work done in time for a January writing month, but I want to do it before summer distracts me. I will spend my time until then working on my setting, plot, and characters.

Of the slightly less than 19,000 words I’ve written, I think only the prologue is worth keeping since it can stand on its own.

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