Well, it’s November, which means some people are getting fired up to grow mustaches, and others are hitting the keyboard –– hard. National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, is entering its fifteenth edition, so once again my Facebook and Twitter feeds are alive with pledges from writers who are hell-bent on getting a book done before December.
I’ve never participated in NaNoWriMo –– in my calendar, November typically just isn’t a great month for writing. That said, drafting a novel (defined by NaNoWriMo as being more than 50,000 words) within a month is something I’ve done quite a few times. My record was set with The Sinope Affair –– I wrote that 60,000-word book in six and a half days, back in January of 2007. After taking a weekend off, I then turned around and wrote Grasslands (75,000 words) in the subsequent fifteen days. I’m not sure I’ve ever had another month quite so productive as January 2007, but my record for total words drafted in twenty-four hours stands at 30,000. I don’t expect I’ll be raising that bar for a while… indeed, these days I’m only casually keeping track.
I explain all this not because I’m trying to show off. Seriously. I know my habit of posting word counts has made some aspiring writers a bit leery –– I get occasional ‘I don’t know how you do it!’ comments, and that’s fair. But I think it’s very, very important that I clarify something: when I started writing back in 1995, I didn’t write nearly this fast.
Star Defenders, Book One: The First Mission was my first serious outing, and at the age of eleven, that 4,400-word ‘novel’ (long chapter by today’s standards) took me three weeks of hard work. In terms of productivity, that meant I was drafting at a rate of 209 words per day.
I continued on with installments of that series for a while, but eventually it was shelved and then reborn as Defense Command, Guardians of Earth. The first title of this newer, better series was The Fleet Clash (no relation), and at 37,000 words I was certain it was a ‘novel’ (today, that’s the average length of a Champions novella). Whatever we label it, I wrote the book in two months over the summer of 1997, meaning that with practice, my drafting speed had shot up to over 600 words per day. Not bad.
Defense Command was followed by a series called Bonaventure, but let’s skip straight to something that ended up in print: The Human Equation. That book’s Prologue –– featuring Setter Caine on his way up to Orion –– was first laid down on November 27, 2001, and the Epilogue was completed on March 28, 2002. Roughly 120 days for a total of 84,000 words; The Human Equation was a real novel, drafted at a rate of roughly 700 words per day. For the next few years, 600-800-words per day became my standard, and that served me very well.
It wasn’t until the Christmas of 2005-2006, when I drafted The Rogue Commodore, that my average climbed to well over 1,000. From that point onward, drafting seemed to get exponentially faster, so today I can rattle off words far more casually. Just last Friday, I stumbled across some new music that was rather good for drafting (that’ll be a separate note), so I laid down 3,500 words in around ninety minutes. Another 12,500 words followed over the weekend. I no longer do writing binges the way I used to, but I figure I could still pull off a book in a month if required. I guess that’s what happens after you’ve been at this for a while.
For new writers trying to get comfortable with their footing, I’d suggest setting some realistic expectations. If an idiot like myself can learn to draft this quickly, you absolutely can –– it’ll just take time at the keyboard for you to get fully accustomed to the interface between your narrative-spinning brain, and your fingers. Fortunately, time is generally on your side.
This isn’t pop music; no one cares if you get older while the manuscript evolves… and I tend to think good ideas only get better as they age. Keep in mind, The Rogue Commodore was basically the rebirth of Defense Command, Guardians of Earth and Bonaventure. Making those things fit together took ten years. By the same token, I’ve already explained how Alex and Stephanie were both waiting around for their own series –– and how, if it had it not taken a decade to get to Whitecoat, Alex would have been quite different.
My advice: give yourself permission to take as long as you need. Absolutely participate in NaNoWriMo, and if you can knock off a book this November, do it –– and be proud. But if you don’t get the book done, don’t be discouraged in the slightest. Writing can take time, but if my experience is anything besides a fluke, it’ll get faster, easier, and perhaps even better (admittedly a very relative term in my case) as the years progress.
This is the best gig in the world. You get to live your dreams, pal around with awesome fictional people, and share the whole adventure with people you admire. Tell your stories, have fun, and good luck if you’re doing NaNoWriMo!