NaNoWriMo 2020 Postmortem: What Did I Learn?

I successfully completed NaNoWriMo. Though the novel I was working on for it has two connecting bits left to write, one of which is quite significant, it was a good experience overall.

It’s time to explore what made it valuable. Obviously there has been no cash profit for me (yet), and I still have my first novel to revise. On that front, it’s made some more work for me, because I now have a second novel to get ship-shape.

That’s not a negligible process. While I’d like to say I’ll have a novel out by the end of 2021, I’m not sure that’s reasonable. There’s still revision and editing, and I’ll probably have to scrape together money to outsource some of it.

But I think this is a great time to step back and reflect on what I learned from NaNoWriMo and perhaps the past year a little more broadly.

NaNoWriMo 2020 Postmortem at a Glance

  1. I can get 4000 words written in a day (record 4216), and that’s perhaps better than arbitrarily slowing myself down.
  2. Writing accountability groups are a great way to stay focused.
  3. Genre and style shapes output levels and acceptable quality.
  4. Moving all over the manuscript has strengths and weaknesses.


Anyone who tells you that you can’t force writing is a hack.

Good writing? Perhaps more in line.

With that said, as I worked on Babylon Recursion I didn’t find that there were any major downsides in quality as I wrote more per day. There were scenes that I knew sucked. Some of those have already gotten fixed, but revision doesn’t factor into my final word count.

My average output basically fell a thousand words a week after hitting my peak. I’ll post the graph and talk about my analysis.

There’s a very sharp fall-off, and I can tell you exactly what was going on each week to make it happen.

Week By Week

My first week I started with the germ of the novel, which was a scene with the central gunslinger protagonist fighting through a bunch of virtual enemies. Then he called his fixer and got into the inciting incident.

From that point, I basically had two or three big scene ideas per day for the rest of the first week. I spent too much time on Election Day coverage, so I shot myself in the foot on output that day.

After the first week, I still had one or two scene ideas per day, and I would also add some connecting tissue between scenes. I think I wrote the final scene on the 17th, which is the last ~2000 word day from the second two weeks.

After that point I was stuck sort of connecting things together. I was still fairly diligent, though I’ve been working on my upcoming book and classwork. As a result, I didn’t really put as much into Babylon Recursion.

Then the last couple weeks I hit something of a wall. The really interesting scenes are all written, and it’s just making them fall together. Between my finals for my MFA classes and figuring that this isn’t time critical to produce a coherent narrative, I stopped pushing. I had a couple bursts of inspiration, such as the last couple days when I worked out a key issue for plot cohesion.

For the last few days of November, I was basically writing enough to unlock the “update every day” badge, because I wanted to clean-sweep my whole NaNoWriMo, but I consider the first draft “done” except for revision.

Quantity and Quality

I’ve been talking a lot about writing a lot to get practice to improve the quality of your writing and the role of planning as I went through NaNoWriMo.

There is a difference between ability and execution.

Writing more will increase your ability. That comes with a few assumptions. For instance, most writers read to study the craft. Most want to study good practice.

Do that and you will see your ability increase. You’d have to be peculiarly dedicated to avoiding improvement to write and not get better at it.

But quality in execution is different. I think I wrote some mediocre lines during NaNoWriMo, though not necessarily abysmal ones.

For Babylon Recursion, my NaNoWriMo novel, my goal was simple. Get the words on the page. Make them nice later.

There’s a cost/benefit analysis there. Going fast and making mistakes seems better than being paralyzed by indecision. For my MFA novel, I didn’t go fast and break stuff. I had to show my professors something decent and convince them to sign off on my degree.

They Write in Packs

I joined a local NaNoWriMo group.

It was great. We have a Discord server with a bot that handles sprints, and we’d all write at the same time.

I didn’t do any of the voice/Zoom call stuff, but even without that it was refreshing to have other writers there at any moment.

It’s one thing to have someone hold you accountable for writing, or post public updates, or have a good reward system set up (something I’ll discuss in Herding Your Cats when it comes out this month). Writing with people is a whole different animal.

It’s so much better. I can’t even describe it productively, so I’ll spare you the rambling and say that I highly recommend it.

The Type of Work Is Important

Style and genre really do seem to determine how fast you can move.

Some types of story entertain, and others question.

Simply put, it’s easier to entertain than to explain.

That’s not to say that you don’t want quality in a mass-market work. It’s perhaps even more competitive. However, you don’t need to worry about the same stuff. When it’s metal clashing against metal, the logical sequence of events flows more readily than when the protagonist and antagonist are arguing about philosophy.

One thing that helped with NaNoWriMo is that Babylon Recursion is mass-market cyberpunk, where Daughter of Spades, my MFA novel, is upmarket speculative-visionary fiction. I break down that distinction in a YouTube video I recorded a while back.

With that said, taking more time would probably have made the first draft of Babylon Recursion “better” to read. But the first draft isn’t what gets published. And, further, the first draft is the hard part. Improving things takes time and effort, but making them takes more.

I got really lucky with Daughter of Spades because I put enough time into planning that the story came together neatly. Babylon Recursion has a few wrinkles, but nothing insoluble.

If I’d written Daughter of Spades in a month, I don’t think I’d have had the time to contemplate the characters, develop the voice, and include all the depth and richness that made its way into the story. And in my gut I suspect that sort of raw material is nigh-impossible to add in revision.

Babylon Recursion is rebellious, spirited, and feisty. But its big questions are relatively simple, and it’s about entertaining people as much as raising those questions.

Daughter of Spades isn’t about entertainment. I’d hope it’s capable of doing so. But it’s deliberately intense. It’s meant to pressure the hinges.

Leaps of Faith

A graph comparing where scenes of Babylon Recursion fall in the text to the order I wrote them in would look like a modern art piece with paint splattered all over a canvas.

Now, I usually write out of order. I don’t know if it’s from working in games, where world-building involves loose events rather than plots or just my nature. I study text structures a lot. I’d say that they’re probably one of my strong suits.

In Babylon Recursion, I feel like the fairly standard plot arcs are there. There’s a neat inciting incident for each of the protagonists, rising action, a climactic event, and enough resolution to let us know that the good guys win.

There was no plan going into Babylon Recursion. I didn’t even really follow my advice, because I didn’t know the antagonist other than knowing that he killed someone to cover up the theft of nuclear weapons. The relationships between characters emerged during the writing process. The final scene was so far from my mind that I didn’t even have an inkling of what it would turn out to be, though I’m fairly happy with it.

I might tweak it because it feels a little too “Tears in Rain” for my tastes. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but I’m not sure I compare favorably to Blade Runner.

However, I’m fairly proud of what I created, and I can say without a doubt that it wouldn’t have gotten done in a month if I’d spent too much more time on planning.

The counter-point to this is that revision on Babylon Recursion will be an epic process.

Wrapping Up

Doing NaNoWriMo in 2020 was a wonderful experience. It confirmed that I have more than one novel in me, even though I didn’t come away with anything that’s immediately viable.

One thing that it also taught me is how I perform under pressure. A lot of the pain points I felt, like having to do extra revision to fit pieces together instead of just being able to write, were learning opportunities.

Getting the practice is good. Having something that’s potentially viable down the road is also nice.

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