Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Perfectionist's Guide to NaNoWriMo (Or How to Survive The First Draft Without Going Bald)

It's hard being a perfectionist writer. No joke. You all who fit the qualifications know what I mean. The urge to edit everything. The desire to make it right the first time. The need for every chapter, every scene, every word to be perfect.

That doesn't fly come NaNo time.

It's easy to read the rules and learn the guidelines. Easy to tell yourself "just write." And way, way easier said than done. After six years of NaNo and seven attempted novels, I've learned a few things about NaNo, first drafts, and not pulling your hair out when all you want to do is Make. It. Perfect.

1. Redefine Perfect on a Draft-by-Draft Basis

I think we can all come to a near-consensus on when our first draft perfection streak started: the first time a teacher, probably in middle or high school said, "This is a big project, so I want you guys to turn your first draft into me by next Friday." First draft? What's that nonsense? We'd been writing essays start to finish since our very first one. We'd perfected the last-minute, overnighter A+. Our first drafts are our only drafts. So we'd write up our turn-in-ready essay and make a few changes to dumb it down, give the teacher something to review. It really shouldn't have worked, but it did, and it ingrained in us the confidence that we don't really need to worry about drafts. We'll get it right the first time.


Thing is, though, a novel isn't an essay. There's a lot more room for error in 50,000 words than there is in 5,000. And when you realize 30k in that you have to completely redo everything because of a plothole you left in the third chapter, it's easy to give up. It's a failure, and we don't want to fail. Nothing less than an A, right?

The trick is to redefine "perfect" to the individual draft, to move the goalposts of perfection one draft at a time. Author Jane Smiley said, "Every first draft is perfect, because all a first draft has to do is exist." Accept this as the gospel truth. The first draft's goalpost isn't "ready to publish," it's just "written." It doesn't matter if there's giant gaping plot holes. "No plot holes" is the goalpost for draft two. Or "no typos" or "no atrocious grammar" or whatever you want that second draft goalpost to be. Not "perfect perfect" though. That's at LEAST third draft, if not fourth or fifth.

2. Just Because You Wrote It Doesn't Mean You Have To See It

So you just wrote a 2,000 word scene and realize "this isn't working." You have to scrap it all. A whole day's writing, down the recycle bin. But before you hit that delete key, stop! You wrote that. And maybe part of it is salvageable or belongs in a different scene. Don't shortchange your wordcount or do something you may regret. Just hide it. You've got a number of options to make the bad text go away without actually going away forever.
  • Make the text white or use black highlight on black text.
  • Change the font to an unreadable one, like Wingdings.
  • Move the text to the bottom of the document, several pages down, or if you're using a program like Scrivner, to a separate file.
You may be able to think of other tricks to make your mistakes disappear. Whatever you choose to do, implement it, from single sentences to whole chapters. During the first draft, and especially during NaNo, don't just delete haphazardly. That's part of draft two. Write that on your goalpost.

3. It's Okay To Skip Around or Come Back Later

If you're anything like me, you like your perfect drafts to be written in one long swoop, start to finish, Chapter 1 to The End. You write a book just like you read a book. Maybe the thought of breaking it up gives you cold sweats. After all, how can you accurately write the scene where the hero finally meets the villain if you don't know if the love interest is there or not, or if there's a mentor figure the villain's supposed to kill that you haven't introduced yet so you don't even know his personality!

This is me telling you, it's okay. It's okay to skip that awkward conversation if you don't know how to write it yet. It's okay to jump forward to the end when you too happy to write the death scene. It's okay to come back later, whether it's a huge event or a name for a minor character. Leave yourself a note, highlighted yellow and surrounded by attention-grabbing symbols (I like to do [ADD ____]). You don't need the paragraph or scene or chapter to be perfect now, only complete later. And I'll tell you why. You don't complete puzzles by doing one row at a time, in order, right? You get the pieces and parts you can figure out first (the outer frame, the obvious, odd colored pieces, etc) and then use those to fill in the rest. You can do that with your novel. It's just a puzzle where you decide what the picture is.

4. You're Always A Winner

It can feel like if you don't get that purple verified bar, you've failed. You'll want to pretend you never even tried, to make November and NaNo have just not happened for us. We're perfectionists because we don't like failure. But sometimes, despite our best efforts, even if we do everything right, we just can't win. Maybe life got in the way, or maybe you lost your drive. Whatever the reason, you lost.

But you've also won.

Whether you finish November with 100 words or 49,999, those are words you didn't have before. You WROTE. You created something that didn't exist before, and you have the road paved to keep going. There is nothing stopping you from keeping going beyond November. You don't have to put down the story and never look at it again just because you didn't finish it in the course of one month. The "victory" goal of NaNo is 50,000 words, but the real goal of NaNo is to just write. Did you write? Congrats. You've won. What did you win? The right to call yourself a writer. Heck yeah, that's awesome. And what are a few colored pixels compared to that?


So, perfectionists, let go of your hair. November is coming, and you're going to write, and it's going to be just fine. Self-inflicted bald spots only lead to more stress. Scientific fact.


  1. Great post, and it doesn't just apply to NaNo. I love the idea that the goal of the first draft is to exist. I hope my third draft will have no (major) plot holes, my fourth will have fully fleshed out characters...

    1. It's definitely meant to apply to first drafts of any kind, but with NaNo approaching, I wanted to write some kind of beneficial guide for it. Thanks for the comment, and good luck with your goalposts!

  2. I had no idea a "wingdings" font even existed. I might as well write my whole sequel in it, since I've only gotten as far as rewriting Chapter 1 20 times. In honor of my wingdings future....❄︎⍓︎◻︎♏︎ ⍓︎□︎◆︎❒︎ ⧫︎♏︎⌧︎⧫︎!! (I have no idea what that says!) Thanks for the post!

    1. It's there for people who have a need for non-typical symbols, or for students who think they're clever when their teacher says they can turn in their essays in the font of their choice. :P It would be an interesting method, to write a story in wingdings to prevent editing or backreading.