In the age of NaNoWriMo, productivity hacks, self-publishing and the James Patterson model of writing, it’s easy to start thinking that the only right way to write is fast. If a draft takes you more than a month or two, clearly you’re doing it wrong. Of course, we know this wasn’t always the case. We know Jane Austen and Tolstoy and even Hemingway took years to write their most famous works. But we’re different now. We have computers and productivity apps and thirty-day challenges. We have become masters of efficiency. Certainly we should be able to hack the writing process too. And maybe we can. The number of published novels that started out as NaNo projects is growing every year. Self-published authors are cranking out novels at the speed of reader demand. Current events become best-selling books within months, if not weeks. So it’s easy to believe that if fast-drafting isn’t your thing that you are the problem. But the truth is, your process is your own.
I first read The Art of Slow Writing by Louise DeSalvo in 2016, having won NaNo the previous year. I’d loved this story and had fun writing it in thirty days, but second-drafting was a completely different story. Plot holes were everywhere, settings and world building were basically nonexistent. But worst of all, the characters were flatter than paper dolls. I was ready to give it up as unsalvageable and move on. Reading DeSalvo’s book was my first inkling that it might not be the story that was the problem, it was my approach to writing (and re-writing it). Of course, it would take another two attempts to make this story work during NaNo and a second reading of the book for that inkling to become a lesson that might actually stick.
With NaNoWriMo less than a month away, it’s a good time to be reminded that fast-drafting is just one choice among many when it comes to figuring out your writing process. It doesn’t work for everyone or even for every story. What I’ve learned about my own process is that NaNoWriMo is a great way to dive into a story idea and explore the pieces of it that I’m excited about. It might be a certain character that I want to spend more time with or a world that I want to flesh out or even a what if I follow down the rabbit hole. It’s a great way to uncover problems and figure out what I don’t know about my story. Then, if I decide I want to stick with this idea and turn it into a fleshed-out novel, I start the in-depth plotting, character development, and slow writing that’s become part of my process.
I’m still working on that novel I won NaNo with in 2015. It’s gone through multiple iterations and I’ve set it aside more times than I can count, but I’m sticking with it because it’s stuck with me. And more importantly, it’s taught me about my process. It’s also made it possible for me to get excited about jumping into NaNoWriMo with a brand new idea this year. I know that taking breaks and switching gears is part of how I work best and whether either of these stories turn into a published novel, they’re both getting me closer to that goal.