During the month of November this year, I participated in the writing event known as National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. It was a great experience, and so I thought I should write about it, to share my feelings and what I learned.
The goal of NaNoWriMo is to get aspiring writers to actually sit down and write, instead of just talking about perhaps writing in the future. In order to associate some concrete numbers with this, the goal is write 50,000 words during the month of November. No previously-written passages can count towards the word goal, but using outlines is permitted. As per the name of the event, participants are supposed to write a novel (or part of a novel), but there some participants who opt to bend the rules and write something else, such as a collection of short stories or a play, or edit a first draft they wrote previously.
As of 30 November 2013, my word count was 45,221 words. Though I didn’t meet the word count goal, I really loved participating in NaNoWriMo and learned a great deal from it, both about writing in general and about my own strengths and limitations as writer.
Thou Shalt Write
The first and foremost rule of writing, as often stated, is the following: Writers write. This is also often the most daunting aspect, because the blank sheet of paper or the blank word processing document is a frightening thing. Ideas for stories often seem perfect as concepts in the writer’s mind, and we always feel as though our words don’t do justice to that supposedly ideal and most fragile imagining.
But writers write, and so the words must be written. This is what NaNoWriMo is great for: to get a person writing. The deadline and word count goal provide motivation, as does seeing others also participating, while the freedom to choose a story of the writer’s preference provides inspiration.
Like many people, I’ve long wanted to be a writer. Stories shave shaped and changed my life, so I want to write my own stories. Also like many other people, I’ve always had trouble sitting down and actually writing. Though I sometimes write, it has usually not been often enough for me to actually complete many projects. I’ve only written and completed a few short stories, poems, and fan fictions.
NaNoWriMo has done for my fiction writing what blogging has done for my non-fiction writing. It helped me write more often and overcome the intimidation of the blank page. Once I knew I had already written a couple of thousand words, writing another couple thousand did not seem as scary. As the words piled up, and I suddenly found myself with a document containing tens of thousands of words, hundreds of pages of writing, it provided me with motivation to continue.
At 45,221 words, my NaNoWriMo project is more than twice as long as my longest fan fiction and about ten times longer than most of the many stories that I’ve started and never completed. Quantity is certainly not quality, of course, but when trying to write a novel, quantity has to be there in addition to quality.
There is always the allure of other projects. Writers get ideas from everything in life, and it can be tempting to change to a different project after writing a few paragraphs or a few pages of one story. NaNoWriMo provides motivation both to keep writing and also to keep working on one story. After writing tens of thousands of words, it begins to feel as though finishing the story is possible.
After NaNoWriMo 2013, I feel more confident in my ability to continue a story and dedicated enough to this story that I want to keep writing it despite my other ideas. Most importantly, I want to write—not just abstractly, but in reality. I actually look forward to writing and consider it a part of my day. It’s a wonderful feeling, and for the first time in my life, I feel confident in calling myself a writer.
Fan Fiction vs. Original Fiction
“Cath didn’t tell him that she’d been writing love stories—rewriting the same love story—every day for the last five years. That she’’d written love stories with and without the goo, love-at-first-sight stories, love-before-first-sight stories, love-to-hate-you stories. …
She didn’t tell Nick that writing love stories was her thing. Her one true thing. And that his anti-love story read like someone’s very first fanfic—Mary Sue to the tenth power. That the main character was obviously Nick and that the girl was obviously Winona Ryder plus Natalie Portman plus Selena Gomez.
Instead, Cath fixed it. She rewrote his dialogue. She reined in the quirk.”
(Rainbow Rowell, Fangirl)
“I know Simon and Baz. I know how they think, what they feel. When I’m writing them, I get lost in them completely, and I’m happy. When I’m writing my own stuff, it’s like swimming upstream. Or … falling down a cliff and grabbing at branches, trying to invent the branches as I fall.”
(Cather “Cath” Avery in Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl)
My NaNoWriMo 2013 project is an original story, but I have written fan fiction in the past and may do so again in the future. There is much commentary about fan fiction, both by fan fiction writers themselves and by the creators of the original works on which fan fiction is based. As someone who wrote it and who has spent a lot of time reading it, I obviously think fan fiction is not only okay but also a great way to participate in fandom.
But the question is this: What about fan fiction authors who want to be authors of original fiction in the future? Does writing fan fiction help or hurt this goal in any way?
My NaNoWriMo experience gave me some idea of how fan fiction has affected my original writing. Based on my experience, fan fiction has helped me as a writer, but it does have certain limitations in what it can teach, due to the difference between writing in an established world (even with non-canon and alternate-universe changes) and creating one on your own.
If a writer approaches fan fiction writing with a dedication to practicing their writing and putting effort into the stories, there are many things to learn. It’s beneficial to get some practice with things such as basic grammar. One can also gain experience with the flow of writing and learning thing such as when to start new paragraphs. Two things that I really learned a lot about from writing fan fiction were (a) pacing and (b) writing different types of passages.
Before I started writing fan fiction, I had always had trouble with pacing. My stories usually ended too abruptly, were rushed, and didn’t have enough information (often due to trying to fit a novel-sized idea into a short story-length piece for an assignment). Writing fan fiction allowed me to gain practice in telling a story with appropriate pacing, giving the right information to the reader at the right time. Actually completing some stories allowed me to then go back and edit, to make improvements. This helped me during NaNoWriMo, because I did not have trouble writing at a good pace that would allow the story to unfold over a novel.
Similarly, writing fan fiction allowed me to practice writing different types of passages. A story often contains many different elements (such as narration, dialogue, description, and so on) and writers sometimes feel more comfortable writing certain elements more so than others. While writing fan fiction, I gained experience writing these different types of passages within an established universe, without having to create my own universe first. Like Cath in Rainbow Rowell’s wonderful book Fangirl, while writing fan fiction, we can recognize common mistakes made by other writers and by ourselves and then gain experience in writing and editing. This has definitely helped me improve my original writing.
There are, of course, limitations to how much fan fiction writing experience can translate into original fiction writing. The main thing that fan fiction can’t teach is the creation of new characters and worlds (though reading the original canon can be instructive in this regard). Of course, there is some fan fiction or semi-fan fiction that is original enough that it still requires this, such as a story that is a retelling with many changes from the original or a story-within-a-story in which the original characters are reading a real work by a different author (e.g. books about book clubs). However, most fan fiction (including my own) usually features the same characters from an established story, with stories that add scenes to the original, create sequels and prequels, or change the story in a way that the fan fiction author would like (e.g. non-canon relationships, resurrected dead characters).
Writing in one’s own universe with original characters is very different from writing fan fiction in an established universe. Almost by definition, fan fiction readers are fans of the canon on which the fan fiction is based; most fan fiction would not even make sense to someone who hasn’t read or seen one of the canon works.
(This is, incidentally, why I think it is unlikely that fan fiction published and shared for free would hurt a creator’s income; fan fiction readers and writers are often devoted fans who wait eagerly for the next installment of canon by the creator. Fan fiction is a fun way to return to the world between books, episodes, seasons, and movies; people don’t read fan fiction instead of the canon, but in addition to it. But I digress.)
Because of the primary audience for fan fiction, it is often unnecessary to repeat world building information already known by fans. Writers can still practice writing description, but it’s not the same as writing one’s own original story. The amount of description needed is different when people already known about the universe from the canon, compared to when describing a universe to them for the first time in an original story. Though I can practice writing description in fan fiction, when I write my own original stories, I have to remember that I am describing the universe to the reader for the first time; I cannot rely on prior knowledge. Readers already know what Hogwarts looks like, so my description of the Hogwarts library in my fan fiction isn’t the first time they’re reading about it. By comparison, readers don’t know about the universes in my own original writing, so there is a certain amount of adjustment that has to be made when judging how to write the descriptions.
Another consideration that has to be made when going from writing fan fiction to original writing is the scope of the story. Some fan fictions might qualify as a passage or scene from a story, rather than an entire story. Some fan fictions fill in scenes that may have been briefly referenced in canon but not described in detail. Some fan fictions focus on a particular moment (such as a first kiss) with very little context. The story may not make sense on its own to anyone but a fan of the canon.
All things considered, I think fan fiction provides some valuable lessons on writing, though there are some ways in which the experience does not translate over exactly to original writing. As with many things, one’s own effort will affect the outcome. A fan fiction author who puts in hard work (not just the time to write a quick first draft and post it right away, but the time to revise and make the story as good as possible) will likely gain a lot from the experience.
Write What You Like
“Write something true. Write something frightening. Write something close to the bone. You are on this plane to tell the story of what you saw here. What you heard. What you felt. What you learned. Any effort spent in that pursuit cannot be wasted. Any way that you can tell that story more truly, more vividly, more you-ly, is the right way.
So holler. Tell it loud and tell it bright and tell it slant and tell it bold. Tell it with space whales and silent films or tell it with quiet desperation or tell it with war or tell it with dragons or tell it with tall ships or tell it with divorce in the suburbs or tell it with dancing skeletons and a kraken in the wings.
Tell it before you get scared and silence yourself.”
Another adage that authors often hear is “write what you like”, meaning that we should write the kind of story we would want to read. Doing this can be difficult in certain settings, such as classes, due to set assignments and concern about the reactions of the professor or fellow students to certain topics that are considered controversial. There have been multiple times when I’ve written a story differently than how I wanted to write it, due to worry about what my teachers or classmates would think. I remember, from my experience in a college creative writing class, making vague genderless references to a main character’s partner, because I did not want to face criticism for having a character in a same-sex relationship in my story. I even remember that one of the other students commented that she would like to know about the character’s wife.
NaNoWriMo provides the deadline of a class but without the specifications of an assignment or the concern about immediately sharing the story with people who will make comments directly to you and a teacher who will give you a grade. So, I could work on my science fiction starship story with same-sex relationships, multiple female and racial minority characters, and discussions of religion without being worried about having to read it aloud in a few days or weeks to people who could potentially have a discriminatory reaction.
Part of being a writer is learning to deal with criticism, of course, but it can be especially difficult if one fears that the criticism could be of a discriminatory nature. There’s value in being able to write freely without worrying about that yet, while the story is still a work in progress. Writing the story without that worry also gives the writer time to build up the confidence to share it later. The chance to write with the motivational benefits of a class but without the associated nervousness was a good experience and caused me to write characters, relationships, and themes in a way that I’d always wanted to write them—more honest and true to my goals of writing a diverse cast and including certain topics I’m interested in.
Edit Later; or, First Drafts Are Horrible
“When you look at other people’s published novels, they seem gleaming and perfect, like the authors knew what they wanted to do from the start and just did it. But trust me: they didn’t know.” (Lev Grossman, NaNoWriMo 2013 Pep Talk)
“Normally I start each writing session by rewriting whatever I wrote in my last session. With Fangirl, my NaNoWriMo project, I picked up wherever I’d left off and kept moving. I never looked back.
So… I didn’t actually finish my book that November. I met the word goal, but was only about halfway done with Fangirl. I continued working on it through January, then did a pretty heavy rewrite the next spring. Here’s something that really shocked me during my revisions: I kept almost every word I wrote during NaNoWriMo.”
“Books are made in revision. For all three of my novels, I have deleted more than 90% of the first draft, and everything that people like about my books emerges in later drafts.” (John Green, NaNoWriMo!!)
There are a few authors who can, astoundingly, write a story in one draft that requires only minor edits. Odds are, you are not one of them, and NaNoWriMo is about accepting that fact and writing the horrible first draft anyway.
There are some NaNoWriMo participants who follow (or try to follow) a “never use backspace” rule. I am incapable of doing this. My Friendly Internal Editor is too vocal and dedicated to go on vacation for a month, and I quite like her sticking around. I prefer to follow a different rule: edit sometimes. This requires realizing which edits should be made right away and which one can be put off for later.
For me, some edits made sense to do while writing the first draft, such as moving a sentence a few lines back or forward, rewording a very unclear passage, and correcting spelling and grammar mistakes that I noticed right away. Other things, however, could be put off for later. I could wait to edit certain large scenes I’d already written. There was no need to delete entire pages, just yet. If I was having trouble with a particular passage, I didn’t have to keep rewriting it; I could skip ahead and write a different passage that I had ideas for. (This is something I had also learned from writing fan fiction and non-fiction essays, but I hadn’t applied it extensively to my original fiction before NaNoWriMo.) If I decided thirty thousand words into the book that I wanted to change the name of a character or organization, I didn’t have to go back right then to find every single reference to that and change it.
For me, editing has always been one of the reasons that I would usually write a few paragraphs or pages of a story before deciding it was horrible and starting over from the beginning (or starting a new story). NaNoWriMo help me realize that if I keep writing, I will be able to edit later to make the story better. Though I had always heard this from other people, experiencing it myself was extremely helpful. Sometimes, writing more allowed me to develop the story in a way that gave me ideas about the parts I was having trouble with earlier. Seeing a draft with many chapters (uncompleted though it is, as of now) allowed me to make connections between different passages and think about the larger themes and ideas in the story.
This motivation to write and encouragement to accept the necessity of later editing helps participating writers follow the cardinal rule “writers write”. It helps us get the first draft of the story moving forward, instead of becoming so obsessed with editing that we never finish the first draft at all.
I’ve wanted to participate in NaNoWriMo for years, and finally doing so was a great experience. I would definitely recommend it for aspiring authors, especially those who are having trouble moving forward in writing a story beyond a few pages and actually getting a draft done. Participating in NaNoWriMo is a fun, educational, and very memorable experience.
 Lo, Malinda. “Pep Talk from Malinda Lo”. National Novel Writing Month, November 2013. Retrieved on 1 December 2013 from http://nanowrimo.org/pep-talks/malinda-lo.
 My longest fan fiction is “Of Fire and Ice”, which can be found on fanfiction.net at https://www.fanfiction.net/s/3259185/1/Of-Fire-and-Ice.
 Rowell, Rainbow. Fangirl. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 2013, Ch 17, p. 198. Print.
 Rowell, Fangirl, Ch 23, p. 262.
 My profile page on fanfiction.net can be found at https://www.fanfiction.net/u/1052224/Geek-Squared-1307.
 Sharmin Ani J. “We Do It Out of Love: a poem about fan fiction writers”. Posted on 29 February 2012 at The Eternal Bookshelf. Retrieved on 2 December 2013 from http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com/2012/02/29/we-do-it-out-of-love-a-poem/.
 Sharmin, Ani J. “Book Review: Rainbow Rowell’s ‘Fangirl’”. Posted on 2 October 2013 at The Eternal Bookshelf. Retrieved on 1 December 2013 from http://eternalbookshelf.wordpress.com/2013/10/02/book-review-rainbow-rowells-fangirl/.
 Sharmin, Ani J. (a.k.a. Geek Squared 1307). “Remus, We Know”. Posted on 17 May 2012 at FanFiction.net. Retrieved on 2 December 2013 from https://www.fanfiction.net/s/8126137/1/Remus-We-Know.