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November Approaches: Five Tips For the Forums

This July was the first year I "won" National Novel Writing Month. Every year, the same site hosts two write-a-thons on the off-season; one in April, and one in July. I started with zero words and ended up with 50k+ words.

Now November approaches, and the main month-long write-a-thon begins. 

My feelings about NaNo are a little mixed. It's not for everyone, and there are some pitfalls to be aware of. However, it can get you started on establishing consistent writing habits and generally getting your own head unstuck from your posterior when it comes to actually putting words down on the page. 

The most helpful thing to me were the forums. Here are some tips on how to use them to your advantage.

The Forums Are Your Friend

If you, like me, aren't super great at structuring your time, then the Word Wars, Prompts, and Sprints Forum will be your best friend during NaNo. From "word war" challenges with other writers to Harry Potter-themed "word crawls" to Game of Thrones bingo, these user-created exercises help take your writing time from nebulous unmotivated word-barfing to "I almost have bingo; I just need to stab the main character in the back!"

They're fun. When you're feeling overwhelmed by all the words you have to churn out before December 1st, fun is good.

The Forums Are Your Enemy

The forums can be a huge help or a massive time-suck. If you spend more time jumping around commenting on other people's plot problems or character questions than you do writing your own, that's a sign that you need to limit the time you spend there. Make a system if you have to: "earn" forum time by writing words, where 100 words = five minutes of dicking around on the forums. 

If you, again like me, have a problem with time management, it's a good rule to just never click anyone's link to TV Tropes. Seriously. Just don't do it.

Don't Be a Selfish Pain in the Wherever

Reciprocity is important. If you request help on a forum problem or participate in a worldbuilding thread like Respond, Answer, Ask, it's good manners to leave a response somewhere else, too. Don't be rude. Don't be super harsh. If you find a writing buddy and they ask you to be a harsh critic in your private messaging critiques, that's one thing. But many people use NaNo to gain confidence or overcome a writing block to churn out a first draft. 

That's important. Don't hurt that. 

Also, while I may not always have the highest opinion of the moderators, you can avoid a lot of headaches and eye-rolling by at least bothering to read the rules. Know which forums are all-ages and which are not. Know which forum best matches your topic or question thread. 

Know Your Genre, but Don't Worry About it Too Much

I always see posts along the lines of, "What genre is this?" "Should I make this more fantasy, or more science fiction?" "How should I pitch this to an agent?" "I want to write a vampire story, but I think they're so overdone. How do I turn this into more of a paranormal crime novel?" "If I put too much sex into my romance novel, does that make it erotica?"

The truth is, it's pretty hard to tell the genre of a book you haven't even written yet. 

So write all the sex you want into your first draft of that romance novel, and then decide whether it's erom or erotica later. You can always edit the sex out. You can always turn your vampire detective into a normal woman later if the paranormal element isn't working. But so many people seem to be trying to edit a story they haven't even started. 

Genre is weird and fuzzy and frankly something that agents and publishers are better suited to dealing with. You may have a general idea of the genre you're writing in, but I personally wouldn't sweat the details too much -- not at the NaNo stage.

The Problem With Problematics

In a similar vein, you get a lot of people asking whether x, y, or z is a good representation of a certain type of character. Writing different-gendered characters, gay characters, characters of color, disability, and various types of diversity can be difficult for people without lived experience of those things. If you want to incorporate a character from an underrepresented group in your NaNo novel, wonderful. If questions about possible problematic narratives in a story you haven't even written yet are making you freeze up, not so wonderful. 

I am of the opinion that the first draft isn't necessarily the first place to worry about those things. Consult the forums, write up a list of questions, and then write the thing. Re-read your 50k later with those questions in mind. Don't let fear of doing it wrong stop you. It's a first draft. You are going to get shit wrong. 

I've also noticed that some people flock to the "writing diversity" threads on the NaNo forums looking not for feedback, but a pat on the back for being so open-minded. They tend to get super pissed if someone points out a problem with their story. So. Don't do that. And if you don't agree with someone's advice, thank them for their input and then move on. 

This is a delicate topic. But in a world where authors like JK Rowling can go through the entire writing and publishing process without anyone saying, "Hey, isn't this kind of ignorant?" the fact that you are even thinking and worrying about these problems at this stage is a good thing. 

So keep that worry...in your back pocket for the editing stage. On the forums, you can make connections with people who are willing to read over your synopsis or draft looking for red flags in your representation of a Chinese-American lesbian vampire detective. 

But you have to write it first. That's the whole point of NaNoWriMo, after all.

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