5 Lessons from Camp NaNoWriMo 2020!

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If April 2020 had gone the way we’d planned, I would’ve had two whole trips–one of them solo–under my belt already. But alas, the Virus That Shall Not Be Named had other ideas, which meant I had a choice: either I could allow April to remain a dull, dreary blank and feel sorry for myself…or I could take advantage of the long stretches of eraser-smudged days on my calendar.

I’m quite happy to say that while my disappointment remained real, I accomplished a lot in April. One of those accomplishments? My second Camp NaNoWriMo win in a row! Another even more significant accomplishment? Finally starting a viable, exciting new science fiction/fantasy novel about which I am incredibly passionate. 

I know I mentioned either here or on Twitter (I can’t remember which now) that I was considering a contemporary novel instead. I had an idea–a very cute one, I might add–and I’m not saying it’s something I’ll never revisit.

But “The Cupcake Story,” as I called it, just wasn’t resonating with me. It didn’t get me up in the wee hours of a Saturday morning like my Star Wars fanfiction had…and certainly not like Operation Lionhearted did.

So I embarked upon Camp NaNoWriMo with 5 very specific goals in mind:

1. To jumpstart a new novel, implementing the biggest thing I learned from 3 months of writing Star Wars fanfiction: that sci-fi/fantasy IS my one true love when it comes to writing.

2. To shed self-belittling thoughts and doubts about the legitimacy of such stories as opposed to contemporary/historical fiction.

3. To write a combined 20,000 words of rough sketches and opening chapters.

4. To have outrageous levels of fun in April, which should’ve been a month full of travel but which will now be a month of figuring out which story I want to write.

5. To write the kind of sci-fi/fantasy novel I’d want to read.

For those who don’t know, Camp NaNoWriMo (“National Novel Writing Month”) is a more relaxed version of November’s NaNoWriMo, an annual challenge to write 50,000 words of a new novel. With Camp, however, you can set whatever goal you want, for whatever project you please. Wanna write 10,000 words of novel prep? 25,000 words of fanfic? 50,000 words of screenplay? They got you, fam.

I chose 20,000 words of novel prep: outlines, character sketches, brainstorming, and opening chapters. The first couple of weeks were difficult. My Inner Editor didn’t like being told to go home, and I kept vacillating between two very different ideas–both of which were inspired by abandoned stories of mine from years ago.

Finally, however–on April 15, no less!–I knew exactly which one I preferred. And guess what?

I’VE BEEN WRITING IT. WITHOUT SELF-CONSCIOUSNESS. And it’s been SO much fun.

So here are 5 things I’ve learned from this Camp NaNoWriMo experience…

1. It’s okay if I don’t enjoy writing contemporary/historical fiction. 

Wendell Berry’s Hannah Coulter and Katherine Reay’s Dear Mr. Knightley are two of my favorite novels of all time, but guys…I just don’t enjoy writing that kind of fiction. I’ve beaten myself up about that, fearing that my own sci-fi/fantasy (SFF) stories will never be taken seriously. And if I want to be taken seriously, I should be writing more contemporary/historical stories…right?

Yet when I try writing those, it’s like I’m pounding a fist against a diamond wall. But when I write SFF, I feel more like Eric Lidell in Chariots of Fire: “When I run, I feel [God’s] pleasure.” Maybe there’s a reason for that. Maybe I’m meant to write make-believe. Maybe I should write it with all my heart.

2. I write for my target audience…and nobody else.

As a Christian, I ultimately write for the audience of my Triune God. But in earthly terms, I can’t write for everyone. Not everyone will enjoy my SFF novels, and that’s okay. But I’m also learning how to write for my target audience: late teen/new adult women. Since I have four sisters who are in this age group (three of whom love SFF), I’m training myself to write this new story with them in mind.

Of course, I do hope other demographics will enjoy it! But it does help to have a specific audience in mind.

3. No word is ever wasted. Even the ones that’ll never see the light of day.

One morning I wrote 1,600 words for this new story that I probably won’t use. It was background stuff–a boring scene that took place right before the actual opening lines. Once upon a time I would’ve castigated myself for spending a whole morning on something so superfluous. But it helped me understand my heroine and her “normal world”–and because of that, it served a glorious purpose.

4. It’s okay if I do Camp NaNoWriMo my own way…BY MYSELF.

Usually Camp NaNoWriMo is a virtual community event, and that’s wonderful. This year, however, I needed it to be more like a silent retreat. I needed to shut myself up in my own private cabin and hammer things out, change my mind, delete stuff, and type-shout in all caps without worrying about what anyone thought of me or my progress.

That sounds awfully isolationist, I know–and as I learn more about “the centric genius” I would not recommend it long term! But for just four short weeks, I needed the freedom to figure out this story in peace and in silence. The results have been well worth the brief withdrawal into my own head.

5. The words flow when I give myself “emotional permission” to write imperfectly.

This month I’ve been reading Julia Cameron’s The Right to Write*. Although she doesn’t write from a Christian worldview, Cameron has wonderful insights on the creative process, especially when it comes to the lies we writers tell ourselves and the truths that set our words flowing again.

In her fifth chapter, “Track,” Cameron writes:

I remembered that once upon a time, writing had been fun for me. My job was to do the writing, not judge the writing. I discovered that the writing seemed to contain an inner plan of its own…I follow it and lay it down. I can pare it, shape it, polish it later. For the moment, my job is just to get it down, just to catch the thought, which I can add to or embellish later on.”

So that’s what I’m doing: following the inner plan, trying not to over-polish. It only confirms something else I’ve learned this month: contrary to what I always assumed, I’m not a plotter. Nor am I a “pantser”–someone who writes by the seat of their pants. But I am a “plantser”: I have a good idea of where this story is going, but there’s nothing like letting it surprise me along the way.

Does that mean I’ll have plot holes to fix in the second draft? Eh, possibly. Does it mean I’ll have to go back and delete unneeded scenes and characters? Most probably.

But I’m writing a first draft, for Pete’s sake. It doesn’t have to be perfect.

And there’s nothing better than simply delighting in my work again.

15 thoughts on “5 Lessons from Camp NaNoWriMo 2020!

  1. I’m glad you had a good April, despite all the changes in plans! I can’t wait to hear more about your new story!
    Fantasy is my favorite genre, and since I love Star Wars, I’m sure I’d love Sci-fi style books too, I just haven’t read any. (Other than being halfway through Starship Troopers.)

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    1. Oooh, can I offer a wholehearted recommendation?? The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer–some of the BEST books I’ve ever read, sci-fi or otherwise. They’re sci-fi adaptations of the Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Rapunzel, and Snow White fairytales all woven together in one four-book story. I’m re-reading them for the first time in four years, and they’re so good! In some ways they inspired Operation Lionhearted, too, so they have a very special place in my heart 🙂

      I’ve never read Starship Troopers, though I have heard of Robert Heinlein! One of my favorite quotes of all time belongs to him: “A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.”

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Of course, I love book recommendations! 😀
        I did think of those as I was writing that comment, they’re on my TBR, but I was waiting to find out what the content is like in them before reading them. Is there anything I should be aware of?
        Phew, that’s a long list. 😆 I think I would run into some trouble trying to design a building, set a bone, solve equations, or program a computer.
        I get the actual meaning though, that’s a good quote!

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      2. I can’t think of anything too significant, content-wise, in The Lunar Chronicles. I remember some heated kissing in the last book, but no inappropriate scenes or bad language beyond the occasional “d*** it.” They’re REALLY good!

        Liked by 1 person

  2. This is what I needed to hear right now as I’m writing my first draft. Especially your point that no word is wasted. I hate wasting time, so when I end up writing an entire scene or chapter that I decide later has to be scrapped or completely changed, I feel like I’ve made no headway at all. But deep inside, I know that’s not true. Because like you said, it helped /me/ to better understand my character and as a result write her better in other scenes. So anyway, thank you so much for these reminders!
    Your story sounds very interesting! And good job on getting in 20K words! It’s so satisfying to reach your word count goal. 😉
    I’ve also found that I’m much better at writing fantasy than contemporary fiction, and I’ve also wondered before if make-believe stories can be just as inspiring and world-changing as other stories. I believe that fantasy is just as life-changing as contemporary stories because it can often teach truth on a deeper level than other genres. And it appeals to that longing in each of us to be a hero, to make a difference, and to change the world. So fantasy and science fiction do have an important place in literature, and they’re great platforms to share the gospel too!

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    1. YES, EXACTLY!!! Science fiction and fantasy are incredibly important genres! And yet as much as I adore them, I’ve had such a hard time owning them…if that makes sense. I think we get so caught up in the lofty concept of “writing what we know,” we forget that that doesn’t necessarily mean “write a story set in real life.” It CAN mean that…sometimes. But fundamentally all it means is, “Incorporate transcendent ideas, truths, and desires that are common to humankind into whatever sort of story you like the best.”

      I’m so glad those reminders were helpful for you! Even though Quarantine Life hasn’t always been fun (I deeply miss my church family and the freedom to go wherever I wanna go, WHENEVER I wanna go), I do think I’m learning a lot of important lessons about myself and my craft. Learning to recognize true progress even when it doesn’t “look” like progress has been one such lesson!

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  3. I love the second last line the most.

    “But I’m writing a first draft, for Pete’s sake. It doesn’t have to be perfect.”

    Go get the words, put them in the order **you** want, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

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  4. I love your points about ‘shouting in all caps’ and there never being a wasted word that we write. As someone who interviews her characters and spends alone time in the car [precious rare, as I have two beautiful children still!] talking through plot ideas and character difficulties aloud, it’s great to hear someone else say it!
    This fire, this light that you have is a gift from our Father in heaven. He delights in his Creation, and we toddle along in his footsteps when we create with our little scribbles and doodles, with our playdough shapes, and the little worlds we have inside. These are beautiful gifts from him.
    It is beautiful that you want to share these so that they reflect his beauty and glory. Keep at that first draft, and all the other drafts to follow!
    Soli Deo Gloria!

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    1. Thank you so much for your encouragement, Rachel! Can I make a recommendation that I think will be as much a blessing to you as it is to me? The Anselm Society is hosting their Imagination Redeemed conference (the one I was supposed to attend in Colorado) online for the next couple of weeks! Most of the videos/seminars are posted for free at their website, and the ones they’ve shared thus far have been SO encouraging and affirming to me as a writing Christian! Here’s the link, if you want to check it out. Heidi White’s opening lecture is amazing.

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  5. Thanks for sharing this, Maribeth! This is also really encouraging for me, as my brain is full of ideas for several different sci-fi/superhero/fantasy stories. My Inner Editor is brutal, especially during first drafts, but that’s so true: IT’S A FIRST DRAFT AND IT NEEDN’T BE PERFECT.
    I’ve been considering giving NaNo (camp or the full thing!) a shot, and I might have to jump on board soon!

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    1. Finally getting around to answering this comment…MY APOLOGIES, I had a crazy weekend 😛

      You should definitely give Camp NaNo a try! It’ll roll back around in July, so that would give you plenty of time to psych yourself up for it! November’s 50,000-word challenge is always a bit brutal, haha, but I really enjoy Camp!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. No worries at all!! I completely understand!

    I might just have to do that! I have a story idea that’s been rolling around in my head for a while, and I’ve been rushing to my notes app to jot down ideas as they come to me. Camp might be a great way to get started! 😄

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