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It’s Not the Size. It’s How You Use It.

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For starters, my latest short fiction is up at Merry Sisters of Fate (I was going for creepy).

Far too late to be useful for my two NaNoWriMo posts from last week, I realized that I had visual aids to show what I was trying to talk about. I’ve had to revise my thoughts on NaNo now that I have heard from so many people participating (thanks for that, by the way!) so my insistence that you can’t write an amazing 50,000 novel in 30 days is somewhat of a moot point. But if I was still harping on that, I would’ve whipped out these visual examples because if I love anything, it’s an analogy.


I know that’s a lot of cats to pull out first thing on a Tuesday morning, but there it is. Back before I was a full-time author, I was a starving portrait artist (I wrote LAMENT two hours a week, on Wednesdays, because that was when I could find time). And one of the things that was very successful for me both professionally (that means paying the rent) and technically (that means not sucking) was the Painting a Day movement. The whole idea behind the movement was to create a new painting from beginning to end all in one day, every day.

So, like NaNoWriMo, an impossible deadline.

The thing was, it worked. At first, I failed miserably. I was working on commissions and Painting a Day at the same time, so in essence I was trying to complete an entire painting, work on my commissions & gallery work, and also keep up with all of the marketing and traveling stuff that comes with being an artist. My daily paintings looked like a dog’s breakfast . . . until I figured out that the scope of my daily paintings was too vast. I started shrinking down the size of the painting. How small did I have to go for it to be doable in one hour (the amount of time I was able to dedicate to a daily painting). Turns out, for my acrylic style with big brush strokes, it was 6 x 6" (the cat on top). For my colored pencils? 2.5 x 3.5", the size of a baseball card (the cat on the bottom).

And the reason why my daily paintings didn’t work when I tried to do them bigger was because, when I was working on a full-size painting, this was what I got in an hour’s worth of work on a 16 x 20" painting:

Stunning, eh? I feel like that’s what I get when I work with NaNoWriMo within the rules. If I try to write a novel in a month, that’s the absolute best I could hope for — a skeleton. And I understand that’s fine, so long as you understand that you have to go back and fill it out:

But that pretty much assumes that you’ll have the gumption to keep working at it after NaNo has finished. So that’s why I was suggesting that the scope of NaNo be scaled down — a 15-25K short story instead of a 50K novel, or a 50K novel in 2 months instead of 1. Because if you make the size of the painting smaller, you ended up with a prettier and more useful piece of art at the end of the hour. If I stopped after an hour and had cat #2 at the end, I’d be happy. I have something to be proud of forever. But if I did that 16 x 20" dayglo skeleton and never got a chance to go back to it? Well, all I’d have is a painting that looks like an angry child did it.

Plus, I think that you learn more by completing the whole process — beginning, middle, end, editing — as often as possible. It’s not really about length. That’s the reason I mentioned the Merry Sisters of Fate at the beginning of the post. Most of y’all probably already know about it, but it’s a short story blog that I started with my crit partners a few years ago, inspired by how much a Painting a Day improved my art. Initially, we were each posting a short story every single week — so over forty short stories each, that first year. I have to tell you, I learned more in that year than I have in my entire writing life. The process of starting and finishing is what taught me, rather than working over my full length novels again and again.

So I have made my peace with NaNo, because I know now that people use it for the community, the inspiration, the impetus to start, not necessarily to create something publishable. But if you’re using it to get better with your writing, I hope you’ll learn from my mistakes. It’s not the size. It’s how you use it.

Maggie Stiefvater
Hi, I'm Maggie Stiefvater

Professional novelist by day and artist by night. I live an eccentric life in the middle of nowhere, Virginia with my charmingly straight-laced husband, two kids, and neurotic dogs. I’m the author of the Books of Faerie (LAMENT and BALLAD); the bestselling SHIVER trilogy (SHIVER, LINGER, FOREVER), and THE SCORPIO RACES.

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