National Novel Writing Month, or “NaNoWriMo” as it’s usually called, starts one week from today. This year will mark my third go-round, after completing the goal the last two years. However, oddly enough, even though I cleared the NaNoWriMo goal of 50000 words in November both times, I still haven’t finished either manuscript!
The first year was Deliverance, eh? (not the actual title), a supernatural thriller involving a kayaking trip in the wilds of northern Canada. I still like this story and have every intention of returning to it at some point. I set it aside because it reached a point where I wasn’t sure how to proceed and I didn’t like the direction I had taken, and then I decided that it was time to write Princesses In SPACE!!! II (not the actual title), because it was about that time that I knew that if I wanted the Princesses series to be a thing, I needed to get going on a second book ASAP. So the kayak-trip-from-hell book is safely awaiting a revisit, maybe in another year or two. after I write Princesses III and a sequel to GhostCop (not the actual title).
Last year I used NaNoWriMo to finish GhostCop and then resume work on Lighthouse Boy, which has again been set aside so I can continue working on the Princesses series. I’ve discovered over the last couple of years that while I can be prolific and always have something in the hopper, I can really only work on one project at a time, whether it be editing an existing manuscript or cranking out a new one. It’s just the way my mind works best, on these sorts of things; I tend to focus strongly on one thing, be it editing or composing, and trying to do both never works as I invariably end up gravitating toward one or the other. So I don’t even try anymore. I have time for Lighthouse Boy, anyway, since my current notion is to finish it and then serialize it as a series of cheap e-books. I suspect that doing something like that will be better accomplished once I’ve established my “brand” a bit, which means getting at least the first two Princesses books out there and at least launching the GhostCop series.
But anyway, NaNoWriMo isn’t really about finishing, anyway. It can be, but my experience is that it’s more about the work. It’s about setting a high goal and working toward it, relentlessly, and with some camaraderie that can’t always be found in real life. Fifty thousand words in one month is absolutely doable, but it’s also not the easiest target to reach if you’re not used to it, and it’s particularly devilish that the challenge comes in a month with only 30 days and one of the major holidays of our year. (Well, for now, anyway, since we seem hell-bent as a culture on making Thanksgiving about as relevant a holiday as Columbus Day, but that’s a rant for another time.) NaNoWriMo is about producing a big chunk of work, regardless of worrying about if it’s good or not. So, in that vein, if you’re considering participating in NaNoWriMo this year, here are my thoughts on how to best approach it for success:
1. Know what you’re going to write.
Have your mind made up so as soon as you sit down at the keyboard on November 1, you can charge out of drydock, thrusters on full. Don’t sit down at the keyboard and then try to decide what story you’re going to tell.
Now, “Know what you’re going to write” has some wiggle-room. I’m the type of writer called a “pantser”, meaning, I write by the seat of my pants. I don’t outline entire novels prior to writing, and if I do any outlining at all, it’s merely a scene or two in advance just so I can work out the timing and sequence of events in my head in the very near term. Other than that, I rarely have any great idea where the story is going.
Perhaps, however, you’re an outliner. You like to have a detailed outline ready to go, or maybe you like to figure out your characters in gory detail prior to writing. Lots of writers spend lots of time doing this kind of prep work — outlines, character sketches, that sort of thing — and if you’re one of them, have as much of that done as possible before November 1. November is not a time for prep work, if you’re doing NaNoWriMo.
2. Choose your style, and the simpler, the better.
Remember, NaNoWriMo is about producing a lot of words in a specific timeframe. Therefore, it’s not really the best time in the world for experimenting with your literary style. If your default style is toward the florid but you’ve had a hankering for writing a crime novel in a kind of Dashiell Hammett style, maybe November isn’t the right time. Likewise, NaNoWriMo really is not the time to write your near-future dystopian tragedy in rhyming Iambic pentameter.
3. Give your internal editor the month off.
Again, you’re looking to cover a lot of ground in November. You can edit later. There just isn’t time for revision, unless you realize that your story has gone well-and-truly off the rails and that you simply must backtrack to Albuquerque so you can take that left turn you missed. If you have to do this, fine, but don’t delete the work you’ve done. Leave it in there. Move it to the end of the file, past a couple of page breaks, but those words are still work you did. When it comes time to verify your wordcount at the end of the month, all Na NoWriMo will do is count your words. Nobody is going to read your work to make sure it’s coherent.
So: if you really have made a story error, by all means, go back and take another stab at it, without deleting what you’ve already produced. Generally, though, NaNoWriMo is not the time to try and make every sentence sing and put every word in its exact place.
4. Know when you are going to write.
This might actually be the most important thing. If you’ve been noodling around with writing for a long time but new to the crunch of NaNoWriMo, you’ll likely be very surprised at the amount of work and time involved in producing 1667 words in one day, much less every day for thirty days. Plan your writing time, right from Day One. It’s important. Know when you are going to write. If you normally get up at 7:00 every morning, maybe get up at 6:15 and write until seven. If there’s usually an hour after dinner when you’re unoccupied, set that aside for writing. On Sundays, maybe join the football game in progress after 2:00 instead of insisting on watching the whole thing. You have to budget your time, because while the NaNoWriMo goal of 50000 words in thirty days is doable, falling behind is also very doable, and getting caught up once you’re behind by even a day or two is a lot less doable. Make every effort to start the month ahead, so that if you need to take a day or two later on to produce less than 1667 words, you can afford it.
It’s good that this year NaNoWriMo starts on a Saturday (unless, of course, your job doesn’t give you Saturdays off). Getting off to a strong start is essential, and with two weekend days to launch, the schedule is quite conducive to it. Take advantage! Don’t tell yourself that you can make it up with a couple of 5000 word marathon sessions at some point, because quite frankly, you won’t.
What NaNoWriMo really helps is to train the brain — mindhack, if you will — to see writing as a job that can be approached in discrete chunks, as opposed to some mystical process driven by the capricious magic of some Muse. Believe me, there’s enough magic and mystery in writing already, so it can also be seen as a job where a daily word count is similar to a pro painter’s “Get this many square feet of the wall painted today”.
5. Don’t let friends and family guilt you about your focus this month.
Luckily, this has never been a problem for me, but I know it has for others (there’s a long thread about it on one of the NaNoWriMo message boards). If anyone gives you shit about writing, be firm in claiming this time for yourself. If they press, tell them that you have set a personal goal for yourself and you are working toward it. Would they guilt you if the goal you set was, say, running a marathon and you were doing a lot of training? I’m guessing not. Well, it’s the same thing. A personal goal that needs met is still a personal goal, no matter what. And if the other person is mocking of your personal goal? Well…I can’t really offer advice there, except to note that mocking someone’s goals, dreams, and efforts to make those things come true isn’t really something that should be endured from a “loved” one.
6. Interact with other people pursuing the same goal!
NaNoWriMo is a fairly big deal. The website has a lot of separate forums, from genre forums to forums for people of similar age groups to regional forums so you can connect with people in your area. Some areas even have “meet-ups”, where you can actually go and hang out with other writers who are having their own sessions. I’ve never done that (in this area, the meet-ups always seem to be held in the Northtowns, which is a bummer), but I wouldn’t mind someday. Find NaNoWriMo people on whatever social media you use — Twitter and Instagram have a lot of them — and share thoughts and success stories and kudos and cheers and vexing frustrations. Writing can be lonely, but it doesn’t have to be.
7. Don’t lose the story.
It’s about telling a story, after all. So go ahead and tell it!