The first time I heard about NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) I was a bumbling eighteen-year-old in my very first semester of college. I proudly announced to all who would listen (and to some who wouldn’t) that I was a creative writing major. I had big dreams of writing stories that would take people to faraway lands, on epic quests, and into the deepest depths of the unimaginable. After delving into my stories, readers would return enlightened about themselves and wiser about the world, discovering truths about life and coming back all the better for it.
The reality was, however, that I knew very little about the truths of life and even less about good storytelling. I once wrote a three-page disaster in a spiral-bound notebook about a man who was reborn as a cat after committing suicide. Those three pages took probably a week to write and they were filled with uninspired and awkward insights that were less compelling than the story itself.
So, when a friend told me about the challenge to write 50,000 words during the month of November, I quickly denied it. There was no way I could pull off that much writing in such a short period of time. College professors, classmates, and critics had shown me that my writing was weak and pathetic and my big dreams fell flat on their face. I was discouraged and insecure in my craft and decided such a goal was something I would never accomplish.
Fast forward to the future: I swore off writing for several years, traveled around the country of Russia twice, switched my major to social work, got married, and was on the verge of finishing my bachelor’s degree. Those dreams, now squished into a tiny and fragile form of their past selves, began to breath in fresh life. I still didn’t know much about good story telling, but, with any luck, I was at least a little wiser than I was at eighteen, and that had to count for something. Finally, I opened my laptop and pulled up the dusty project I had banished for so long. It was nearly November and I decided I was going to do it: I was going to write 50,000 words in 30 days.
What is NaNoWriMo?
When I talk about NaNoWriMo to folks who’ve never heard of it before, I’m often met with blank stares and a questions if it’s the latest kind of tech “you millennials are into nowadays” and I always give the same answer:
It’s a soul-sucking, caffeine-induced, masochistic coma that storyteller types choose to put themselves into each November. It’s endless sitting in front of a computer screen, hoping words will magically appear while keeping one eye on the clock that counts down to victory or, uh, not victory. It’s 50,000 words of self-inflicted torture that you hope will carry you to a goal of getting your tale into the hands of an entranced audience. It’s terrible, it’s fun, it’s exhausting, it’s satisfying, and it’s something I look forward to every year.
I’ve proven to my eighteen-year-old self that 50,000 words in 30 days can, in fact, be accomplished and that some of those words can be exciting and, dare I say, wise? I have taken on the challenge three times now and have completed it all three times. I’ve never actually completed a novel in the allotted month, but each of my yet-to-be-published books have been written in some part during NaNoWriMo. It’s always been a big help in reaching “The End.” This year, I’ll be taking on the challenge for a fourth time and feel somewhat equipped with knowledge and experience that I hope to pass on to fellow WriMos, whether you’re a starry-eyed first-timer or a veteran like myself looking for a pick-me-up.
Get a Cheer Squad
When taking on this endeavor for the first time, I found it helpful to have support behind me. Every twenty pages, I sent my draft to my mom and friend, who would read it and encourage me to keep going. I also gave frequent updates on Facebook, so I had dozens of people hoping to see me succeed. It was always motivating for someone to tell me they couldn’t wait to read it and that they believed I could take on this intense task. For me, that made the idea of not getting 50,000 words all the more cringey. I had people cheering for me and I felt accountable to them.
Having someone you’re accountable to–a friend, sibling, writing buddy, partner, etc.–is one of the tips the official NaNoWriMo site gives every year. I kind of think of it as a performance review with your boss (one that you like, of course) who you don’t want to let down. When you hit that 25,000 word slump and the excitement and energy wear off, it’s even more critical that you have someone reminding you of your goal, because that’s when it’s easiest to give up.
Do a Little Extra
One year, I was reading through the forums on the official site, looking for tips to get over a roadblock I hit, and I came across this piece of advice: “You can use any kind of writing to bring up your word count–class notes, emails, chat, or messenger. When you think about it, it’s all writing.” I was like, “What?!” Sure, if your ultimate goal is to simply write words for the sake of writing words, I suppose that’s a solid idea. However, if you aspire to tell a rollicking story, professionally bound and in the hands of a reader, this isn’t going to cut it. I probably write 3,000 words a day at work (lots of paperwork, y’all), but that isn’t the same as developing characters, crafting beautiful settings, and throwing out quick witticisms about the plight of life (I’m pretty sure my boss doesn’t want those in my reports).
Something I’ve found more helpful in upping your word count is doing a little extra each day. The recommended minimum is 1,667 to get you right on the dot on November 30th. I try to do at least 2,000 because with Thanksgiving, traveling, and relatives, there are sure to be some days you miss, burnout aside. My second year my NaNo project had to take a back seat to grad school. I finished just barely over the 50,000 mark. I’m pretty sure I didn’t even hit 50,100 because there was a lot of missed days. If I hadn’t pumped out extra words when I had the chance, it wouldn’t have happened.
Also, be sure to take advantage of double-up day, the first Saturday of the month, when you’re still fresh and excited. If you can do personal double-up days throughout the month, all the better. That cushion will feel nice when real life gets in the way.
Stop on a Good Note
One of the most frustrating things when writing, during NaNoWriMo or otherwise, is when you open up your computer, read what you last wrote, and don’t know where to go from there. So, you just sit there, staring at the screen, trying not to bang your head against the keyboard, hoping it’ll shock inspiration into your brain.
Something I’ve found really helpful is stopping your work for the day when you know what’s going to happen next. Once you’ve hit your word goal for the day (extra words included), it can be tempting to keep hashing out that scene you see so clearly in your mind. There’s nothing wrong with writing while you’re on a roll, but if you’re the type of person who has a hard time starting back up once you’ve turned your computer off, the momentum of charging back in to that epic battle or heartfelt confession of love can jump start you into action again and allow inspiration to follow. At the very least, it can quiet the discouragement that leaks through when you just don’t know what to write.
Stop Critiquing Yourself!
Rewriting, revising, and editing have a place, but it’s not your first draft. Whether you’re writing during NaNoWriMo or anytime of the year, the main goal of your first draft is to simply get it out. Get it on the paper, tell it how it appears in your mind. Just do it. You can fix it later.
I know this is a hard thing to do, speaking from experience. I’m guilty of going over a piece of dialogue again and again, making sure each character’s voice is distinct, the lines are clever, and the subtext is just subtle enough, only to shove my work aside in a huff and yell about how I’ll never make it as a writer. All of that critiquing and self-doubt can come later. Right now, it’s about being creative and pulling the story out of your head. So, put your inner critic in a box and put that box in a box, then tuck it quietly in a dark corner of your mind and cover it with a blanket. If it tries to escape, smash it with a hammer a few times and sit on it for good measure. Your story will never get written if you keep getting bogged down with making it perfect. It’s a first draft. It’s not meant to be perfect. My ninth-grade English teacher called them sloppy copies for a reason. So, take a deep breath, put a guard dog in front of that box, and just write.
Reaching the End
After voluntarily punishing yourself for thirty days straight, nothing feels more satisfying than putting in your final word count and seeing “Congratulations, Winner” come up on the screen. All of that hard work, that sometimes literal blood, sweat, and tears, has paid off. Maybe you completed an entire novel, or maybe you got a good start on a now nearly complete draft. Even if you didn’t get the 50,00, you still got something, and that’s worth it. It’s a step towards finishing your story and getting that much closer to becoming published.
So, my fellow WriMos, dive into November head first, don’t give up, and remember: “The world needs your novel.”