Halloween has come and gone and today, All Saints Day, thousands of writers across the country are firing up their word processors for the first day of NaNoWriMo: National Novel Writing Month.
If you’re not familiar with NaNoWriMo, here’s the gist: to participate in the official NaNoWriMo competition, you go on the website, create an account, and then spend the next 30 days hammering out 50,000 words of fiction.
When I first started participating, there were a lot of rules. You had to start from the first word–no using the month to finish an existing project. You had to be writing fiction and it had to be a novel. No memoirs, no crossovers, no extended prose poems.
This year, when I went in search of the rules, I couldn’t find them. Maybe I’m just having trouble navigating their website, or maybe they noticed the abundance of groups popping up for “cheaters” and “rule breakers,” and realized that people have fun and benefit from an intense month of writing, regardless of their rules.
Me, I’ve only “won” once. Fifty thousand words is not really a whole novel, but it is an immense undertaking and it requires more time than the average person can commit, especially if, like me, they have a hard time writing through a draft without editing along the way.
The year I won, I was unemployed and childless in a town where there wasn’t much to do but sit in a coffeehouse and write. It still drained me. And though the novel I worked on didn’t go anywhere (and I was a total cheater, since I’d written about six chapters before the month began), it was definitely an enriching experience. I’ve tried and failed/quit a few other times since then, and from these failures and the one success, I feel I’ve gained a good amount of insight into
this month of self inflicted torture this challenge.
- Let it go. Okay, now you have the song from Frozen in your head, but that’s okay because Elsa isn’t the only one who will be letting her hair down this month. One of the keys to producing such a monumental amount of prose is, for many writers (if not most), to let go of any hope of perfection. Let the sentences flow out of you. If you don’t open the flood gates and let any and everything through, it will be painful. (This makes me think of the birth of my second child, which is still pretty vivid in my brain. They tell you to relax and the pain will be lesser. With my second, I had a really hard time relaxing, and it hurt like h-e-double-hockey-sticks. But when I did relax, it was a little better. I mean it still hurt, but it was like being crushed by a Volkswagen rather than a Mack truck.) You will sit there trying to think of the best way to describe a scene when you could just push forward by writing something like, And then he goes to the kitchen and I think he finds his girlfriend there and she’s eating an apple and maybe this is where they realize they’re in love.
- Use Track Changes and Comments. Why? Because when you end up writing god-awful non-prose like the last sentence about the girlfriend and the apple, you can add a comment so you’ll remember to go back there and flesh that out later, whether that ends up counting toward your word count or not. As for Track Changes, NaNoWriMo is an emotional time and you might end up deleting a chunk of prose you’ll wish you had later; Track Changes will keep it for you.
- Never EVER skip a day. Not even Thanksgiving. You don’t have to write all 1,600 words that day (I think that’s what it breaks down to on a day-by-day basis) but you’ve got to write something, and the more you write, the better. Remember the proverbial slippery slope. And if you thought it was hard to write 1,600 words in a day, try 3,000 or 4,500 or 6,700–at that point you’ll probably give up.
- This isn’t really a novel. At least, it’s not a whole novel. It’s a draft. It’s part of a draft. You might be working on this novel for six more years before it’s finished and ready to submit, or you might never finish it at all. You might write it to an end point but not feel that the finished product is good enough and there might be no way to get it there. That’s okay. Every word you write is practice. You know how they say with 10,000 hours of practice you can become good at anything? This month is, above all, about knocking out quite a few of those hours.
- Go on tangents if you have to. Like I said, this isn’t really a novel, so if you cannot think of anything to move the main story forward, pick a character and try some free writing or use a writing prompt to help spark your creativity. Just mark that section with a comment or a heading so you’ll be able to find it easily when doing your editing. And who knows? You might come across a genius idea that enriches the novel as a whole.
- It’s never too late to pre-write. Sure, pre-writing doesn’t count toward your word count (unless you’re a mega cheater!) but especially toward the middle of the month, you’re likely to get lost in your own plot. Take a minute to figure out the next few steps if you have to. Which leads me to my final tip:
- Never stop writing if you don’t know what’s coming next. I might be stealing this from Hemingway, I don’t remember, but it’s good advice wherever it comes from. If you know how one chapter will end but have no idea about the next chapter, either don’t finish the chapter in question or figure that next MoFo out before you close your Word.doc. I like to write at least a few sentences on the next chapter before I close out, or even to write a short synopsis. It might seem horrible in the moment, but it can save you from spending your entire next day’s writing time staring at a blinking cursor, calling yourself a failure.
So–I hope that helps. When you sign up on the website, they’ll start sending you all sorts of encouraging emails of this ilk but I rarely read them–it ate into my writing time. At the end, you just copy and paste so they can count your words (don’t worry–your novel is safe) (also their word count and Word’s word count aren’t always the same so be prepared to hammer out a few more sentences to hit 50,000) and then you “win”! Which means nothing! But they do give you a little electronic file with several “badges” you can post on social media and whatnot.
And, of course, you get the greatest prize of all: a sense of accomplishment.