Why I took the NaNoWriMo challenge, how I won it, and why you should consider it, too
I’m not going to get into the details, other than to say that NaNoWriMo is the shortened form of National Novel Writing Month. If you want to find out more about it, it’s history, what charities it supports (note: not registered in Canada at this time), and all that other writerly goodness, hie thee to NaNoWriMo.org.
I’m the kind of writer that likes to present herself with challenges. What would be more challenging than to write 50,000 words in a month? That’s a functional draft for most genres, and even if you’re writing something like fantasy or science fiction that allows higher word counts, it’s a lot easier to “write up” to length than to implement a scorched Earth policy to edit down.
As WANA founder Kristen Lamb says, life doesn’t reward beginners. It rewards finishers. Since nearly every first draft in existence is crap anyway, why not give yourself permission to get that crappy draft done so you can edit it into the work of art we all know it can be?
What does 50,000 words in a month mean? What does it “look like,” in workplace parlance?
I like to draw on my background as an academic and a corporate trainer for this. As with any exam or paper I had to write, or any project I have to manage, I look at the time I have and divide the work into equal portions, account for planned, and even unexpected events, and set reasonable goals based on that accounting.
I also like to do something called front-loading. I aim for a daily goal slightly higher than what I absolutely have to get done. If you’re ahead of the game, then an unexpected crisis (or utter exhaustion) won’t derail you nearly as much.
There are 30 days in November. 50,000 divided by 30 is 1,667 words per day. If you aim for 2,000 words a day, you give yourself some wiggle room.
How I won my first NaNo
Planning is critical.
I’m an unapologetic pantser, that is, I write by the seat of my pants. I don’t plot out my novels, identify my major turning points, etc. I just write. Having said that, my ideas are fairly well thought out ahead of time and I often know what the climax of my novel is.
Even so, I had to give over my pantsing ways for NaNo.
I chose an older idea that I actually had written a chapter outline for. I had even written down some ideas for the opening chapters and inciting incident.
If you have research to do, do that in advance as well, or work out a system whereby you make notes for yourself for future research (e.g. 18th century dress for description of protagonist and love interest; Where was the post office in the original Copper Cliff? Herbal remedies and midwifery in frontier Canada.).
The point is to write. Get your ideas down. Try not to edit as you go. I say try, because I gave into the temptation and redrafted several chapters. Sometimes you have to because an idea or new direction will pop up when you least expect it and require some rework to proceed.
Having said all that, you will probably deviate from your plan for the very reason I just stated. This is true especially for the pantser, for whom all the planning in the world can be only the starting line, or jumping-off point. Prepare for the deviation, for the new idea that will not let you go, and figure out a way to address that serendipity.
Planning is never wasted, though.
I was fortunate last year, because I was on leave until November 17th. Knowing that, and that I had planned a visit to a friend for a few days in early November, I front-loaded big time, sometimes writing more than 3,000 words in a day to make up for the expected shortage of time when I returned to work.
Recruit your family and friends to help. Let them know how important this is to you, and ask them to help out with housework, cooking, shopping, or whatever other tasks you would normally do in the course of a week. Would they mind eating take-out a day or two a week (can you afford it)? Will the grandparents or a favourite auntie and uncle mind watching the kids for a few days? Can you negotiate a regular block of time that will, for all intents and purposes, remain sacrosanct for the month of November? Will you have to relocate for the weekends in the month to ensure your most productive writing days remain just that?
What other routines will have to change to accommodate NaNo? For example, I am going to cut down the frequency of my blogging, and do all of my blogging on the weekends, so I can just send out my posts on their assigned days. I’m getting in the habit of doing it this month, so the adjustment won’t be so big. I will probably be difficult to find on the interwebz for the month of November as well. Every second really does count.
What I learned and why Ima do it again
I’ve been writing, pretty much daily, for years now. It was good to have the time off to devote to the daily writing quota NaNo requires, but I can probably manage it working.
No, I’m not taking time off this year to do it.
Yes, I have a workshop I’ve committed to in the month of November. It’s just two days, but still.
Yes. I’m crazy, but in a good way.
I’m addicted to word count. I’m not draconian about it (i.e. no self-flagellation involved), but I’ve been tracking my output using a fantastic spreadsheet Jamie Raintree developed. I’ve learned that by not even trying, I can write anywhere between 12,000 and 18,000 words a month (including my blog posts).
I’m planning and researching this month like a good little do-bee.
Because of work, I’m adjusting my schedule to focus my efforts on the weekends because I know I’ll be lucky to get 1,000 words in on a weeknight. There are five weekends in November. It’s doable. It is.
I’m letting the housework go for the month (except laundry, ‘cause I don’t have that many clothes) and I’m not going to let it bother me. So there.
As I mentioned, I’m going to be less active on the interwebz and prepare my week’s posts on the weekends. If this doesn’t prove effective, I’m prepared to take a blogging/social media vacation. I’ll do it. I swear.
The feeling of accomplishment, of achieving that 50,000 word goal, of knowing that I have the working basis of a novel, can’t be beat. It’s a gamification of writing (the satisfying “ding!” of levelling up). NaNo will even give you a certificate you can print off after you validate your word count on their site.
Plus, you get all sorts of perks for being a winner: a discount on Scrivener software (which I purchased and am going to use for this new project), free or discounted publishing on Lulu and Createspace, and other writerly consumables.
Even if you don’t “win,” and really, your only competition is yourself, you still win. Say everything goes to hell in November and I only manage 20,000 words. That’s 20,000 words I didn’t have before. That’s no reason to be ashamed. It’s pride-making, confidence-building, and craft-validating, in fact.
There will be people who will tell you that NaNo isn’t worth it. It so is. Don’t listen to them. They’re full of shit.
Agents and small publishers will tell you how they are inundated with crappy NaNo drafts in December. Um . . . jump the gun much? The point of NaNo is to get a working draft that you can revise, edit, and polish into a gem. That can take the rest of the year if you focus on the one project, more, if you write and work on several projects at once (as I—remember, I’m crazy—do).
In the immortal words of Larry the Cable Guy, Git ‘er done!
If you choose to accept the NaNoWriMo challenge, I hope you get as much out of it as I did. More even. Moar!
And I sincerely hope that you got some writerly goodness out of my sharing my NaNo experience with you.