Every November, hundreds of thousands of people around the world test themselves doing something that might break them spiritually, psychically, or psychologically: NaNoWriMo, when they set the month of November aside and attempt to write an entire novel in 30 days. Besides training for and entering an Iron Man Competition, National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short, has to be one of the most challenging and demanding tasks anyone can voluntarily give himself. According to the organization which started the “contest” about 15 years ago, the goal is to write a 50,000-word novel (175 DS manuscript pages, based on a count of approximately 300 words per page) in thirty days. That’s about 1,700 words, or six DS manuscript pages a day.
It’s a first draft: you’re not supposed to publish the book you write during NaNoWriMo as is. You’ve got to revise, edit, get feedback from readers, re-write, edit, revise some more, have some coffee, then decide whether you want to Indie publish or attempt to get an agent and try for the traditional New York publishing route.
In short, NaNoWriMo isn’t about getting published and becoming an author: it’s about being a writer.
If you’ve done NaNoWriMo before, you know it’ll strain every relationship you have, make you want to quit your job to write full-time, make you wonder if you’ve completely lost your mind, and convince you that you are not a writer after all. If you’ve never attempted NaNoWriMo, you’ll find those things out soon enough. NaNoWriMo is the closest you’ll ever get to being a full-time writer until you actually are a full-time writer. Here are some strategies to give yourself a fair chance to discover if you really want to be a writer, because writing is very hard work.
Skip the Outline
I know some people are convinced that they cannot write a novel, especially if it’s in a series, unless they have the entire novel outlined in advance. Some people even outline all the novels they project in the series before they have even written the first book. But writing outlines, no matter how detailed, is not writing a novel. Not even in a rough draft. You have to actually sit down and write a novel to be writing a novel, not just outlining it. When time is as limited as it is during NaNoWriMo, drop the outline and concentrate on writing a draft of the book itself.
If You’re Going to Ignore My First Tip
and Write an Outline Anyway,
Then Ignore Missing Parts
Still convinced you need an outline even when your time is as severely limited as it is during NaNoWriMo? Then you’re going to have to compromise somewhere. Even when you have an outline, you may think the whole book in mind just because you have scenes A, B, C, D, and E firmly in mind and jotted down in whatever system you’re using. Then, after outlining scene E, you suddenly realize that the next scene in your head seems to be J.
What happened to scenes F, G, and H?
You have no idea, but they’re not there.
Do not stop writing while waiting for scenes F, G, and H to come to you. If you insist on outlining, and there are missing parts, then just ignore those missing parts for the present, and continue outlining: J, K, L, M, N…
O, P, Q will probably be missing, though you’ll know what scenes R, S, and T are supposed to be.
As far as I know, all writers experience these initial “gaps” in their vision while writing novels, even if it’s not their first. If you insist on writing an outline during NaNoWriMo, skip over the missing parts and getting down the scenes that are readily there.
If you are going to write an outline rather than exclusively working on the novel itself this month, then limit yourself to one or two days of writing a bare-bones outline. You’ll need the rest of the month to write the novel itself.
Don’t Count Words
I know that NaNoWriMo’s stated goal is to write at least a 50,000 word novel this month, but less than 10% of NaNoWriMo’s official participants consistently reach that goal. More important, probably no agent, editor, or publisher will ever ask you how many words are in your novel. They’ll either love the book or they won’t. They’ll either think they can sell it to potential readers or they won’t.
The sponsors of NaNoWriMo want you to write at least 50,000 words because the traditional division between a novella and a novel is by word count. Anything around 40-45K words usually considered a novella (under 40K words is either a novella or long short story), while books with more than 50K words are considered novels. Some agents and editors disagree with these numbers: they think 80K words is novel material. So, the 50K word-count is merely NaNoWriMo’s attempt to encourage you to write a piece of fiction long enough to be considered a novel, rather than a piece of fiction which would automatically be labeled a novella or long short story.
Don’t count words as a measure of your progress as you’re actually writing. Just write as many or as few words as you think you need to tell a compelling story. Then, if you must count words, wait until NaNoWriMo is over to see how many words you actually wrote.
Schedule Writing Time
Like It’s Your Job
Set aside a schedule for writing each day, and write for that full period. Pretend it’s your job, because, for one month, it will be. Whether you have the luxury of being able to do NaNoWriMo full-time, or can only do it part-time, try to write at the same time every day, taking regular breaks. Remember not to worry about the quality of the writing.
When I taught University, I got up every single day at 5 a.m. and wrote for 2 hours before I had to get ready to go to work. I discovered that the more often I wrote, the more I produced. I likened it to pumping water out of a rarely used well: at first, it’s difficult to get the flow started, but if you work that pump every day, for a predetermined amount of time, the pump gets used to working, and more water flows.
You have to spend a certain number of hours a day or week on your paying job, no matter what it is. This month, writing is your job, and you have to set aside a specified amount of time doing your job. Just do it. Schedule your writing on a calendar and keep to it, every single day during NaNoWriMo.
Don’t Re-read what You’re Writing
NaNoWriMo is 30 days to get yourself disciplined enough to write the first draft of a novel; to give yourself official permission to write full-time; and to announce to your family, friends, and to the Universe itself that you are going to write for the entire month.
If you read over the parts you’ve already written, do you know what you’ll want to do? Re-write, revise, polish, perfect. That takes precious time away from writing the initial draft. Don’t do that. Just write the first draft of the whole thing.
The time for re-reading and re-writing and revising will come afterward, because you simply don’t know how long those processes will take. During NaNoWriMo, do not re-read anything you’ve written. Just write. Try to get that first draft of the entire novel out. That’s what the month is for. That’s what you’ve committed yourself to. Do it.
Always Be Prepared to Write,
No Matter Where You Are
Your subconscious brain — where your artistic intuition resides — never sleeps. Ever. It gets tired. But it never sleeps. Even when you’re not working on any particular scene, or you think you’re not working on the book at all, the writer in you is working on something.
You think you’re sleeping soundly, and you suddenly awake with a new scene. You think you’re taking a walk, and suddenly you see something new happen to your protagonist. You think you’re driving your children to a swim-meet or to football practice, and new dialogue pops into your head.
I’d advise always carrying a notebook, laptop, tablet, or voice recorder (most Smartphones have them) so that you can get these scenes down whenever they come to you. If you don’t, they won’t be there the next time you sit down at your desk to work on your novel. No matter how many times you repeat the exact words to yourself on the drive home from the soccer field, your brain will be blank when you get to your desk or computer and attempt to write it.
Be prepared to write anywhere, anytime during NaNoWriMo.
During NaNoWriMo, especially, since your time is so strictly limited, write down a scene (or record it) as soon as it comes to you. Otherwise, it’ll be lost.
Eliminate All Negative People
From your Life & Environment
Committing yourself to writing a draft of an entire novel in only 30 days is enough hard work to kill some people, so you don’t need family, friends, colleagues, or the bagger at the grocery store making snide remarks, negative comments, or otherwise expressing their doubts at your ability to write the draft of a novel in one month. Keep away from those people at all times during NaNoWriMo. This is mandatory and non-negotiable.
This is mandatory and non-negotiable.
Writing a book, especially if it’s your first or if you’ve never been published, will give you plenty of self-doubt for free. Don’t take it from anyone else. Not during NaNoWriMo nor during any other time either. There’s enough rejection in this business without getting it from people who claim to love and care for you. Stay away from them during NaNoWriMo and concentrate on writing your novel rather than on listening to their so-called good advice.
Ditch the Jammies
& Be Professional
I know there are some writers who wear their pajamas to write. Or they wear the “outdoor” equivalent of pajamas: sweatpants and T-shirt. That’s fine if it works for them. But when I worked as a University Professor, I dressed up, complete with heels, jewelry, mascara, and lipstick. When I write, I do the same thing because it’s my job and I’m going to work. Yes, I now work at home and no one ever sees me but the cats, the dog, and my guy. But after I’m dressed, my guy always asks, “Going to work?” and then stays away from my office when I’m in there.
Just as my getting dressed for work is a visual clue for him, it’s an emotional clue for the artist in me. Don’t lounge around in bed in your jammies during NaNoWriMo and expect to get a lot of writing done. Get up, clean up, get dressed, and go to work.
Don’t Do Anything
in Your Writing Space
This may seem self-evident, but unless you’ve written several books, you may not realize that the creative energy of the book you’re writing stays in the place where you write it. I have an office and have always had one, even when I lived in a small apartment. I do nothing in my office except write my books. I never graded papers in my office, did taxes, or even read a book at my writing desk unless that book had something to do with the research for the novel I was currently writing. As soon as I enter my office, the artist in me is ready to write and work on the book. You need to give yourself a writing space, too.
You may only be able to carve out a separate table in the corner of your kitchen during NaNoWriMo, but no matter where you’re working on your novel, you should do absolutely nothing else in that space — not even tweet about how it’s going — however confined your writing space or “office” may be. No one else should be doing anything at the place you’re writing, either, because you need every ounce of your own creative energy there for your novel.
Take Care of Yourself Physically
You must eat, stay hydrated, sleep, take breaks from writing — even during NaNoWriMo. One of the biggest causes of “writer’s block” is exhaustion, trying to “push through” the hard spots, not taking care of yourself, needing a break.
Just as you must sleep, eat, and stay hydrated every single day just to stay alive, you must take breaks from writing the novel, stretch muscles that will become sore and painful from prolonged overuse (and may even become injured), exercise muscles that stiffen from sitting in one position for prolonged periods. Walking, T’ai Chi, and yoga work best for me. I have a treadmill in my office for breaks from the actual writing when I want to continue thinking about a book.
During NaNoWriMo, you’re working extra hard on a task that is already extremely challenging and difficult — physically, mentally, and spiritually. You must take care of your body — with exercise, rest, regular breaks, naps, food, and non-alcoholic liquids in order to survive and pass this endurance test. Take regular breaks, including breaks for exercise and resting, to survive NaNoWriMo. That way, you’ll get even more writing done.
Take Care of Yourself
Spiritually & Emotionally
If you’ve never written an entire novel before, you have absolutely no idea what you’ve gotten yourself into. Don’t look at the novel as a whole: break it down into parts. A section. A chapter. A page. A paragraph. A sentence. Congratulate yourself at the end of every single writing session on how much you wrote.
You must nurture the artist in you spiritually and emotionally because the publishing world does not think in those terms: it thinks only of profit and loss. I’ve known plenty of bestselling authors whose books were dropped the moment their sales decreased. It’ll be up to you to support yourself emotionally after you get published, so you might as well get used to it now.
Pat yourself on the back, be proud of yourself, and congratulate yourself for a job well done every single day during NaNoWriMo.
Start with something like these comments:
I’m brave, courageous,and dedicated.
No one else can do this as well as I can.
I’m giving this my best shot.
This is going to make me happy, no matter how tired I might sometimes get.
I’m a writer, and writers write.
Summary, So Far…
If you’re already writing for NaNoWriMo, good for you: keep it up. Turn to this advice when you have a break. Turn to this advice when self-doubt creeps in. Take what is useful to you, and discard the rest. If you haven’t started yet, but you told yourself you would, then use these tips to help you get started.
• Skip the outline (or, at the very least, ignore missing pieces of outline)
• Don’t count words
• Schedule writing time like it’s your job
• Don’t re-read what you’re writing
• Always be prepared to write, no matter where you are
• Eliminate all negative people from your life and environment
• Ditch the PJs and be professional
• Don’t do anything in your writing space except write
• Take care of yourself physically
• Take care of yourself emotionally and spiritually
And finally, this…
If You’re Going to Write,
Write: Don’t Talk
As Eli Wallach (Tuco) ad-libbed in the now classic Western, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, after he shot the man who came to kill him while he was taking a bath — telling Tuco repeatedly that he was, indeed, going to kill him — If you’re going to shoot, shoot: don’t talk.
If you’re going to write, write: don’t talk.
Talking about writing a book, no matter how much detail you go into, is not writing the book.
Only writing is writing.
So shut up during NaNoWriMo and write.
Related NaNoWriMo Sites
Official NaNoWriMo Site
The NaNoWriMo Blog
NaNoWriMo on The Twitter
Urgency in Fiction, Part One:
How to Keep Readers Turning Pages
Urgency in Fiction, Part Two:
Titles, Pitches, etc
No Demons, No Saints:
Creating Realistic Characters
Writing Effective Dialogue
Who’s Afraid of Point of View?
Myths about Point of View
How to Write a Novel Without an Outline
How to Pitch Your Book