Writing this because lately I’ve had a fair amount of acquaintances seeking for guidance in starting writing. And while everyone’s processes are different, with NaNo coming up, it seemed like as good a time as any to talk about it a little bit.
See, National Novel Writing Month was integral to my development as a writer. I began writing for a NaNo, and finishing that novel in good time was one of the things that reassured me that I could write.
Especially in your early days as a writer, it’s all about developing habits you’ll need for the long term. To this day I do NaNos, both to get stories off my chest quickly and maintain my confidence, but also because there’s a special sense of community associated with it that writing often lacks, unless you’ve got a really tight group of writers.
It sounds daunting, so let’s break down what it takes to write a novel’s first draft in a month.
#1. Unless you’re an experienced writer and a purist, don’t talk yourself out of prep time in October.
I spend the entire month of October combing over outlines, deciding which project to write, designing a cover and blurb for it, since those are strong motivational tools for me. By the time November comes and NaNo starts, I’m a runner crouched at the starting line, every muscle coiled to start the race.
What do my outlines look like? Well, it varies. They may be as simple as a few paragraphs. Or it may be a scene by scene breakdown, noting whose PoV the scenes will be in for dual PoV books, and the the way the scene feeds into the conflict- is it there to foreshadow a twist? Is it there to highlight a character’s flaw?
This helps, because it means that once NaNo starts, I can write, and not have to worry whether I’m connecting the right dots, or whether it’s gonna take substantial rewrites to force it into a defined and well-paced story arc.
#2. Do not self-edit as you go.
Rewrites are the heart of the story, especially if you’re a pantser, or if you end up re-outlining and retooling part of the way through. But they aren’t part of the NaNo. If a scene isn’t working, just leave a note to fix it later. Don’t make yourself backtrack every day to “catch up” before you start writing; you’ll get bogged down in rewrites, and never get your words down.
#3. Don’t wait for inspiration to hit- set a word count, and keep to it.
In order to produce a 50k word first draft in 30 days, you’ll need to write between 1.5k and 2k words a day. This seems like a lot- until you realize that it’s basically the length of a long blog post. Some days, you may do more, and that’ll insulate you for days when life gets in the way and you have to write less. But having this goal in your head will help reassure you that the end goal is still in reach.
This feeds back to #1. If you don’t know where your story will end up, and have to spend half the day thinking of where it’s going, your NaNo will require a lot more energy, and be a lot more difficult and draining.
#4. Take advantage of the community.
Writing is a solitary profession. At some point, you have to just turn off the internet and do it. But too much isolation breeds its own problems. It feels like no one cares about your writing. There’s no voices to counter the one inside your head saying your work is absolute shit. It’s easy to put it off once you start getting a little behind. But having a writing buddy keeps you accountable.
NaNo is nice, because it ensures that no matter your writing level or goals, you will have lots of company. Whether you’re on the NaNoWriMo forums, or pursuing local meet-ups, or whether it’s just a writer’s forum chat that allows you to put together group sprints, there’s a way for you to find people to work with. You can gush about your progress, commiserate about your difficulties, talk through plotting problems if they pop up. If possible, find a group with mixed ability levels; having some advanced authors in a group can give you a ready source of guidance, but it can also prove daunting since professionals are often used to writing more quickly, and more skillfully for that first draft. But if you have a group entirely of amateurs or people who are testing the waters, a high failure rate in the group may discourage you or make you feel less driven to complete your own book in good time.
#5. Sprint, sprint, sprint.
One of the best tools for increasing your output as a writer is sprinting. You can sprint with a group, or solo. But at it’s core, it’s a technique that allows you to build accomplishment in small increments that seem more attainable than “write thousands of words a day.”
Here’s how you sprint:
You set a clock for a length of time between 15 mins- 1 hr (it can take some time to find which duration is most comfortable).
You note how many words are in the project.
You write, focusing your energy for the duration of the sprint.
At the end, you note down how many words you got down. If you’re with a group, you might share a favorite sentence or paragraph with the group, to get encouraging feedback.
It sounds simple, but it really works- even if you can only focus for 15 minutes at a time, and write 100-150 words in that 15 minutes, it doesn’t take many of those 15 minute stints over the course of a day to make your 1.5k goal. And when you’re in a group where people are sharing snippets, reading bits of other people’s awesomeness can be a source of motivation, too. You get through this sprint, you get to see the next snippet from that awesome shifter sex scene your writing buddy is working on. Better get to it!
As you can see, NaNo is a great time to build habits that work the rest of the year as well. It’s also a chance to push yourself, and you may find yourself framing new challenges once you’ve gotten the hang of it. So don’t be intimidated- start outlining, and have at it!