National Novel Writing Month is met with all kinds of feelings, emotions and opinions each year, by people who are veterans of the event, people who are rookies an people who have never even considered participating. A lot of people will tell you how fantastic NaNoWriMo is and, it seems, an equal number of people will tell you how bad it is. 2013 will be my 8th NaNoWriMo. But don’t worry, I am not here today to say that you should or should not participate in the event. As Annie pointed out last week, you should look at NaNoWriMo as you look at anything else competing for your precious time: determine what your goals are and decide if participating will help you to reach those goals. My opinion, as you might guess from my years of doing this, is that if you are a writer who enjoys the feeling of being part of a larger writing community, or needs the incentive to prioritize writing over other things for a while, or simply wants an excuse to “finally write that book I’ve been talking about”, then NaNoWriMo is for you.
Even with my years of experience doing NaNoWriMo, I get nervous and excited and terrified and worked up about it each year. Right now, I have no idea at all what I’m going to write this year. When I take a deep breath and think back, I’ve never had an idea on October 7. In fact, I’ve only once had an idea as early as October 30. And still I’ve “won” every year. Today I wanted to share some tips I’ve found to help achieve success during this frantic, chaotic and exciting writing adventure.
- Just keep writing! As simple and obvious as this may sound, it’s actually something that is important to keep in mind. Since NaNoWriMo’s goal is based on quantity, it is important to try to write every day, if at all possible, even if you don’t have time to write the 1,667 words “required” to stay on track. Part of the trick of doing NaNoWriMo successfully is to get into the habit of writing. Yes, you should try to keep to the daily word count goal or, if possible; even better, write more and get ahead. But the bottom line is to write and if you fall behind, don’t panic. Yes, it can be difficult to catch up, but it is not impossible. My first NaNoWriMo, in 2006, I didn’t even start until November 9. It wasn’t easy to make up the 15,000 word deficit, but nonetheless, I crossed the 50,000 word finish line on November 30. One additional tip related to this: forget that the backspace and delete keys exist on your keyboard. Put little stickers or pieces of tape with pictures of bunnies or wolverines or the quadratic formula over these keys to remind you not to press them. Save the deletions for December.
- Trust your instincts. If you’re like me, you spend a lot of time overanalyzing each word you put on the page as you write it. This scrutiny is good for the second and third drafts, but it can be disastrous for first drafts. Since NaNoWriMo is about getting the first draft down onto the page, you can “lock that inner editor away” and let your creativity run free. If you feel like you need to write a scene about fresh, organic carrots growing amidst a field of poison ivy, then write it. I’m not suggesting you should just write to pad the word count, so much as to get all of the ideas out on the page. If you feel like you should write it, you probably should.
- Allow your characters to do their thing. Your protagonist wants to stop for a latte? Your character’s boyfriend wants to get a tattoo on his arm featuring his three favorite U.S. Presidents (Fillmore, Polk and Garfield)? Let them. Your characters can bring your story and your creativity in directions you may not have thought of going; since you are not limited in space by your word count, why not let the characters explore their world and interact with each other?
- Drink a lot. Dehydration from hours of sitting at the computer, eating salty, crunchy snacks (see below) while writing those awesome chase scenes can make it easy to forget to drink, I, of course, prefer coffee as my go-to-beverage when I’m writing. You might be more of a tea drinker and that’s okay, too. Whatever it is you prefer, make sure you have plenty on hand before you sit down to write so that you don’t have to think about it later.
- Don’t worry about the small things. You’re here to write, so let the inconsequential things like laundry or dishes sit there—they’ll be there later, waiting patiently for you. Do make sure to take the dog out every once in a while, and get the kids to and from school as required by law. Otherwise, though, just write. One tip: bathing is still highly recommended but somewhat more optional during NaNoWriMo than at other times of the year. You may want to ask your characters if they are okay with you skipping showers, though. You wouldn’t want to offend them.
- Eat well. Chips, pretzels, crackers… salty snacks that are also crunchy are my go to NaNoWriMo food. The carbs provide energy for those long writing sessions and the crunching sound is satisfying as well. For those days when I’m feeling healthier, I might have crunchy fresh fruits and vegetables like celery or apples or peppers. Don’t let your grumbling stomach become a distraction or an excuse for not writing.
- Write with friends. Seriously, don’t underestimate the value of getting together with other people who are participating in NaNoWriMo for a writing session. Challenge each other to word wars and see who can write more in a set amount of time or see who can reach a certain number of words faster. Sharing the joys and the burdens that come along with taking on this task of writing a novel in a month can make it a whole lot easier for all of you as you encourage each other to reach the goals. I’ll admit, my friends and I often shame each other into reaching those goals. One year, a friend and I fell way behind and took to the NaNoWriMo forums to publically challenge each other to get it done (we both did reach 50,000 that year, thanks in part to the support of the NaNoWriMo community).
- When you get stuck (and you will get stuck), have your characters write a diary entry. Or a blog post. Or give an impassioned speech about the need for broccoli flavored ice cream. I know I said earlier that I’m not a proponent of word-padding and I’m not suggesting that this be your goal here, either. But I’ve found that when I get myself stuck, either because I got my plot into a corner or I just don’t know where to go next with the story, often times allowing my characters to do something which helps me understand where they’ve been, where they want to go or why they did something opens up new avenues of the story to me. Understanding what motivates the characters is often the key to understanding the story I’m trying to tell.
- Allow yourself to change your method. If you are a planner, give yourself permission to go “off script” if an interesting turn-of-events crops up; if you are a pantser, give yourself permission to write down a quick set of notes if an idea pops into your head for a future scene or chapter. We can often get ourselves locked into a particular method of doing things and this can be limiting. I am a pantser and I really despise outlines and planning; but when an idea comes to mind, I need to acknowledge that between work and life and the stress of keeping the momentum going, I won’t always be able to keep the ideas in my head. Jotting them down and putting notes about where the new idea will fit can be a helpful thing for me, despite my distaste for it.
- Make a novel cover. But don’t spend a lot of time on it. I find having a “good” cover inspiring, but I find that since artwork isn’t my forte, I can spend hours, or even days, working on the cover only to never quite get it right. Stop by the NaNo Artisans forum and see if there’s someone who can help you do what you want. Or have your kindergartener draw your cover for you, then scan it into the computer to use for your novel. Once it is there, though, get back to writing. You can always change the cover in December.
- Experiment. Different styles, different genres, different settings or characters—NaNoWriMo gives you permission to just try new things if you want. No fear, no editing, no judgment. My 2007 novel was the first time I ever tried my hand at writing fantasy, and I totally loved it. Maybe you want to try your hand at writing some steampunk or supernatural romantic comedy. Why not give it a go in November? You may learn something about yourself (I learned a few years ago I don’t write romance…). You may find that you absolutely love writing historical fiction. The key is to allow yourself to try.
- Don’t say “can’t”. From their earliest days, I’ve told my children the word “can’t” is not allowed in my house. I believe “can’t” should be on that list of words you’re never supposed to use. Saying “I can’t” is, to me, like giving yourself permission not to try. That said, “I can’t do this” is a thought that will creep into your mind during NaNoWriMo, usually during the latter part of the second week. Don’t let it set in! Banish that thought with the arch nemesis of I can’t: “I am!” Because you are doing it. You are writing. And you will succeed.
- Laugh. Because if you don’t laugh, you might cry.
The “official” goal (and the threshold for “winning”) is to write 50,000 words, of course; I propose, however, that success and winning are not necessarily the same thing and that for many participants, just getting 5,000 or 13,000 words written is the true victory. Your goal for NaNoWriMo is your own. If you see it as a means to just start writing, then use it for that. If 50,000 words doesn’t matter to you, that’s fine – write 15,000 or 30,000 or whatever you want. Success is the big pile of words you end up with at the end of the event, those words that you would not have had if you didn’t just start. There is no “failure” with NaNoWriMo, there is only success. So how are you defining success this November? How will you use NaNoWriMo to achieve it?