October 31st is, in many circles, Halloween or All Hallow’s Eve or Samhain or what have you. And don’t get me wrong, I’m in the United States, so I definitely dress up and eat candy. But October as a whole is more of the Halloween celebration, and October 31st is the transition from that season to another.
That’s right. For me, the last day of October is National Novel Writing Month Eve.
For those of you unfamiliar, NaNoWriMo (referred to in the rest of the post as “NaNo” because I can’t pronounce “NaNoWriMo” out loud to my personal satisfaction) challenges the participant to write 50,000 words of a story in the month of November. I have won NaNo a total of fourteen times and participated in the November event* sixteen times before 2019. The stories aren’t anything to talk about – frankly, I’d drop them at the bottom of the ocean if I could keep personal access to them and still hide them away from the world – but NaNo hasn’t ever been about the destination. It’s all about the journey.
(*The nonprofit behind NaNo also runs an event called Camp NaNoWriMo twice at other parts of the year, and they used to run an event called Script Frenzy. I’ve dipped my toe in both on my multiple occasions.)
As someone who has undergone the journey regularly in my adulthood (and once under the age of eighteen), and made it to 50,000 on most occasions, here are some of my tips to muddle through to the finish line. What this isn’t: a way to write a decent book during that time. Rough drafts aren’t decent by nature, and I’m still figuring out how to have one that I can take through edits on my own. This post is about the sheer mechanics of cranking out words and sentences and paragraphs over the course of thirty days.
What is your goal?
One of the benefits to NaNo is its formal structure. You have thirty days to write 50,000 words on one story, which means there’s some outside deadline if you can’t set ones on your own (one of my classic foibles), and that’s what you submit to get the winner certificate on the site. But my golden rule of writing – of doing anything, really – is this: there are no universal rules, and as such, there aren’t universal goals, either. The habit book I read recently, Atomic Habits, had a similar idea in mind when they touted the formula to getting better at anything: repetitive practice just hard enough to be a challenge, but not so hard that you can’t do it.
Obviously, NaNo is within this sphere for me, at least where cranking out word count is concerned. It isn’t for a lot of people. I use a computer all the time even if I’m not formally writing, so I type almost as quickly as I think. If you’re going for the “write the same amount every day” method (more on that in a minute), you write 1667 words, and if I have specific story ideas in mind, I can usually do that in a little over an hour. Even if I don’t, I can make something up within two hours and move on with my day. That’s not possible for everyone, whether because their words-per-minute is low or because it’s hard to think in story form or a million other reasons.
Have you ever thought, “Well, guess NaNo isn’t for me”? That doesn’t have to be true! It’s part of the NaNo culture to approach it in your own way; I can’t remember a time when the NaNo forums didn’t have a NaNo Rebels section entirely devoted to people doing it outside the greater structure. This can include:
- Picking a reachable word count.
- Writing a bunch of shorter stories throughout the month and using that for your formal word count.
- Picking up an already-started story and continuing it for as many words as you can.
- Cowriting a story. (I’m not actually sure if this is NaNo rebellious or not, but it’s not the image of the lone writer bleeding onto the keyboard I have in mind, at least.)
Official NaNo isn’t a competition against other people, despite some low-level competitive elements. It’s a personal challenge. It’s trite to say “just showing up is a victory”, but that’s because it’s true. One word during NaNo is a word you didn’t have before.
How do you work?
NaNo can be just as much a personal exploration as a story exploration. Your life needs to fit writing where it possibly didn’t before, and even if you were writing already, there’s still the fact that every day starts with a bunch of writing you haven’t done. Knowing what that looks like to you, and how you address it, is key to reaching your goal.
There are more ways to write than people writing, which I anecdotally know because of myself and other writers in my life having multiple ways to write. There are locations: home office, coffee shop, library, park. There are methods: computer, notebook, dictation. There are times: on a regular schedule on any potential part of the day/night, whenever you can squeeze in a couple words, a mix of the two. There’s sprint length: 5 minutes, pomodoro, an hour. There’s daily word count goal: the even 1667, double 1667, more words at the beginning and less at the end, vice versa. I have my ways to work: brainstorming by hand, outlining as much as possible, writing on a computer wherever I have the opportunity that day, sprinting when I can but always a fan of midnight sprints, writing a lot when I first have all my ideas and then less as I run out of steam and need breaks.
Make it as easy for yourself as you can. What easy looks like for you might not be what easy looks like for me, and it might not even be the same thing two days in a row.
Who can you talk to?
NaNo is fun because it’s a personal challenge. But it’s also fun because it takes what is often a very isolating and lonely experience and makes it communal. If you want to gripe about how far behind your word count is, but you don’t want to change out of your pajamas, you can go on the NaNo forums or social media and find other participants going through the same things as you. Maybe you have family or friends that are also doing NaNo, and you can turn regular hangouts or communication into NaNo write-ins. Barring that, many areas – worldwide! – have in-person meet-ups where you can write as a group in public. I’m one of the most agoraphobic people on the planet, and I’ve still gone to write-ins where I knew absolutely no one. Even if you do none of these things, there can be comfort in knowing that, as unique as the challenge is to you personally, there’s someone else somewhere who is feeling the same things as you.
The pep-talk portion of the post
One of NaNo’s traditions is to post pep talks by published authors all through the month of November, encouraging you through all points of your journey. (The second- and third-week pep talks, where I feel my lowest and the other authors understand, tend to be my favorites.) The post as a whole is my version of a pep talk, but pep talks are (often) less mechanical and more motivational. So here’s the ra-ra section.
You can write this. Even if you’re reading this a week into November, thinking “this sounds fun, but it’s too late and I have no ideas”? You can write! You can find writing prompts online, you can think through cause and effect chains, and you can get to 50,000 words. You can enter December with a printed winner calendar and a manuscript document on your computer (and an external saving device, and the cloud – always backup your writing!). You can tackle an idea that’s smaller in scope but no less of a challenge for you. You can do any of it!
And I’ll be right there next to you this November, as I am most Novembers.