If you know much about me — that guy who keeps trying to write and record an entire album in a single day — then you’ll think it sounds right up my alley to attempt to write a whole novel in a month. Unlike the album idea, though, National Novel Writing Month is not an idea of my own invention. It’s been happening every November for about two decades, and it’s a pretty big deal in some sectors of the fiction-writers-universe. While there are some writers who use the month of November to focus on one of their pre-existing projects, the core of NaNoWriMo is thousands of writers who dedicate to starting a brand new novel on November 1st and writing 50,000 words before midnight on November 30th.
I’ve been wanting to try my hand at this feat for years, and, in fact, I did try in 2015. (I failed massively. I wrote less than 9,000 out of the 50,000 words, kind of like the first time I attempted the Album-in-a-Day Project and finished with only one song. But as the NaNoWriMo community would posit, I was still a winner by some degree because I ended the month with more words written than I’d started with.) I hadn’t put much thought into “NaNo2016” ahead of time. It was late October when I officially decided to participate. Quite immediately, the odds were stacked against me.
To spoil the ending, I “won.” At 10:30pm on Wednesday evening, November 30th, I did a word count on my Google Doc and saw that I’d reached 50,009. What I want to do now is to share seven things I learned on my journey to being a 2016 winner, advice and lessons that I hope will translate to you in whatever endeavor you are currently pursuing or hoping to pursue.
1. Discipline Trumps Inspiration
Sorry if this first lesson brings unnecessary flashbacks to November 9th. Thankfully, if nothing else, this crazy exercise in determination gave me a lovely escape from the November U.S. elections and the riots that ensued. Nevertheless, this first lesson is one that I’ve learned before but that I always appreciated being reminded of: being disciplined to create is more important than being inspired to create. Back in 6th grade, a classmate and I were writing a book of poetry together, which became a frustrating aspiration when he only wanted to write when he “felt inspired”…and it so happened that he was never “feeling” “inspired” (whatever those words really mean). If your every effort is dependent on inspiration arriving first, nothing will ever get done.
Throughout 2016, I’ve been reading Stephen King’s On Writing, which has been a wildly revelatory source of entertainment and sage advice. In it, King characterizes inspiration as a man who will show up and leave whenever he chooses. So the best thing you can do is be in your chair already writing whenever he does show up. More straightforwardly, King says, “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”
2. Don’t Let Goals Get in the Way of Life
If I could have picked a month myself, I wouldn’t have picked November. At the start of the month, I was taking a vacation from work to visit my home state. Later in November, a few friends from said home state came into town to visit me for a weekend. (The following weekend, I had a surprise visitor, too!) All of this was a recipe for disaster in terms of keeping up a goal of writing 1,667 words per day. Now, consider how awful it would have been for me–seeing most of my friends and family for the first time in nine months–to push them aside and limit my time with them in order to accomplish some lousy word count? Such behaviors would have really displayed some disproportional priorities on my part, and I am wholly thankful I decided against neglecting anyone during the month of November. Quality time with friends and family was worth exceedingly more than being forced to spend a few days catching up on writing.
3. Don’t Be Creative Alone
To continue from the last train of thought, time spent with other people was invaluable to my sanity…as well as invaluable to the book itself. I could give numerous examples of this. One of the friends I visited in Texas asked me questions about the book, and I mentioned how I was planning to steal aspects of China’s culture in the creation of the fictional setting on my novel; and it didn’t even occur to me that she’d just returned to America from no place other than (wait for it) China! The input she had for me, the details from a first-hand account, added a new layer of depth to the proceedings.
A few days later, on the 10-hour-long drive back from Texas, I considered pulling out the laptop to try writing in the car (even though I knew this would quickly spawn a headache). Instead, an hour or two of the road trip were spent by me discussing the novel, the plot, and different ideas I had with the other two passengers of the car. Getting to voice my ideas out loud helped add clarity and confidence to my ideas, and I’m not exaggerating by saying that two or three of my plot “breakthroughs” came immediately out of conversations about the book with other people.
So when I say, “Don’t be creative alone,” I’m not trying to tell you that you must write your book or create your art inside a Starbucks rather than locked inside your bedroom. What I’m encouraging you to consider is sharing your art and your ideas with people you trust as early on as you can. Trust me, it’s much better to hear some hard truth from a friend early on in the process rather than hearing it from a publisher at the end.
4. Small Spurts Can Be More Effective than Large Chunks
Something really special about National Novel Writing Month is how it’s transformed from an event into a community. My region alone had a few hundred participants. To add on to point #3, creating as part of a community is so much more encouraging than writing in solitude. While other factors were surely involved, it is not merely coincidental that I won NaNoWriMo this year as an active participant within the community, whereas I desperately failed last year writing solo (riding solo?) with no connection to other writers.
Lesson #4, I attribute specifically to the NaNoWriMo community. About two weeks into the month, I finally attended a write-in, where participants from across the region meet up to write together and spur one another one. For this particular meeting, I drove 20 minutes south to a Panera Bread restaurant, where I–the newbie who’d written 8,000 words thus far–got to meet (among others) two people who, two weeks in, had already passed the 50,000 word mark. It was impressive, to say the least. And terrifying.
One of the hallmarks of these write-ins was an activity called a “word sprint” or a “word war,” where for 15 minutes nonstop, everyone would stop talking, remove any distractions, and write as many words as possible. While some people could pump out 1k in that time frame, I found out over the course of three sprints that I could dependably write 400+ words during each 15 minute window. That’s when it dawned on me that I’d been going about NaNoWriMo all wrong. I’d been trying to set aside two-to-three hour chunks of time every evening to write and write and write. What I realized here was that, instead, I could write for 15 minutes when I wake up; I could write for 15 minutes during lunch; I could use my two daily 15-minute paid breaks at work to write; and then I could do as many sprints as necessary to meet my goal in the evening, with ample time for other activities (like resting!) in between.
This method revolutionized the second half of the month for me. (Looking at the graph above, see the upward trend that started on Day 13.) Most days, four to six sprints would get me to my daily goal. That was about an hour and a half of writing, spread throughout the day. This new method was so much more manageable than carving out massive time commitments every evening. Sure, I had one awful sprint where I wrote only 250 words, but I also had one superb sprint with 670 words. For a few days, I started averaging over 500 words instead of 400. These word sprints were the tool that got me over the finish line, and it makes perfect sense why. Attempting to write for three hours straight actually means trying to remove distractions and focus for three hours straight. In today’s hyper-connected, ADHD society, that’s wildly difficult. But what if we dissect that? Can I ignore a text message for 15 minutes? Mmhmm. Can I push aside the compulsive desire to check Twitter for 15 minutes? You betcha. Can I wake up 15 minutes early in order to get a solid head start on my word count for the day? Why not!
If you have a creative desire that you can’t seem to make time for, why not see if you can fit it in piecemeal over the course of your day? If cutting out an hour every night is impossible, why not see where you can cut out a quarter of an hour four times a day? The results might shock you, especially when I found out that I could write as much in five sprints (75 minutes) as I was originally averaging across two straight hours!
5. When You Can’t Create, Plan
Some people come out of November with a finished novel.
Some people come out with only a few thousand, if not only a few hundred, words.
Some people hit the 50,000 goal but aren’t anywhere near finishing the novel they started.
I belong to the third camp. It didn’t take me long to realize that the book I was writing could not reasonably be told in the span of merely 50,000 words. As I see it now, finishing this book will likely land me in the 150-200k range. In other words, I knew that “finishing” the book within November was out of the picture.
Yet knowing this, I couldn’t stop myself from having ideas about how the book would end. When writing chapter 3, I was figuring out exactly how it would take me to chapters 6-8. (For a frame of reference, by the evening of November 30, I was less than halfway through chapter 5.) Did I leave these ideas and plot developments to linger in my head space and possibly be forgotten? Heavens no! I wrote them down. And did they count toward my total word count? 100%.
The 50,009 words was approximately 84% narrative prose, while the remaining 16% was comprised of plot summaries, background cultural/world-building information, character back stories, and ideas for chapters I knew I wouldn’t get a chance to write during November. Giving myself the leeway to write outside of the context of the “novel” itself was extremely helpful on days when I wasn’t feeling creative or “inspired” at all. Instead of forcing myself to strictly write the story, I could take a meta step outside of the plot and write about the story.
There was one night, close to the end of November, when I was seriously in danger of falling too far behind. I couldn’t dare slow down now, so I spent the whole night writing out my ideas for future plot lines. The word count came easily because I didn’t have to bother with poetic sentences or crafting realistic dialogue or utilizing a non-redundant vocabulary. That night, I pushed out two or three thousand words of pedestrian language, basic ideas, and Spark Notes-level plot concepts. After this night, I knew exactly where the plot was headed, confidently enough that I didn’t need to take a night off from writing the narrative prose of the novel for the rest of the month.
6. Give Your Creative Outlets Room to Breathe
If you look at my progress over the course of November, a pivotal turning point was the second weekend: Saturday and Sunday, November 12th and 13th. The Sunday was vital because of the write-in I attended where I learned lesson #4. The lesson I learned the day before that was not nearly as practical for getting things done. In fact, it was quite logic-averse. On this particular Saturday, I was hoping to get back on track. It was essentially time for me to kick it into gear or give up. By November 12th, I’d written only 8,380 words, almost the exact same amount I’d written when I gave up on NaNoWriMo 2015. I started out the day being 10,000 words behind schedule. That’s an extra 20% of the whole project I was “supposed” to have written already! If I could write three, maybe four thousand words on this Saturday, I’d be on my way to catching up. Yet every time I tried to put pen to paper (but in reality it was putting finger to keyboard), I came up dry. That Saturday, I was distracted, undetermined, and uninspired. I ended up writing zero words, which brought me to my lowest-low of November: 12,000 words behind schedule.
But I wasn’t entirely uninspired that Saturday. The inspiration I did have simply came in a manner different than my novel. One of the distractions that kept stealing my attention all day was a song idea. I’d been struck with a song concept and a melody that yearned to be written and fleshed out, yet I wanted to suffocate this idea in order to focus on more pressing matters. This darned novel! So what did I do? I wrote the song. Hours of my day became dedicated to writing the verses, perfecting the chorus, capturing the right melodies, and then singing them and practicing them over and over. And I loved it. Almost a month later, the song still gets stuck in my head a few times a week. And by flexing my muscles via a different medium of creativity, I returned to the novel the next day absolutely refreshed and ready to write.
I would urge this to anyone trying to squeeze out a creation of a certain type: don’t suffocate yourself. If you’re editing a movie but love to garden…don’t forget to garden! If you’re on a deadline to finish a journalism piece but also love to paint, wake up early one morning to paint before you get back to work. The “wasted time” can be thrillingly rewarding.
7. Don’t Give Up
As cheesy as this very well may sound, do not give up on the goals you set for yourself. There would have been a very big difference between me arriving at December 1st with only 30,000 words written versus me throwing up the white flag on November 10th with only 8,000 words written. It didn’t take me too long into the month to realize that this was a book I needed to finish. In fact, it’s a book I hope to publish someday. So what if I didn’t hit some arbitrary word count goal for some random month out of the year? No landmark matters unless it’s keeping me from doing what I need to do. “Giving up” would mean throwing out those 8,000 words, never planning to touch the book again. Most occupations don’t give you the luxury to decide not to finish the project you’re working on. Whether you turn it in late or early, immaculately completed or haphazardly rushed, you must finish it.
Some albums I love were written and recorded by bands who knew they’d be breaking up immediately following the album’s release. They finished their work anyway. Other great albums I know of were written and recorded after a band had already finished one album, but had shelved it in order to make an even better one. Determination doesn’t always meet its deadlines, and art doesn’t always (if ever) turn out as its creator originally imagined it. Neither of those points are valid reasons for giving up. Perhaps the most valid reason I can think of to give up on your art is if you’ve forgotten what you were trying to say. If that’s the case, go live a little. Get your hands dirty. Work and play and love and forgive. And once you’ve remembered what you’re needing to say, go back to your art. It’s not going anywhere.