I signed up for NaNoWriMo for the first time in 2011, but I didn’t participate. I felt unfit for it, not ready, or otherwise scared of the magnitude of the project. In 2012, one of the members of my writers group asked if anyone else is doing the NaNoWriMo, so I said yes. I didn’t think about it, and I just said yes. If I had thought about it, I would’ve probably bailed again.
Here I am in December, two weeks after completing my first NaNoWriMo. I am still not over the joy of this little success, so much so that I decided to write a blog post and describe how I did it and how you should not look at this as a scary project, but a challenge and a way to improve your writing skills.
First of all, if you are not at all aware with what NaNoWriMo is, it’s a writing challenge where participants must complete a novel of 50,000 words or more, in 30 days, during the month of November. There are many other similar contests, but this particular one is very popular and pretty well organized. In 2011 there were 250,000+ participants, and that’s pretty impressive, if you think about it. To learn more about the contest, head to their main page and read their about section: http://www.nanowrimo.org/
So, let’s recap: 50,000 words in 30 days. That’s about 200 pages (double spaced, standard margins, 12 pt. font). Mathematically, that is not more than a mere 1,667 words per day, or about 6 to 7 pages. This translates in about 1 to 2 hours per day of typing. Piece of cake, right?
Well, as we all know, writing a novel is not about math, unless you are writing some kind of algebra textbook. It’s a lot more than that, and most of it has to do with what’s in your head. Let’s look at the real challenges:
1) Mental Challenge:
- You can’t wrap your mind around the fact that it is just too much in too little time
2) Creative Challenge
- You don’t have an idea for a novel right now
- You will never be able to produce a sellable manuscript in 30 days
3) Physical Challenge
- You are afraid that you cannot type so much, so fast
- You are afraid that you don’t have enough time to dedicate to writing
- You are a master outliner and you can’t bare not outlining your novel properly
Now let’s tear each one of these into pieces, and find real-life methods to get over them.
This is probably one of the biggest hurdles in the path of any achievement: self-doubt, lack of confidence, fear of failure, procrastination. All of these live in your head. You don’t think of yourself good enough to do it, you are afraid of what others will think about you if you fail, and there’s nobody around you to give you a push. Guess what? Neither one of these are real.
Every single person that ever created or invented anything started from scratch. And if they would’ve stopped because they were afraid of failure, the world would not be where it is today. Instead, they replaced the fear with hope. And hope drove their desire to succeed. And even when they failed, they didn’t stop. “If I find 10,000 ways something won’t work,” Thomas Edison said about working on the lighbulb, “I haven’t failed. I am not discouraged, because every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.”
And guess what? You have a huge advantage over those pioneers, when it comes to writing. You have books that teach you how to write, you have seminars and conferences, you have books written by others that can inspire you, and you have a community of writers to support you.
Once you come to terms with the fact that you are a writer, you can jump over this hurdle. You go everyday at your work and perform your tasks– accounting, sales, what have you. If anyone doubts you can do those, you will get offended, right? Well, then it’s time that you decide you are a writer and stop being afraid of actually acting like a writer. That is– write.
If you haven’t done this already, pick-up a piece of paper and write in big letters: “I Am A Writer.” Glue it in your home in front of your eyes so you never forget.
So, write. Push through the fear and do it anyway. Recognize that nothing that brings glory and satisfaction is ever accomplished without some degree of fear. Just don’t think about it. Try your best to reject every thought that pops in your head and tells you that you can’t make it.
DECIDE that you CAN make it.
That’s your first and hardest step.
The second hurdle comes after you decided to do it. Now the question is: what am I going to write about? There are people who sit on a good idea for years, and NEVER get the chance to turn it into words. If you are one of those lucky ones, you won’t have a problem. Take that idea and run with it. But most likely you will be like the vast majority– you don’t have an idea yet. That’s a scary thought, a thought that fuels those fears you dealt with above. So, what do you do?
Simple: re-frame the way you think about the challenge, and don’t let the lack of a readily available novel idea be the thought that drives your process.
To understand that, let’s take a step back first and look at what is this challenge going to help you accomplish:
1) Publish a novel
2) Improve your writing skills (style, grammar, structure)
3) Expand your writing spectrum (genres)
4) Help you get better at putting words on paper
This particular contest will not result in a publishable manuscript. Read that again, and again, and again. At the end of the thirty days, unless your name is Faulkner, you will probably not be able to publish the manuscript. You will be able to turn it into a publishable manuscript later on, as you will see, but initially it will be just a rough draft.
So, your manuscript doesn’t have to be perfect! That’s a big relief. It simply doesn’t have to be perfect. As a matter of fact, the longer your first 30-day draft, the less perfect it will be. There’s an inverse relation between the writing quality and the writing quantity, in a limited span of time. This contest asks you to finish 50,000 words, not 50,000 PERFECT words. So, for now, strike number 1). Things are getting easier. No pressure to hand the manuscript on November 30th to anyone to read.
Improving your writing skills is by far the number one goal for this contest, in my opinion. It’s one of those elusive obvious things that are right there, in your face, but you just don’t see them. In your head, the prestige of finishing is great, being able to tell your friends and family is awesome, and publishing your work is grand. But at the end of the day, this challenge will help you become a better writer.
The advice you get from every single writing evangelist is this: write, write, and write. Don’t look back, don’t you dare… Just keep writing through the end. Then, take a break, take a breath, look back, and start fixing. But the process of pushing forward and putting words on paper is what will eventually drive your continuous improvement as a writer.
The more words you are able to put on the paper, the better you get at establishing a proper work ethic, an the better that process goes, the more confidence you will get. The more self-confidence you acquire the faster and better you will write. It’s a growing spiral of improvement. You will start taking chances, getting outside of your comfort zone, explore, experiment, and test. This is what this type of challenge will bring you most, and it’s a priceless gift.
So, don’t be afraid if your novel idea is not the next New York Bestseller. You have time for that. Now write about anything that makes you feel comfortable. There are a lot of sites that help you brainstorm and I also wrote a blog post on writer’s block. Don’t let the lack of a great idea be a deterrent to your goal of learning how to impose your own writing schedule, and improving your writing style.
So, above we dealt with the ‘why’ you should and can do this, and then with the ‘what’ should you write about. Now let’s move to the ‘how.’ The answer to this will depend a lot on your style as a writer. Are you an outliner, who likes to plan every move of your novel, or are you a seat-off-your-pants kind of writer, where you write with no plan in mind and let your imagination guide each step?
Well, obviously the non-outlining writers will feel more confident with this project, since they can just start writing. The outliners will feel a bit scared by the idea that they won’t be able to spend their weeks and weeks of planning and outlining.
Personally, I am a big outliner. I like to take my story from the one line blurb up to a complete scene list, character bibles, maps and world-building. To get over this, I decided that I will sacrifice one day and one day only for outlining. This is how I did it.
I figured that an average scene for me is about 800-1000 words, based on prior experience. I felt that a chapter should be roughly 10-15 pages. So, I decided that my outline will contain 16 chapters, each with 4 scenes of about 800 words. I used good-old Excel to start a table with the following headers: Scene number, Scene Description, Number of Words, chapter, Total Words.
Next was the overall story structure. Again, we don’t have a lot of time here, so I decided to go with the well-known, established and loved by many, three-act-structure. So, I assumed that my first act was going to be about 25%, second act about 50%, and the third act the remaining 25%. I color coded my excel sheet to see the clear separation and at the bottom, below the table, I made three rows with formulas to keep track of the real size of each act.
Now I had a pretty decent skeleton for a good start. If you want to take a look at the Excel sheet and use it in your own project, grab this writing quota Excel tracking sheet that I prepared for you. Use it freely as you wish.
Now, the minimum average number of words you must write every day is 1,667, but you don’t want to be there. You want to be at least 50% higher so you can slowly get yourself a nice safety cushion. I set my own personal goal to be 2,500 words per day. That’s about 3 scenes, or almost one full chapter.
Ok, now with a quick skeleton and the plan for each day, there was one more thing I had to do: decide how this novel will end. Why is this important?
The fun of writing a novel is in the process of creation. You are the God of your characters, you are building the world, you give them life and you make them interact. That’s great, but you are not writing for your characters, you are writing for a reader, and readers, usually, like to finish a book and enjoy its ending. So, as much as the fun lies in your second act, your last act is the one that will leave the final mark on your reader. Equally important, the first act is the one that will grab your reader and make him read the entire book.
So, the minimal preparation here should be this: how do I start? Keywords: attention grabbing, interesting action, character introduction. And how do I end? Keywords: emotional connection, closing the circle, tying all the plot lines.
If you want to make the road from the first few pages until the last few pages to be a fun one for you, at least decide from the beginning what will be on those few pages. And again, you don’t have to be perfect here as we are still in the planning phase. But have a general idea of your ending. Is it a dark ending? Is your protagonist going to die or lose someone dear? Is it a happy ending where the boy gets the girl? Or maybe a bitter sweet ending where the boy saves he girl but still loses her? Either way, if you decide this from the start you will have a far easier time filling the gap between your beginning and your ending.
So, at this point: you have decided you can do this, you more or less know what your novel will be all about, you prepared yourself a generic outline, and you have established how you novel starts and ends. That’s all you need, now start writing!
Once you start writing, once you get into your routine, you will find it hard to stop, and I mean it! But there will also be days when you won’t be able to write. Maybe because of your job, illness, family functions, and so on. But you have to strive hard to keep that average going.
If you find it really hard to allocate the time you need to write your daily quota, read my other article “Writing when Busy.” It gives you some specific ideas about how to write when you are very busy.
But regardless, don’t get hung up on the daily quota too much. The daily goal is great, but what you are looking for here is a weekly quota, much more than a daily one. You have to output about 12,500 words per week. Make sure you keep to that. There will be days when you write more and days when you write less. Your weekends are a good way to catch up, so if you missed your quota in one or two days, get back on track during the weekend. If you are over your quota, good for you, but don’t relax and rest right away. Write more, you will love it in week four when you are almost done.
How do you edit your work during the month of November? The short answer is: you don’t. Given that you are writing everyday more than 2000 words, chances are you don’t even need to re-read what you wrote the day before in order to keep your story on track. It will all be in your head. If you are on chapter 10 and you can’t remember the name of that town, just put a “?” as placeholder and you will search and replace later on.
Obviously, if you are the kind of writer that needs to read yesterday’s work just to get back into the “writing mode,” by all means, do it. But keep it short. Remember, your goal here is to write a lot, not to write perfectly from the start.
If you want a compromise do this: first write your daily quota of new words and, only if you meet it, you are allowed to read your work from the day before and do some light editing. Keep it fun and challenge yourself!
Other ways to get you motivated
The NaNoWriMo allows the participants to join regional groups. Each group organizes various writing sessions where a group of people get together with their laptops in a public place, like a library or a bookstore, and write. It’s a good motivator to be around other writers, so if you have trouble focusing by yourself, use them.
The forums on NaNoWriMo are also filled with posts that help writers with advice and encouragement.
On the NaNoWriMo site look for friendly faces or other people who write in your genres and add them as your writing buddies. You will be able to see their progress and compare it against yours.
Search the web for posts such as the one you are reading right now. There’s a lot of information out there and many ways to get motivated. As soon as you feel like you are going stale or ready to procrastinate, turn to these resources and use them as a ‘kick in the butt.’ You will be happy later when you are done!
You did it! It’s November 30th and your 50,000 words are done! So, wait no more and submit your work. Make sure you don’t stop exactly at 50,000, by the way, push through 51,000 or so, to make sure that your word processor’s word count will match their word count. Sometimes there is a slight difference, so you want to make sure you have a good cushion.
Congratulations!! Now, take a week or two away from this novel. Work on other things. Then two weeks later come back. Start polishing your work, but even before that, decide if your novel will stay at 50,000 words or if you need more. Depending on your genre and the standards, you might find yourself in need of another 25,000 words or maybe more. Now that you know the process, adding those words should be easy.
Now you have a month or so to do your first review and bring your word-count where you want it to be. Enjoy your holidays and your new year’s, but remember: by the end of January you should have your second round of edits done, and your novel should now be in a somewhat presentable state.
From here on, it’s all about polishing and making it better. But that’s not the subject of this article. I just wanted you to get here, and what you do from this point on is different story. But give yourself a warm hug and treat yourself to whatever you love most. You deserve it.
You learned writing discipline, the hardest hurdle on your way to writing success. You improved your style and you learned how to write fast and organize your thoughts in your head. You learned how to keep track of your writing and stick to your quotas.
You just became a better writer.
I’d love to hear some comments from people who completed their NaNoWriMo. What was your process like? What were your fears and how did you go over them? What advice do you have for other writers on how to accomplish this successfully?
Last, but not least, I challenge you to make your own NaNoWriMo. Pick any month, and be the only participant. See if you can do it. Actually, let me correct that: prove that you can do it!