You’ll find us on the first day of November hunched over our laptops at kitchen tables and cafes, glowing with creative verve as we type our opening sentences. Check in a week later, and you might detect a panicked gleam in our eyes as we scribble notes in our journals. In another week, our hands will shake with sleep withdrawal and caffeine overdoses as we peck rapidly at our keyboards.
We are the novelists. We’ll be here all November.
National Novel Writing Month (henceforth shortened to NaNoWriMo) is a month-long, 50,000 word writing marathon. (That translates to about 1,667 words a day.) Each year, hundreds of thousands of people all over the world sign up for this madcap writing sprint: Last year, 310,095 participants “won” by completing their word counts by 11:59 p.m. on November 30. Aspiring authors log on to the NaNoWriMo website, where they can track word counts, read famous authors’ pep talks, and connect with other would-be novelists in the forums.
November focuses on rough drafts, but writers have polished and published over the years. "Fangirl" by Rainbow Rowell started as a NaNoWriMo project. So did "Water for Elephants" by Sara Gruen and "The Night Circus" by Erin Morgenstern. (Take this as a sign that your circus-themed novel is ready for birth.)
I started participating in National Novel Writing Month as a college junior, which makes this my fifth year running. My first year, I wrote a really terrible novel about supernatural teens at a boarding school, and when I described it to a friend he said, “Megan, you just wrote X-Men.” Oops. The next year, I accidentally wrote a 30,000 Harry Potter fanfic. No oops there. But each year, I learn something different -- not just about plots and dialogue, but about perseverance.
I am by no means an authority, but I’ve picked up a few tricks that help me slog through each daily word count. Here are my six tips for staying focused, dodging despair, and earning those novelist bragging rights to warm you through the rest of the cold winter.
1. Shout it from the rooftops
The first rule of NaNoWriMo is don’t talk about NaNoWriMo.
Just kidding. Tell freaking everyone
Your friends, your parents, your boss, your barista, your nemesis, your cats, your friend’s cats. Post about it on all your social media and write about it on your blog. The more people you tell, the more likely you are to stick the course, based on pure guilt and shame. Channel those negative feelings! Let them give you strength! Soul-crushing deadlines exist so you can actually completing things. If everyone knows about your month-long writing marathon, they’re bound to ask how you’re doing. Channel Bonnie Raitt: Let’s give ‘em something to talk about (your killer word count).
2. Be prepared to make a few sacrifices
Yeah, this one sucks, but hitting 50k means passing on some fun. You might have to sit out a bar trip or a matinee movie. In the moment, this will feel so stupid. You’re going to consider ripping up your notes and deleting your files and shaking your fist as the grey autumn sky and renouncing the written word forevermore. (These feelings will double if you forsake an afternoon nap.)
This year I’m shutting down Netflix, deleting my phone’s Tumblr app, and waking up an hour before work to get in some solid typing. (I will not actually wake up an hour early. It’s good to set one goal you’re going to fail.)
3. Make a survival pack
For me this includes a notebook that feels good to write in, pens that feel good to write with, nice coffee and cheap wine. Maybe you like jelly beans or craft beer or cinnamon toast or Marlboro Lights. What small treats or rituals make writing fun for you? What tools will make you most likely to sit down and pound out 1,667 words for 30 days running?
I also like to give myself a small, writing-inspired reward at the end of the month. An overpriced journal or a fancy fountain pen, something that’ll help me keep up my productivity even when I don’t have daily deadlines looming over me.
4. Quantity over quality
This goes against anything you’ll learn in a creative writing classroom. I can feel the “serious writers” rolling their eyes here. “I can’t write drivel,” they’re saying. “You can’t force genius.”
To this, I say, SHUT UP! LET’S ALL WRITE UTTER CRAP TOGETHER!
NaNoWriMo is not where you write your polished, perfect magnum opus. First and foremost, it’s about hitting your word count. Some days, you will shine with creativity and the words will flow out from your fingertips and your hair will look perfect and those cookies you like will be on sale. Other days, Mercury will be in retrograde and your car won’t start and writing will feel exactly like having your fingernails pulled out one by one.
You can’t wait for ideal writing conditions or immaculate inspiration. You. Have. To. Just. Write. Be your own damn muse.
Wax poetic on your protagonist’s fingernail polish for 1,000 words. Throw in a gratuitous sex scene. Don’t obsessively reread, and don’t delete a single word -- no matter how much it makes you cringe. You have all of December (and every month after) to revise. And sometimes when you reread that supposed crap, it doesn’t seem so bad after all.
5. DON’T PANIC
Write those words in large, friendly letters across your laptop. At some point during the month, everyone inevitably falls behind. You’ll pick up some extra office hours or come down with the flu or fall into a post-Thanksgiving turkey hangover. A stagnant word count will make you want to throw in the proverbial towel.
DON’T PANIC! Maybe you need to tack on an extra 300 words each session. Maybe you need to lock yourself in a dark tower and plow through 5,000 words in a single day. Figure out what it takes, and chip away at it letter by word by sentence by paragraph.
And if you fall irreparably behind and sink into the swamp of inadequacy, remember that anything -- anything! -- is better than nothing. Maybe you fizzled at 35k. Maybe you never broke 500. But those are all words you would have never written if you haven’t tried. You’re a loser, but you’re a loveable loser. Consolation prizes aren’t just for chumps, and you’ll do better next year.
6. Find Your People
Frodo had Sam. Harry had Ron and Hermione. Who will you bring along on your quest?
I’m lucky to have a writing soul mate in my friend Heather, who does NaNo every year too. When we lived in the same small college town, we met up every day in coffee shops, libraries and dorm rooms. One year she finished her novel way before me (like always) and she stood behind me clapping and cheering as I wrote my last paragraph, 20 minutes to midnight on the last day of the month.
Our favorite trick is to set a timer for 15 minutes, write continuously without speaking to each other, then yell our word count out when the alarm goes off. There’s competition there -- we definitely want to impress each other -- but it also makes everything feel like a game. Now that we have jobs and adult responsibilities, we stay in constant contact through phone calls, G-chat, and guilt-trippy “WHAT ARE YOU WRITING” text messages.
If you know someone who’s doing NaNoWriMo, ask if they want to meet at the bar down the street for a drink and a word sprint. It’s the perfect excuse to be social while also being productive. If you don’t know anyone IRL, there’s a huge virtual community ready to welcome you with open arms. This year, my goal is to attend one of the many NaNo-endorsed write-ins in Chicago.
In fact, the comments section here is a good place to start. Who’s taking on the mighty task this year? What’s your novel plan? Where do you like to write? Fellow veterans, what are your tips and tricks?
If you ask me how I’m doing in mid-November, I’m sure I’ll be in between panic attacks and lattes as I plow towards my word count. But right now, I feel like a holiday is just around the corner.
One of the most important things NaNoWriMo taught me is that I can write no matter what. I can write when I’m tired or grumpy or depressed. I can write when I don’t feel like it. Writing won’t necessarily make everything feel better, but it won’t make it worse. What an insane and lovely month to spend chained to your laptop, dreaming and writing, all alone in the invisible company of thousands typing away at the same goal.