In 2020 I attempted – and managed- my biggest NaNoWriMo challenge to date: 80,000 words in 30 days. Along the way lots of fellow writers, and those interested in attempting the challenge themselves, asked questions about my process, but being caught up in it, I didn’t have time to fully respond. So in this mini-series I’m going to break down my processes step by step to help you make the most of NaNoWriMo 2021. This section focuses on the month of November itself, and my top 5 tips for smashing NaNoWriMo itself.
If you’re reading this in advance of NaNoWriMo, you’d be best off hopping over to my blog on Preptober where you can find a breakdown of my planning process. Even the pantsters amongst us will find some useful tips there for clearing your diary in October and guarding your writing time during NaNoWriMo itself.
If you have read that already, or are deciding at midnight the night before that you’re participating in NaNoWriMo and don’t have time for Preptober, then you’re ready for the hard part – actually writing your novel.
1. Lock up your Inner Editor
This is said so often about NaNoWriMo that if you’ve heard, even vaguely, about the challenge, you’ve likely already heard it, but it is so important it bears repeating, and expanding on.
You cannot create freely if you’re standing over your shoulder criticising yourself the whole time. Imagine a child painting a picture. They’re having fun, learning new techniques, learning what works for their process, making a bit of a mess but generally enjoying creating. Then a teacher comes and watches them work and starts correcting their technique, chastising them for the mess they’re making, and telling them their duck doesn’t look at all true to life. Would the child be able to continue to create under those circumstances, or will they become frustrated, demoralised, and disheartened? Your creative side is the child. The inner editor that is pursing her lips and tapping her feet and tutting at your technique, your word usage, your punctuation is the teacher. There is very much a place for her after NaNoWriMo – you will be leaning on her heavily to clean up your manuscript when you have the skeleton of it down – but for now, she is a hindrance. Duct tape her to a chair and leave her in the basement. She is not helping right now.
What does that mean in practice? Well for me, it means switching off the spelling and grammar check in whatever program I’m using to write so that I’m not distracted by squiggly red lines all over my screen. Typing errors and misspellings don’t matter at this stage – as long as you can read what you have written. No one else will be reading this, it’s your dirty draft. It means not reading anything back, ever. Reading what we’ve written is for December and beyond. If you must, I’ll allow you to read the last sentence you wrote before you went to bed, so you can pick the thread up again, but that’s it. If you start reading it you’ll notice that your main character’s eyes are a different colour on page eight than they were on page four, that you’ve used “marvelous” twice in a paragraph, or you’ve changed the spelling of a name and before you know it you’re editing instead of writing, and your work in progress is suddenly shorter. Ok, so you have a perfect first page now, well done. But that’s not much good on its own, is it? Write the damn thing. Edit it later.
This also means switching off the creeping doubts that set in when you suddenly realise you’re basically writing Cinderella, or your idea suddenly feels ridiculous and daft and not something anyone would take seriously as a book. That’s the hardest bit to switch off, and the most important. Don’t worry about who is going to read it. That’s really more your inner editor’s job to worry about, and she’s busy trying to escape the basement right now. Don’t worry if it’s Cinderella. Lots of people have told that story, none of them are going to tell it like you. When your inner doubts start creeping in, you tell them, out loud if necessary, to shut up before you crush them with your word count. You do not have time for them this month.
2. Ride the First Week Wave
Writing a novel is tiring. Writing one in 30 days is exhausting. The hardest part is the slow middle, the two weeks where you have lost the high energy enthusiasm of week 1, where you may be falling behind, or struggling with your plan a little, or real life is beginning to intrude. Plan for that now by getting as far ahead in week one as you can. Ride the wave of your enthusiasm. This is what you’ve been waiting for.
I like to stay up til midnight on October 31st and do a couple of hundred words so that when I wake up on the morning of the 1st, I am not left staring at an empty, intimidating page (That’s why I prepare my opening line in advance too. Then, for the rest of week one, I use my daily word goal as a minimum, not a target. I don’t allow myself to go on any social media at all until I have at least met my minimum word count. I have friends on each of my social platforms who will act as accountability buddies for me on this, and ask me my word count if they see me active online. That is very helpful for someone like me who struggles to be self-motivated. During this week I like to get a few days ahead – although in 2020 when I was aiming for 80,000 words instead of the traditional 50,000, I only managed to get two days ahead. This was still a great thing to have in the bank in week one. It meant that if anything came up over November – a family crisis, a mass power cut, an alien invasion – I wouldn’t fall behind. It also acted as a motivator for those difficult middle weeks of the month, because every time I’d get demotivated and try to convince myself I was too tired to write, I’d open the laptop anyway because I didn’t want to lose my two-day lead. Getting ahead in week one also reduces your word count minimum for the rest of the month, when time and motivation are harder to find.
3. Shake Up Your Process
A lot of people struggle with NaNoWriMo – indeed with all kinds of large writing projects – because they have very fixed ideas about their writing process. How many times have you had an idea and wanted to run with it, but felt you didn’t have time to sit down at the computer for a few hours? How many times have you been planning to write but first you have to make coffee in your favourite mug and find your lucky pencil and get the chair position just right and it all feels too much so you don’t bother? Have you ever been inspired but the laptop was updating? What if I told you, you don’t have to have particular conditions to write in; you can just do it anywhere, at any time?
If you’re reading this you almost certainly have a phone. It likely has a memo pad, or access to email, or even just text messages if it’s very old. You can write in any of them. You don’t have to be at your desk. You don’t have to be on your computer. You don’t have to be listening to your inspiration playlist on a slightly damp Tuesday in your lucky pants. So many people tell themselves “Oh I can’t write unless…” of course you can. You don’t need special conditions to text a friend or write a tweet or tell your nan how your week has been. You don’t need them to write either. You don’t even need big chunks of time to write in. See how many words you can tap out on your phone while you’re waiting for the kettle to boil. Write a paragraph while waiting for the bus. Get half a page down while you’re having a poo at work. Look at that, you’re getting paid to write now, you’re virtually a professional.
It doesn’t matter if you write for an hour at your desk, or 4 15 minute bursts through the day while you’re doing other stuff. Words on the page are what matters. No one will be able to tell how and where you wrote the thing. Which leads me nicely to…
4. Many Small Farts Stink Up A Room
If you do NanoWriMo regularly, you’ll fall behind. You just will. However carefully we guard our writing time, however many covert writing sessions we squeeze in, however well we plan, there will be times when life gets in the way. And that’s ok, you’re a human first. The trick is, not to panic about it. Panic is not your friend. You can still catch up.
Take a look at how far behind you are. For the purposes of this, we are going to pretend you’re 5000 words behind where you wanted to be and it’s the end of week 2. Telling yourself “I have to write 5000 words just to catch up!” is guaranteed to send you into a tailspin. It seems too insurmountable like that. But seasoned NaNoWriMo participants know well the Desmond Tutu wisdom; “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”
Breaking it down into smaller chunks will make it more manageable. That’s sort of the whole ethos of NaNoWriMo, taking a big huge task and breaking it down into bitesize bits. 5000 words behind is only 500 extra words a day for 10 days. You can do 500 extra words with no problem.
Some days though, even writing 500 words seems impossible. You can’t motivate yourself to start and you’re wondering why you even started this stupid challenge in the first place. Don’t worry, that’s normal and we have all been there. That’s where the Many Small Farts ™ method comes in.
To the tune of 500 miles, with deep apologies to The Proclaimers;
And I’ll fart out 100 words,
and I’ll fart out 100 more,
And maybe then I’ll be warmed up
Enough to crap out 1000 more.
However demoralised you feel, however blank, you can write 100 words. I know you can. You write more than that in a quick email. Once you’ve written 100, you’ll be able to do 100 more. It is just the same principle as convincing yourself to just wash one dish when suffering executive disfunction. Once you’re at the sink, it’ll feel easier to wash a few more. If you really can’t get going, 100 words will get the ball rolling. Farting out little 100 word clouds will stink up your room just as well as crapping out 1000 at a time. You can write your entire novel in tiny bursts if that works better for you. No one will care how you got your 50k on the page, just that you did it.
5. Crashes and Comparisons
The task you are taking on now is immense, don’t fool yourself that it isn’t or let anyone minimise your achievement here. You will, when you’re done, or nearly done, have a little crash. You may feel exhausted, or poorly, or emotional. It is your body’s way of telling you to rest after all that cognitive exertion. You don’t just deserve it, you need it to recover properly. You wouldn’t expect to run 100 miles and feel fine the next day, and using your brain is really no different from using your body in that respect. You will need time to rest and recover properly, and booking a self-care day for the 1st December is a good idea. Have your favourite meal, take a long drawn-out bubble bath, and if at all possible, avoid too many thinky things. Your brain needs a little break.
Both during and after NaNoWriMo, it’s really important not to compare yourself to other wrimos. There will be overachievers who have written 200,000 words, and people who barely scraped 20,000. Every one of them is a winner. If you wrote more words than you otherwise would have, or learned a little something about your process, or even just learned that NaNoWriMo really doesn’t work for you, you won. You grew as a writer, an artist, and a person. You set yourself a challenge most people wouldn’t dream of doing. You devoted your time to invest in your art. You put yourself out there and had a go. You are a superhero writer, whatever your final word count, and you should be super proud.
Remember as you go through NaNoWriMo, not to compare your word count with other people’s. Your life is not theirs and they don’t have the same responsibilities as you do. Some people are able to devote full-time hours to NaNoWriMo, most of us are fitting it in around full-time jobs and caring responsibilities. Some people thrive under pressure and can speed type, others work best at a more relaxed pace. It isn’t a race. Where they are doesn’t matter at all. All that matters is your goals, your work, and that you are steadily adding to that word count. The only person you are competing with is yourself from yesterday. And maybe your inner editor. We should probably let her out soon.
Join me for the next installment of my mini-series on NaNoWriMo – NaNo Now What? – where I’ll be talking about essential aftercare for NaNoWriMo, and why you shouldn’t give your inner editor back her red pen just yet…Follow Victoria on social media: