NaNoWriMo Your Way
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All Rights Reserved
There is a lot of conventional wisdom about how to win NaNoWriMo and
successfully write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. Most of it works
well for most people, but it doesn’t work well for all people. In fact,
I personally have been flaunting some parts of this traditional wisdom
since 2005 and I have won every year. It is easy to say, “find your own
way to succeed and ignore what doesn’t work for you,” and that is good
advice. However, how do you know where to start looking? I have found
that the conventional wisdom and the unconventional choices I have made
reveal clear core issues in the NaNoWriMo experience. Knowing those
core issues will allow you to more easily come up with your own
The main trick to winning NaNoWriMo is to have fun. If you’re not
having fun, something’s wrong. So, whatever else happens in the month,
whatever issues you run into, you need the solution that is the most
fun, not necessarily the most effective solution. It’s also not a
bad idea to do things that make it more fun: music and “totems” (little
items that remind you that you’re writing a novel) are the most common
methods, but I’ve also seen people talk about rituals before starting a
writing session, silly working titles, and even actual games to unknot
thorny plot problems. Any of these can help keep the fun alive, and you
may find others that work even better for you.
The two secondary issues are your angel and your devil. The angel is
your muse. She bestows happy ideas right when you need them. Well,
guess what? You need to feed your muse. She doesn’t live on nothing;
she lives on other ideas. No ideas exist in a vacuum, not even the ones
your muse provides. How do you feed your angel? The easiest way is
simply to keep writing every day, no matter what. That is also probably
the number one piece of advice I see on the forums. If you write every
day, you not only increase your word count, but you also keep the story
alive. It’s actually the latter that is more important, which is why
you can miss a day here and there and still succeed. There are, after
all, other ways of keeping the story alive. Think about your story.
Dream about it. If you’re stuck, spend some time brainstorming in
another notebook. No, those words won’t count, but they will keep the
story alive. Read other books, watch movies, and listen to music that
inspires you. If you have a big problem, and brainstorming on that
problem doesn’t work, brainstorm on other aspects. If you’re stuck on
plot, write more about the characters or the setting and cultural
context. Sometimes an indirect approach will work better than a direct
approach. The main thing is to stay connected to your story.
Even if you don’t write every day, think about your novel every day. If
you miss a day, it’s not going to be because you’re too busy. There's
no such thing as "too busy" because it's all a matter of priorities. In
some cases, you need to shift your priorities away from
NaNoWriMo: you do not want to fail all your classes or lose your job or
spouse in order to win. But often, "not having time" means that you’re
not as interested in your story as you were when you began. The
suggestions in the previous paragraph can help with that, but in the
most dire cases, you may feel completely mired in mud. That is when it
is most important to write. If you miss a day when you're stuck
in mud, it keeps you stuck. Even ten words moves you slightly further
out of it. If you are committed to writing every day, it will be easier
to make yourself write on these days--another reason for that advice.
But even if you have already missed a day, do not miss a day when you're
stuck in mud.
But what happens if you have decided to write every day, but end up
missing a day? After all, chances are, you will miss a day, whether due
to work, school, or slight disinterest. Right now, plan your
contingency: remind yourself that one day is not the end of the world,
and that every day is a new day. If you miss a day, and feel like a
complete failure for missing a day, it’s just as bad as letting your
inner editor tell you that you’re a complete failure for writing crap.
That, of course, brings me to the devil: your inner editor. She has
one goal: to achieve perfection. If you allow it, she will obsessively
pick and prod at your first sentence for the entire month. She may also
engage in bullying, guilt trips, and insults. She will constantly
bombard you with her opinion that you will never get anywhere with such
an awful character, plot, or paragraph. The fact is, there is no such
thing as perfection. If you follow her advice, you will still not
attain the perfection she seeks. In addition, if you spend all that
time on one sentence, you will not make it to 50,000 words. So, you
have to find a way to avoid the beatings of your devil.
There are three ways of dealing with the devil: giving into temptation,
taking up a cross and banishing her, and striking a bargain. I've
already exposed the problem with the first way: giving into the devil
entirely will result in one edited-to-death sentence. This is why most
people choose the second strategy. A lot of the advice on the forums
falls into the category of “weapons to use against your inner editor.”
The cross is the avoidance of the backspace key. You are instructed
never to use the backspace key or delete any words for any reason.
There are even suggestions on how to make your backspace key stop
functioning or how to train yourself not to use it. This is great for
getting a draft down, but not so great when it comes time to revise.
NaNoWriMo is for the draft, and we're encouraged not to think about
revision time at all, but a balance can be struck. How much time does
it take to fix a typo? How much time does it take to not fix a
typo? And how much time does it take to find all the typos and fix
them during an edit? Your choice here depends on your reason for
participating in NaNoWriMo and what you plan to do (if anything) with
the novel when you are done, as well as your own psyche. The second
method of avoiding the inner editor is the holy water of blinding
yourself to any problems. If you can’t see the problems, you won’t want
to fix them. This is the reasoning behind avoiding rereading, changing
the font so you cannot see what you are writing, and so on. The problem
is that if your devil is particularly pernacious, you may find yourself
finding and correcting errors instead of moving on, if you do reread.
Hence, choosing to avoid rereading.
That said, I have chosen the "morally" ambiguous route: bargaining with
the devil. Supposedly, it’s a bad idea to bargain with the real devil,
because the devil is too intelligent to outwit. Fortunately, your inner
editor is actually a part of you, and no smarter than you are. I
routinely strike deals with mine, because it’s much easier working as a
team. The other reason is that I found she was equally awful about
berating me for not ignoring her as she was for not writing perfectly.
Time spent fighting with your editor is time you can spend writing.
Here’s what I do: my inner editor is allowed to fix all typos, as well
as anything else that is very easy to fix that I happen to notice while
I’m typing. I do not actually go looking for errors, and if I see an
error I made in the past when I'm doing a reread, I just let it go.
Looking for errors takes time--time I want to spend writing--and
rereading is for the muse. Most importantly, looking for errors is not
fun. As for bigger issues: awkward sentences, inconsistencies, plot
holes, etc., the same rule applies. If I don’t notice it, it doesn’t
matter right now. If I do notice it, I allow my devil the parentheses,
which she can use to comment quickly on what needs to change and why.
Yes, the inner editor is a force to reckon with, but you can find your
own way of dealing with her--a way that increases your word flow and
allows you to have fun.
Finally, we come to the environment. The environment of NaNo can make a
huge difference in your productivity. There are two main influences
provided by the NaNoWriMo atmosphere: encouragement and competition.
There are many places to find encouragement: your region and any events
or write-ins, various groups in the forums, and even the shout-out
threads in the Reaching 50,000 Forum. Do not forget to go to local
events: they remind you that you are not alone, and that other real
people who have actual bodies and drink coffee are also struggling.
Encouragement can range from “You can do it!” to “Why are you here
instead of writing? Go write now!” and can make the difference between
a day without writing and a day with a few hundred words: words that
got you further out of a muddy spot or that allowed your muse to feed.
Competition is the other aspect of community. One aspect of the
NaNoWriMo official boards is a place where you can type in your current
word count or insert your document to have it counted by the NaNoWriMo
word counter. That word count is displayed by your name. Every time
you post, it shows up, which means that everyone else's word count is
also displayed. If you spend time in a particular thread, you can see
others who are around the same place as you. Then, you can pick one, or
more, of them, to mentally or publicly compete with. There are also
word wars in various time increments from 10 minutes to 30 minutes, in a
whole board devoted to them. Or start a word war with someone you
know! These are events where you and others compete for that time limit
to see who gets the most words. Encouragement and competition are both
often helpful in getting yet another few hundred, or few thousand words
out, but there are drawbacks to both of them. Encouragement can be
ignored in favor of conversations on the boards: talking about writing
isn't writing. Competition, on the other hand, can go sour if your
attitude isn't right. If you feel bad when you don't "win" the
competition, it's probably not the best method for you.
All in all, though, as I said originally, the most important thing is to
have fun. Grab some M&Ms to sort out your plot, get a special novelling
hat, and get your fingers writing words of your next beautiful mess. I
hope I have illustrated some of the problems you might encounter, and
ways to solve them besides the usual chorus of "Write everyday!" and
"Kill your inner editor!" I hope, even more, to have inspired you to
look for your own methods, maybe starkly different from mine, in
approaching the challenges of writing 50,000 words in 30 days.