With the last few weeks of the year hurdling towards us, so too does a list of noteworthy occasions. Assembling bits and pieces of Halloween costumes, spending the majority of a Thursday morning preparing a feast devoured in a mere twenty minutes, the chaos that is trying to cross off everything gift on your shopping list while hearing the same Michael Buble song for the third that day, and drafting a list of resolutions and goals for the coming year. A lot happens in that short amount of time, all while juggling things we deal with year-round.
For some, November 1st means more than stocking up on clearance-priced Halloween candy. If you're a writer, this date marks the beginning of NaNoWriMo.
National Novel Writing Month, abbreviated as NaNoWriMo, challenges participants to complete the first draft of a 50,000-word manuscript within the month of November. There are other variations throughout the year, such as summer's CampNaNoWriMo or April's Screnzy, which followed a similar premise centered around screenplays rather than novels (though this sister challenge was officially ended c. 2013).
Since the aim of NaNoWriMo is to inspire people to write, the rules are pretty relaxed. No amount of experience is required and writers of any genre are invited join in. Since NaNoWriMo is more about challenging yourself as a writer and putting pen to paper or fingers to keyboard, there aren't any severely strict rules and runs by an honor system, though participants can log their progress on the NaNoWriMo site and submit their word counts for verification that way. The main point is writing a little every day and working towards the goal of completing 50,000 words in thirty days. This amounts to an approximate average of just under 1,670 words per day.
While I'm sitting out for this year's NaNoWriMo, focusing instead on finishing an already-in-progress first draft rather than diving into a new project, I wanted to offer some tips to those who are taking on the challenge.
Bear in mind that although NaNoWriMo can be a great way to coax you out of your writerly comfort zone and test yourself, not every point on this list will necessarily work for you and your individual process.
While the official rules for NaNoWriMo say that only the words added to the body of your manuscript officially count towards your goal, and that the writing does not technically start until the clock strikes midnight on November 1st, participants are encouraged to do some planning ahead of time in what I've seen refered to as Preptober.
Take some time to establish at least a rough idea of what you want to write. Depending on the kind of writer you are, this might be in-depth outlines and character sheets, or it could be a few notes. This is also often the time recommended for preliminary research and world-building.
If you're especially new to writing, it's worth taking some time to explore your options for how you're going to be writing. Set aside an hour or two to play around with various word processors if you don't already have one you know in love, such as MS Word or Scrivener, as well as other tools out there for editing or plotting if the mood strikes.
Depending on the kind of writer you are, this could also be the time to curate your story's soundtrack playlist or find some instrumentals to have on in the background, or buy yourself a treat, whether this be a candle, your favorite snacks, or noise-canceling headphones for when you need to block out distractions. Something to help you get in the right mind to jump right in and get going.
Find Your Tribe
Writers are known for being rather solitary creatures. We're often depicted as being holed up in some room, isolated from people while we smother ourselves in our work. While this can be true, especially with circumstances like we've seen in 2020 limiting how much social interaction we can enjoy/subject ourselves to, this doesn't have to be the case.
One of the benefits to NaNoWriMo is being able to find writers. The NaNoWriMo website includes a feature to designate your Home Region, which allows you to find writing events in your area like meet-ups and write-ins (though the forums I've seen indicate none will be held in my area because 2020 is as it is). There is also a buddy system where you can add people via usernames and create writing groups.
Apart from that, Twitter is another tool for writers to connect. A quick search of NaNoWriMo hashtags can direct you to threads of fellow participants and writers, within your genre and outside of it.
Friendship among writers is invaluable, especially with something like our stories and NaNoWriMo where it can be tricky to talk about with people who don't *get* what we mean when we reference a writerly problem we're dealing with and working through.
Connect with writers who can be your cheerleaders. Writers who will check in and ask about your well-being before your wordcount's. Writers within your genre who can point you in towards resources when you get stuck in the research rabbit holes or might know someone who can answer that weirdly specific question Google hasn't been able to—I've had a couple of people send me private messages with Regency-based questions, and being able to help out has led to some lovely conversations with people I wouldn't have been able to interact with otherwise.
Being able to get in touch with a writer friend for advice or a word of encouragement can make this writing experience less isolating.
Because in 2020, we all need a little less isolation (provided it can be done safely and socially-distanced, with masks on).
Just Do It
Some days, what you write doesn't feel right. And it can be discouraging. A blank screen can be one of the most intimidating things a writer encounters, and it can be incredibly discouraging.
Plenty of what you write won't make it into the final, finished version of your story. Characters end up benched. Scenes might be reordered or cut altogether. Darlings are murdered and end up in the "junk drawer doc" where they hang out in the hopes of being resurrected elsewhere, whether that is a different place within the story from which they originated or in a completely different project down the road.
My first drafts are usually skeletal, and my editing process focuses on adding meat to those bones. That is the point the story really begins to come alive.
Don't worry about writing the "perfect" first draft. It doesn't exist. The first draft is always about testing the waters and giving yourself a taste of the story.
First drafts are shitty; only by polishing them up through editing do they become shiny.
Focus on getting the words down. There's nothing you cannot fix later, except for nothing.
Keep at it. Be persistent. NaNoWriMo is only ever the beginning.
In this post about how I set writing goals for myself, one thing I mention is flexibility. NaNoWriMo occurs in November, which can be a particularly stressful month for some. In America, where I live and am writing this from, this includes Thanksgiving and the "real start" of the holiday season thrown in our faces from September/October on. Family obligations and get-togethers can interfere with writing, as can many other things.
Being able to shift things around can be difficult, especially around this time of year.
Flexibility is worth having in your writer's toolkit. Being able to shift your plans when needed and still being able to get some writing time in is better than throwing the plan out the window because something suddenly came up. If that prophesied turkey coma hits a bit too hard and the tryptophan makes typing out that argument between your protagonists too challenging, working on a different scene or taking the night off are both valid solutions. It depends on your needs and situation.
Setting realistic and reasonable goals for yourself will help you in the long run.
While some follow the approximate 1,670-words-per-day as a rule they must adhere to no matter what and come what may, the overall goal of 50,000 words by the end of the month feels more significant to me. Whether that comes in 1,670 words per day every day or in different increments, say a few hundred words in that hour between coming home from work and making dinner and another few hundred before bed, the act of writing and challenging yourself is what NaNoWriMo is all about.
Mathematical averages and guidelines for "winning" don't account for life itself, and like I frequently say here, life finds a way to get in the way.
People will say writing is about making the time for it. While this is true, writing is just as much about making the time you do have work for you.
To piggyback off the previous point, being forgiving is one of the most important bits of advice I can give about setting writing goals in general, but it's especially relevant for scenarios like NaNoWriMo where the deadline is more rigid and in your face than writing goals you might set for yourself.
Social media can also add to the pressure. When you have various NaNoWriMo hashtags flying around your feed with people sharing their successes and victories, word counts reached and exceeded, and the progress they are making with their stories. It's something that happens fairly often but even more so in November.
With everything happening this time of year, and the mess that 2020 has been, I've made a point to try and cut myself a little more slack and be more forgiving towards myself and my writing. It's been a particularly difficult year for me to feel creative, which has had me burying myself in editing and later querying, and it's something I've seen plenty of people mention, too.
While NaNoWriMo is regarded as a way to spark those creative juices and reignite that fire, there are certainly times where that is an easier feat to accomplish than others.
If you miss your target word count for a day, maybe because life reared its ugly head or because you realize you need to rework something for your story's plot or because something else happened, don't beat yourself up over it. It happens.
If you've had a crazy day at work, have to run out to get that one thing you swore you had in your pantry but realized you didn't once you started mixing up the rest of the ingredients for your pie or, Heaven forbid, something far more catastrophic happens, but still manage to sneak eighty-nine words in for the day, that's still something. Even if it's "only" eighty-nine words compared to the thousand-and-change someone else posts about, it's still eighty-nine more words than you had the day before.
Success is whatever you define it as.
Participating in NaNoWriMo, and writing a novel regardless of the time of year or timeframe, is an accomplishment. 2020 seems to be a year to celebrate the tiny, personal victories, and find some positivity where you can, and being able to say you started or even finished writing a book is definitely a big accomplishment.
Take pride in the fact that you did this. Even if it doesn't live up to your expectations or things don't turn out the way you hoped, you still took that chance on yourself, your story, and your characters. NaNoWriMo can be daunting. Taking the plunge is nothing to scoff at.
Perhaps this is a cliche to end on, but it's appropriate.
NaNoWriMo is a learning experience. It can be daunting, especially with wordcounts in the thousands thrown around.
Give yourself the liberty to play and explore your story. Don't be afraid to experiment or veer off the outline. While you are in charge and the creator, a literal God figure to your characters with complete control over what happens, I tend to think of writing as a partnership. There are times where forcing something isn't the best idea. Some of my favorite moments in my stories have been things I've discovered along the way or added after realizing my original plan just wasn't allowing it to reach its true potential. Learning to ease up on the reins is something that took me a while to grasp, but it's made writing so much more fun for me.
This is your story. Your characters. Your world. Your words.
On that note, best wishes to everyone who is taking part in NaNoWriMo this year! Taking on this challenge is a feat, but don't let the pressure of the event overwhelm you. NaNoWriMo is all about creating, not refining, and enjoying the process of exploration. Making the commitment to write, at least from my perspective, is the greatest takeaway from this endeavor—save for the finished first draft waiting for you at the finish line.