Taking on NaNoWriMo (PT 1)

NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, is an annual writing challenge that takes place every November. Each year participants attempt to write a 50,000 word novel (I say novel loosely because most novels today are much longer than this) during an intense thirty day period. For a professionally published author making a living writing full time, this may seem as easy as tying your shoes, but for an novice writer who has never finished a manuscript or an aspiring author trying to pursue their dreams of a writing career while juggling the demands of everyday life, the task can seem as impossible as climbing Mt. Everest.  Don’t worry! We’ve got you covered. I’m using today’s post to share my strategy on how to take on this mammoth beast and succeed with flying colors.  Read on to learn more.

Basic Rules
Let’s start with some basic ground rules. Because you can either set yourself up for success or failure. And we don’t want you go cripple yourself before the challenge even starts. You wouldn’t enter a marathon without training right? Well, consider this your boot camp.  Listen and learn.

Rule #1. Don't Wing It
I know many of you true artistic visionaries will cringe at the thought but now is not the time to fly by the seat of your pants. Can you complete fifty thousand words with out plotting or outlining ahead of time? Sure. I've even done it in the past. If your ultimate goal, is just to cross the finish line, than fine. Go for it. But if you are planning on actually doing something with this novel, and don't want to spend the next six months editing it to get it into some kind of readable shape, trust me, you're going to want a road map.  I've participated in this challenge twice. The first time I went wherever the muse took me. That book was a complete mess. Though I did indeed finish it, I spent two years going back to revise and edit it, trying to make a better (and thus saleable) novel. It didn't happen. But you know what they say about your first book. The goal is to complete a novel, not to sell it. You get better as you go and you may not want to be judged by your very first attempt.

The second novel I wrote is actually much stronger and I do believe that was because I had already done a significant amount of research and plotting. It still needed some edits, and though I hit my 50K goal I did not finish the novel in one month. For the most part, I knew the plot, the scenes that I wanted, who the major players were. There was plenty of room to adjust as the characters interacted on the scene, but I could reel them back in when I sensed we were going off course in a not so good way. This is actually the novel I've been pitching to agents and editors. And yes, I still continue to tweak it.

This year I will be doing even more plotting and character building. Not because I am completely anal, but because I cannot stand editing and want to minimize the amount of time and energy I need to devote to that portion of the writing process. I tend to get stuck there, dreading out of place commas, typos, and entire scenes that need to be rewritten or worse. It sucks and anyway I can make it easier on myself so that the novel goes out the door faster and I'm back in the more creative realm of writing, the better. 

I am also doing a significant amount of prep work because my goal is actually not to write 50k words. My goal is closer to 85,000 or about 2800 per day.  That's where most of my manuscripts wind up and I'd like to have a full first draft done at the end of the month. I truly believe, that if you know what you're doing, it isn't impossible to do.  But you can't get there with out a clear vision and actionable strategies that will get you across the finish line.

Your goals might not be as lofty as mine, or they might be double what I've outlined.  Either way, the prep work is important. Aside from helping you put together a logical story structure with relevant scenes and meaningful and dynamic characters is that the prep work allows you to make the most of what little time you have to write each day. Let's face it.  Ultimately what happens when you don't collect your thoughts before hand is that you sit down with the intention of writing 1666 words or more in a single session and end up staring at a blank screen for the first twenty minutes. Time is a valuable commodity, especially when we have so much going on in our busy lives.  Don't waste it brainstorming when you have a deadline looming. One of the great things about this challenge is that it forces you to stop making excuses and get something on the page. It teaches you the discipline of writing daily, and if you don't well the punishment can be severe. My first round I missed three days in a row. Next thing I knew my daily goal was no longer 1666 but 6664! It was a long and painful day, especially because I had no idea where the story was going or what was happening next. It was easy to push forward with 2000 words, but eventually you have to stop and figure out what comes next. And without realizing it you are back into the daydreaming, brainstorming stage instead of the producing stage.

Rule #2. Set a Schedule

Be proactive and plan out a schedule for writing ahead of time. Know how long it takes you on average to write 1666 words. Can you do it in two hours, or do you need more time? My goal is to write two hours in the morning before I go to work and do another two in the evening after I get home from the gym. And if I know that it's taking longer, I can cut the gym or write during my lunch break. Whatever it takes to get the words on the page.

Rule #3. Eliminate Non-Essentials
Along with setting up a specific writing time, look at your schedule and figure out what the non-essentials are. What are the things that you can cut out if you have a crazy day and need more writing time? Can you skip the gym, bypass the PTA meeting? TiVo Glee?  Basically this is all about prioritization. If completing this challenge is important enough than spending time writing will come first. Note, I am not advocating you quit your job or starve your kids. But you don't have to cook a five course meal or make homemade pasta for dinner. Order a pizza, get carry out.If you don't like the idea of fast food all the time, plan out your meals for the week and  prep them the Sunday before. Casseroles and soups can be frozen and reheated in the oven or crock-pot with minimal effort involved. If you love fresh salads, chop up your veggies and store them in storage containers so that you can quickly toss your favorites together and have meal in five minutes or less with little dishes to clean. Remember, now is not the time to go caffeine free. Don't take up an additional college course, try to plan a wedding or take on a part time job. A couple of late nights won't kill you but it will make you cranky. We want this to be a happy positive experience, not a death march to the end of your writing career.

If you live alone, you can stock up on healthy frozen dinners, snacks and quick serve meals. If you have a spouse or partner, USE THEM! Explain what you're doing, why it is important. Ask them to take over meals, childcare, bath time, etc. (that's bath time for the kids not you! No distractions!) and you can buy yourself a few extra minutes with the computer. If they see how hard you're working (meaning you can't be staring at a blank computer screen) and know that it's only for one month, they will hopefully be happy to support you.

Rule #4. Reward Yourself
Sure, winning the challenge and crossing the 50K mark is huge and a great motivator in and of itself. But if you aren't use to writing everyday the task can seem daunting, even for talented writers. Celebrate the little milestones, did you write today (even if it was just a sentence, good job. Are you on track or ahead of the pacing for the month? Good job. Did you meet your daily word count? Good job. Reward yourself with a chapter from a good book, an hour of your favorite TV show, or some special time with your significant other. :)