I tried to make a shit sandwich with these three truths, but only the filling was palatable, so here’s a sandwich made of poo bread. Try not to get your hands dirty.
An entirely fictional person said to me, “I’ve been living under a really big rock. What the hell is this NaNoWriMo thing?”
Talking to fictional people is what I do, but I figured others might want to know the facts. NaNoWriMo was founded by Chris Baty who was partying like it was 1999 because it was 1999. There were 21 party goers back then. Last year, 400,000 people took part.
According to its mission statement, NaNoWriMo “believes your story matters. We provide the structure, community, and encouragement to help people find their voices, achieve creative goals, and build new worlds—on and off the page.”
Building new worlds! You need to do this thing. Go, magical ones—find your pretty/evil/glorious voices.
The idea is simple: sign up and challenge yourself to write a novel in a month. The target is 50K words in 30 days. 1667 words a day.
“How is that a novel?” says the fictional person, who is something of an arsehole.
This would be the perfect size for a children’s novel (the 9-12 shelf, or MG if you’re American). It would be on the short side for YA, but there’s nothing stopping you from writing more during November or completing the draft afterwards. 50K is a novella for adult fiction, but remember there are more differences between a novella and a novel than word count.
Now, some truth …
“Writing a book in a month? Why would anyone engage in this lunacy?”
For some people who really want to write a book, NaNoWriMo can give them a much needed kick up the butt. It’s what I needed when I took part in my first July camp.
But the thing to remember is this: your book will not be ready for publication at the end of the month, even if you wrap up the entire plot. You wrote a whole book and you’re still not done. That is the first truth of NaNoWriMo.
In all likelihood, the novel you’ve been spilling blood for will be a heap of shit and bones. What you have to do then is leave it for a while to brew. That way, when editing time arrives, it’ll have kicked up the kind of stench you can’t ignore. Fresh eyes always see better than tired ones, and I guarantee your nose will be twitching. It’s your job to extract the shit and build flesh on those bones. Then you get to infuse your novel with darkness or fluff or any combination you choose and prettify it to your specifications.
So, that’s the first truth. The second is more personal, but strangely universal. Most of us will go through it at various stages of our writing lives, but NaNoWriMo can help us beat it.
“I signed up to see what would happen and accidentally volunteered 30 days of my life on a whim. Why am I like this?” That wasn’t the fictional arsehole; it was me four years ago.
Now, I’d heard of NaNoWriMo years before then, and you know what stopped me from joining in? Fear. I was scared shitless. Ask me what I was scared of, and I’d say this: that just admitting I was writing a book was enough to make my heart thump wildly. What if someone heard me say it? What if they made fun of me? And you know what I think now? I think so what? What if I don’t write this story at all and it only ever lives in my head? Is it really worse that some imagined person might laugh at me? I’ve been through things a million times tougher than that. Am I made of jelly now? NO. NO. I’m a writer and fear can kiss my enormous butt.
When I signed up for that first camp, I was so intimidated by the whole thing, thinking my ideas were rubbish, wondering what the hell I thought I was doing pretending I could write a book. But on the first day, my overwhelming thought was this: I’m going to write a book. There’s no going back now; I made a contract. That’s what it felt like. Making this deal with myself and NaNoWriMo gave me the kick I needed to drop fear on its face.
That’s the second truth. Fear will try to eat you, but you have sharper teeth. Bite it back.
”So, what the hell do I do now and how do I stay motivated?”
This is what I learned during that first camp:
You’ve got to make time. If you need to make an appointment with your notebook(s)/laptop to achieve this, do it. Remember to take days off if necessary and to account for any holidays. Adjust your daily word count accordingly.
Make sure your family knows not to interrupt during this time unless something’s on fire. However, if the something on fire is your fingers, then they need to back off.
Once you’re writing, just keep going. A hundred more words. Ten more minutes. Until the page is filled. Then do it again. And again.
Take good care of yourself. Don’t burn out. Keep yourself fed and watered. Better yet, find yourself a snack slave. Take your meds. Chill when you need to.
Take your notebook everywhere because a writer’s mind never really switches off. Even if it means you’re making soapy notes while doing the washing up, keep at it. I do my best plotting while I’m ironing.
Have a plan. Most people will say to just keep writing and never look back, but I say do what works for you. I need to look back over yesterday’s work to get me into the flow of things.
My plan is this: read through the last scene, noting any obvious flaws in the document notes column (I use Scrivener) and fixing immediate typos, then read the outline and any notes I made for the next scene, then write that next scene. If I still have more life in me, I’ll continue to the next one.
And here’s the third truth. It’s the hardest one of all.
“What if I don’t hit 50K?”
If you don’t hit 50K, you’ll be in plentiful company. Of the 400,000 people who participated last year, 58,000 hit the target. That figure seems low, right? That’s because writing a book is hard work.
But, listen, you’ll still have more words written by the end of the month than you had at the beginning. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer, or that you can’t write a book, or that you’ll never have it in you to write a book. I have plenty of friends who took years to win NaNoWriMo. Lack of success this time round doesn’t mean you’ll never get there.
And there’s also this:
The full-throttle approach doesn’t work for everybody. Some people like to craft sentences with care from the get-go, and that is absolutely fine. But you’ll never know if writing like you’re riding a hurricane works for you unless you try it.
There’s still a lot of snobbery about NaNoWriMo even as it approaches it’s 20th year. “Surely, the quality will suffer if you’re churning out words like a machine?” they say. Uh, yes … remember what I said about shit and bones? Few people—I estimate zero—get it right during the first draft. Getting it right is what editing is for, and you can’t edit until you’ve got some words down. “What’s to stop you just pasting the same word 50,000 times?” they say. The answer is nothing. The answer is also this: who would you really be cheating by doing so?
The only way to win at writing is to write. And that’s the truth. Another truth: this is not a sandwich.