To begin, you may all praise me for not going with the ‘Is Nanowrimo Write For You’ pun title. You’re extremely welcome.
Anyway, it’s that time of year again chums.
Your friends might well be busy getting excited about Halloween and what they’re going to be doing to celebrate it, but for a lot of writer-types October heralds the approach of something even more fun (and potentially terrifying): National Novel Writing Month. It’s an online writing project/competition that’s been running since 1999, challenging would-be novelists to spend the month of November rattling out 50,000 words of that story they keep telling themselves they’re going to write but never actually do. Last year around 384,000 people across the world took part, so I don’t think I’m exaggerating too heavily when I say that Nanowrimo is a pretty big deal in the online writing community.
50,000 words, though. In just one month? That’s a lot to ask of people these days, given how busy we are. Work, education, friends and family: they all demand a lot of our time, so when are we supposed to be able to squeeze out at least 1,667 words a day across a single month?
Is this something feasible for you?
Below are a few key points that I think you need to have in mind when considering whether or not Nanowrimo is something worth trying out. Let me stress right from the outset that this is based entirely on my personal experiences. Other people may disagree, and they may well be right to do so. That being said, I’ve been attempting to complete Nanowrimo since about 2009, on and off, and it was only last year that I finally managed to pull it off: my trial and error approach (very much leaning towards the latter) might well be of some use in deciding whether or not you want to give it a go.
Nanowrimo Is A Marathon, Not A Sprint
On the surface of it, it doesn’t sound like you’ve got a lot of time. Just thirty days to write 50,000 words? The clock is ticking, your instincts might say, best get cracking as fast as possible.
But seriously, hold up a second.
This isn’t the sort of race where the fastest one off the block wins. This is a marathon, an endurance trial, and the winners are the ones who know that right from the start. Enthusiasm is important in a challenge like this (I might even go so far as to say ‘vital’, even), but unless you control and utilise it in careful, controlled bursts you’re going to burn out fast. Pace yourself, set specific blocks of time for writing, and cultivate your enthusiasm whenever you can find it. Trust me, you’re going to need it as November unfolds.
Far more than sudden bursts of creative genius (followed by the inevitable lull that will follow), what you want to foster is consistency in your writing. The ability to reliably crank out a certain amount of words is what will see you through to the end of a successful Nanowrimo: it will require self-discipline, and maybe cutting down on some of your other hobbies, but remind yourself that it’s only for a month.
One trick I’ve taken to using in order to try and store up that momentum and enthusiasm for Nanowrimo is keeping a notepad and pen on me wherever I go during the day. If a cool idea strikes me or a moment of inspiration comes, I can note it down for later use without interrupting any daily commitments to go spew out some words. It’s a handy trick if you’re busy for much of your day, and keeping notes and thoughts scribbled down is just as handy because…
A Little Bit Of Preparation Goes A Long Way
There are apparently some people capable of swanning into November with nothing but a vague idea for a story and successfully writing 50,000 words based around it.
These people are fucking strange and I do not understand them.
“Pantsing it”, as the Nanowrimo team terms it, is the act of making things up as you go along with your story. It sounds appealing, certainly. Spontaneous, imaginative. It’s also, in my experience at least, a really bad idea if you want to actually finish before November 30th. It’s all well and good when the ideas are flowing nicely, but if you’ve ever done any sort of writing you’ll know that this won’t always be the case. If the well of ideas dries up and you’re still needing to crack on with writing, you’re going to find yourself up a certain creek and lacking a paddle.
Unless, of course, you’ve been stockpiling your ideas for a rainy day.
This is where even a little bit of planning and prep work can come into it’s own in a challenge like Nanowrimo. It doesn’t need to be much: a rough plot outline, some ideas for a few key scenes that you want to include somewhere, maybe an overview of a couple important characters. But that small amount of work now can pay out in spades further down the line when you’re halfway through November and the creative juices aren’t flowing as freely as they were on November 2nd.
It’s Easy For Things To Spiral Out Of Your Control (If You Let It)
So you have a bad writing day. Life throws up a bunch of hurdles, other commitments demand your time and attention, or some other distraction appears to ensure that you don’t get much done. No worries, you figure, I can just get caught up tomorrow.
Then come tomorrow’s hurdles, and tomorrow’s excuses for delays.
Before you know it, that achievable 1,667 words a day is spiralling up into scary, demoralising numbers, and you find yourself wondering if this challenge is even achievable anymore.
If consistency is key, then a lack of consistency in your writing will be the biggest killer for your attempts at finishing Nanowrimo. If you don’t give yourself the time to sit down and get something written the word count will pull the rug out from under you: it only takes a few days for this to happen. To prevent this, you need to ensure you’re producing something each and every day of November. Ignore that niggling little voice in the back of your head that suggests you could totally just come back to this tomorrow, that you deserve a day off. Or maybe two. Or three. Again, such impulses are self-perpetuating: once you start listening to them, it can be difficult to stop.
If you’re like me, then the above probably sounds like an awful lot of work on top of an already busy life. I certainly don’t want to claim otherwise, but it’s important to remember that we often have more free time than we think. Even a hectic schedule provides certain windows in which you can crank up your word count. Do you use public transport to get to work and back? Break out your laptop (or even your phone) whilst you wait. On your lunch break? There’s another opportunity for you to dedicate some time to hitting that 50,000 word mark. Do you really need to be sitting in front of the TV or playing video games so much in the evening? You can crack on with your Divinity: Original Sin 2 playthrough later: those word will not write themselves.
It Will Make You Want To Pull Your Hair Out At Points (But Finishing It Feels Incredible)
All of which is to say, Nanowrimo is a hell of a ride.
I don’t want to be the one claiming it’s a cakewalk that you’ll be able to breeze through without any troubles along the way: my five or six different failed attempts over the years can testify to the fact that it’s a challenge. At times frustrating, overwhelming, it can leave you feeling like you’ve signed yourself up for an insurmountable challenge. Your free time certainly takes a hit in November if you’re seriously participating, as will your patience.
But here’s the thing.
Hitting that 50,000 word mark makes it all worth it.
What makes Nanowrimo such a great challenge is that it forces you to adhere to the methods that actually work for finishing novels. You’ve got to work at it, consistently and without fail. You need to know how to turn off your inner editor and just focus on the task of getting content written. Maybe what you’re writing isn’t the best it possibly could be, but that’s what the editing process is for and you need actual material to edit for that to come about (and hey, if you’re anything like me you’ll dislike it anyway, so what does it matter?). Prioritise this seemingly long-off task and keep pushing towards it: should you manage it, you get to look back on the path you took and realise that it isn’t nearly as insurmountable as you feared at points.
For that reason, amongst many others, I’d say that Nanowrimo is worth trying. If you’re at all interested in getting serious with your writing, I’d say it’s right for you.