NaNoWriMo: Writing A Novel In Thirty Days

It’s that time of year again—NaNoWriMo is around the corner.

For those of you who don’t know, NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, is a national commitment for anyone who’s ever thought “I want to write a novel” to, well, get to work on that novel. From November 1st to November 30th, participants will work tirelessly to complete 50,000 words before the month is up. Because sometimes the best motivation is a deadline breathing down your neck.

Last year, the bloggers at The Poetics Project made a pact to participate together. And, together, we failed pretty miserably. This year, we have no such pact. Not because of the failure—it’ll take more than one failed attempt to deter me—but because I’m a realist. As much as I’d like to rise up out of the ashes of November, a manuscript in hand, for me, it’s just not in the cards.

Here’s where I tell you how busy I am: I have two part-time jobs, I attend grad school full-time, I’m a project manager in my program (which means I do a lot of work—for free—in order to put together a writing conference in Portland this January), I have a publicity internship at a local publishing house, I write for and edit this blog. I also, on occasion, find the need to drink water and eat, to shower, to escape from my cave-like apartment and grab a drink with friends for the sake of my own sanity.

I’d like to think I’m super woman. That I can forego sleep in order to squeeze in time for writing a 50,000 word manuscript. But, if I’m being honest, there’s only so many directions one person can pull themselves in.

However, that doesn’t mean you, dear reader, shouldn’t give NaNoWriMo a shot. Sometimes we have to set goals for ourselves—even seemingly unreachable ones—in order to push our minds and spirits. In order to see what we are capable of. NaNoWriMo can be a great case study for that. It is possible, with lots of planning, to reach a 50,000 word count in thirty days.

Doing the math, a person would need to write a little over 1,600 words each day, for thirty days, to reach a total of 50,000 words. At first, that number—1,600—might seem large and scary, but remember, this isn’t an essay for class. It’s a novel. Those 1,600 words don’t have to contain a thesis. They don’t have to sum up all your main points, with clearly listed examples and sources. On any given day, those 1,600 words can be different. They can be sad, happy, dramatic, humorous—they can be inspired by your own life story or take place on the planet Oasis, where an army of humans have begun to colonize…

Point being, the work will be grueling. It will take motivation and dedication, but the work shouldn’t be like pulling teeth. It’s your novel; enjoy it.

So how do you make it happen?

1. Eat, and eliminate distractions.

With a time-crunch, it’s easy to forget simple things, like eating. But before you start writing, it’s important to take the time to nourish your body. Once you actually begin writing, it’s easy to be pulled away. Your phone rings. Netflix calls to you. Your eyes grow heavy. Your stomach is grumbling so loud you’ve started talking back to it. Whatever the distraction, do your best to prepare for it. Make some coffee. Have an outline. The more you prepare, the easier the actual writing will be.

2. Speaking of outlines, have one.

I usually scoff at outlines. Generally, I scoff at anything resembling “busy work,” and because my stories so often take a turn—so often turn into something I didn’t set out for—outlines seem like a giant time-suck. But recently, I’ve started to change my view. Outlines can feel restrictive, so you have to give yourself permission to deviate from them if necessary. However, outlines also help you stay on track. They’re a reference point. When you start to lose momentum, outlines are a reminder of how far you’ve come, how far you have to go. When your brain begins to feel like mush, an outline is your saving grace. Even if it’s a rough outline, have one. List your major plot points. List the setting, the conflict, and if you have one, the theme.

3. Know your characters.

Even if you trash your outline, the most important thing is to know your characters. Characters lead the plot along. As a writer, you should be able to throw your characters into any situation—a war zone, a hurricane, a blind date, anything—and know how they would react to the setting, to the people with them. Even the best setting, the best plot, will suffer under poorly written characters. What are they afraid of? What motivates them? Who are their friends? What is their story?

4. Pick a point of view.

Point of view is one of those small, but hugely important decisions to be made—before a single word has been written. If you haven’t thought about it yet, I encourage you to do so. There’s nothing worse than being 10,000 words deep and realizing this whole “I walked,” “I said,” “I lied,” “I,” “I,” “I” thing isn’t working. Or, in a moment of crisis, changing your entire manuscript to third person, only to, a week later, change it back—realizing you had it right the first time. Sure, many stodgy professors look down upon first person. “It’s not literary,” they say. But there are plenty of exceptions to that rule, and each viewpoint has its own benefits. Think them through. Do your research.

5. And most importantly, ignore the word count. Seriously.

This last bit of advice may seem a bit odd, but do yourself a favor, ignore your word count. Eyeing that number will only serve to induce an anxiety attack. At least, ignore the word count while you are actually writing. It’s okay to keep track of things. To know that it takes yourself roughly one hour to write 1,500 words. Knowing this about yourself will help you plan, but remember, there will be days when all you can get down are 500 words. And that’s okay. Make those 500 words count. And then there will be days when the muses appear, when words flow like a faucet, and suddenly, you’ve just written thousands of them. Those days will make up for the others.

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