Twelve Step Program for NaNoWriMo Acceptance

“Every book that anyone sets out on is a voyage of discovery that may discover nothing. Yet, no one can teach the geography of the undiscovered. All they can do is encourage the will to explore, plus impress upon the inexperienced a few dos and don’ts of the voyage.” ~ Wallace Stegner

On Friday, I decided to jump into National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo with both feet. I announced it to my wife, my friends, and now to all of you wonderful folks who come to visit me here. Since most of you are writers too (or trying to be), I encourage you to give it a go. I spent the last decade lurking in the shadows of NaNoWriMo and I regret it.

You might be surprised to hear that I’ve never done NaNoWriMo and wonder why I haven’t joined this event in the past. Well, if I look in my journal, I see a few entries about wanting to do it, discussing it and ultimately rejecting the idea. I’d like to say that I haven’t done NaNoWriMo because I’m a writing snob, but being a snob about something is often just an elaborate cover for fear.

Sure enough, when I search my heart, I find that fear is indeed the thing that’s held me back, which is strange as I’ve written two novels already and they were both so awful that I received death threats from poor souls upon whom I thrust the books for commentary. Then again, this entire site is dedicated to my fear putting my writing into the public so perhaps it isn’t so strange after all.

November 1st is still a long way off, but I’ve taken the first step to getting past my fear. Now, as I reflect on this impetuous decision, I find that there are plenty of wonderful fears still unexplored. You might recognize some of these fears yourself, so how about we explore them together.

The How Not to Write Twelve Step Program for NaNoWriMo Acceptance

1. I can’t write that much in 30 days.

Yes you can.

If you’ve never written a novel or anything else longer than 10,000 words, the idea of writing 50,000 in the span of a month can be intimidating. I won’t tell you that it’s an easy mark to hit, but then it isn’t going to be an epic struggle either – unless you decide to make it one.

Writing 50K words in 30 days works out to 1,667 words a day and that number, my friends, is your goal.

You need to hit 1,700 words each day without fail, but you also need to keep yourself from blasting beyond that goal.

Some days, you may want to roll on to write 3K, 5K, or maybe a marathon 10K word session. Resist this urge. Resist it with all the strength in your writerly body. Save that energy for the next day. If you don’t, you’ll burn out and then you’ll miss a session or two. Next thing you know you’ll be writing all night before Thanksgiving and you’ll fall asleep with your face in the stuffing, assuming you make it that far.

Disclaimer: As David Niall Wilson notes below, life happens. If you can work ahead a bit, you’ll be happier in the long run. I find that I can do about 2.2K on any single project in a given day without suffering the effects of burnout. My overall daily output is much higher though. The spirit of this step is to a) convince you that the volume isn’t a big hurdle and b) to warn you about the very real effects of doing too much too fast. So many new writers start projects with a high degree of enthusiasm only to find themselves worn out from the initial effort.

Disclaimer II: [11/2] I hit 3.5K each of the first two days of NaNoWriMo. I know that this is happening in part because I’m excited but also because the work is just flowing. So, maybe it might do to amend my limit by acknowledging that sometime you just have to let it flow. [This is for @LadyHoldem, who reminded me to enjoy the stuffing as as I eat my own words. LOL] 🙂

2. I don’t have time.

Yes you do.

Writing a long piece is about being consistent in your approach to the work. It isn’t going to get done in a day, nor should it. You need to have set hours in which to write because having a consistent approach is also about writing at the same time each day.

There are people who will argue this point with me, but I’m going to be very firm here: You have to write at the same time each and every day or you will find reasons to miss your writing sessions. Writers who tell you otherwise are really making excuses for their own laziness.

I should know because I’m one of them.

I’ve always done my best writing when I put my butt in the chair as early as possible. In fact, if I can get up so early that it’s still yesterday all the better. Occasionally, I’ll try to convince myself that I write better at night. This is a lie. If I try to write at night, I ended up wishing I was reading or just enjoying a nice evening on the patio. The work is extremely uneven then and I tend to ramble even more than usual.

Of course, you may indeed write better at night (or in the afternoon) and if you do then by all means write when it works best for you, but try to be honest with yourself in determining that time. And then, once you have the time nailed down, be forceful, greedy, and selfish in assuring that said time is blocked off from all other activities.

No one may invade this span of hours. No one.

3. I have kids.

So do I. Try again.

4. I have a real job.

So do I. Try again.

5. I have _____

I can do this all day. Try again.

Seriously though, you either want to do this or you don’t, and if you’re still reading this then I think we can both assume that you really want to do NaNoWriMo.

6. I’m terminally ill.

Alright, now this is getting ridiculous. First of all, if you’re terminally ill, you might as well join NaNo and write. You haven’t got much to lose at this point, do you? I don’t mean to be callous, just extremely realistic and pragmatic (which may in fact be a good definition for callous). Besides, I’m guessing that if you are truly terminally ill, you don’t need this pep talk. You’re already writing.

7. I don’t know what to write about.

Well, I can help you there. Write about not writing. That’s what I do and in fact after writing two novels and about 2 million words on the subject I can tell you that there is really no end to the topic.

If that doesn’t work for you, write a novel about growing up. You should be able to knock out 50K on your elementary years alone, perhaps in one sitting (though I’d advise you to read #2 again if this sounds attractive). Of course, you may find that both of these subjects are intertwined.

If you still can’t see yourself writing on that subject, begin with the following line and work outward:

His/Her body was lying under the tree/tractor/porch/stairwell/someotherdamnthing.

8. I don’t know how to write a novel.

Here’s a secret: Neither does anyone else.

We’re all faking it. Even those high falutin’ people who wear cable-knit sweaters and write books describing the techniques of plotting and character development. Sure, there are good lessons there but in the end the actual writing of a novel is a very strange thing that every writer does in their own way.

By the way, I have always wanted a cable-knit sweater and greatly admire those with the courage to wear them for their dust jacket photos.

9. But didn’t you say that I had to write at a certain time?

I did and you should unless you know that you can write at all hours of the day because you’ve done it at least twice in the past at which point I ask why are you reading this post in the first place and why did I decide that this sentence had to go all Proustian with an endless stream of dependent clauses and self referential asides that do nothing to advance the argument but in fact become more hurdles to establishing myself as a voice of authority on the subject of novel writing except that I am clearly not an authority on this or really any subject except for literary puttering about which is something no one can truly deny especially me so let’s just say that you have to write at the same time each day and be done with it, hmmm?

10. I did NaNo last year and my spouse/significant-other/friends/dog-or-similar-pet died/left/cried/threatened/fought/sued/bit-a-hole-in-my-face.

While this is my first year with NaNo, I’ve written two novels both featuring less than attractive portraits of both my friends and significant other. You are a novelist. You are bound to hurt feelings. Get over it. The people who really understand this will stick around and will love you for you. Either that or they will secretly plot your demise through a series of events designed to look like an accident. In the latter case, it hardly matters whether you write or not as you will soon be the figure mentioned at the end of #7 above.

11. Alright. I’ll do it.

Hooray for you! Make sure to buddy up with pals! Nothing keeps you writing like the fear of letting down all of your closest friends or those who will openly mock you for failing. You can start with me! 🙂

12. Have fun!

When asked directly, every writer will concoct their own theory of where stories come from. I’m no different, but as I get older I’ve stopped worrying so much about where the come from. I’m more worried about how many I can get down on paper with the limited time I have left. I’m a receiver, a vessel, a cosmic junk drawer… Whatever.

The stories come and that should be enough.

Yet, during my years of grappling with the constant stream of characters, dialogue, plots, and ideas, I’ve tried to rid myself of the need to tell these stories. I even wrote a book where the main character (a novelist) tried to rid himself of language. Not only did that character fail in spectacular fashion but so did I. Every single time.

No matter how often I’ve tried to cast myself into the waters of oblivion, I’ve always returned to writing. Each time it comes back stronger, purer, and with a greater sense of urgency that I be true to the voice.

What I’ve learned from this is that you really should engage deeply and honestly. Enjoy the process instead of fighting it. Be true to yourself and all that other hooptedoodle, which basically means have fun!!!

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, this post is about the length of a day’s requirement for NaNoWriMo. It took me about two hours to write and format and all that jazz. That includes time for an espresso and a scone and plenty of gazing about the cafe and wondering about all the people who came in on a busy and bright Sunday morning.

Disclaimer: Even though I haven’t participated in NaNoWriMo before, I drafted each of my novels in less than 6 weeks. So, while I haven’t the chops to say I know NaNo, I do know how to write fast — and you can do it! 🙂

41 thoughts on “Twelve Step Program for NaNoWriMo Acceptance

  1. Alright, good thoughts. Now I’ve got a question for you.

    What would you say to someone who wants to write only on weekdays?

    Mathematically, it’s simple. If you leave out the US Thanksgiving holiday, the goal increases from 1,700 words per day to about 2,800. My thinking is to set my daily goals high and have the weekends to catch up, if necessary.

    Is this sound logic or fool-hardiness?

    Jason Rehmus´s last blog post..Seth Godin says:

  2. Oops, logged-out and forgot to buddy you. Next time. But you must swear on your two failed novels not to reveal my identity if you figure it out.

    I did NaNo last year after promising myself I would do it that year or else. It was the best of times and the worst of times. Fortunately I linked up with a great group of women who I still have an LJ group with. In my case, a relative was slipping, unknowingly, left of center. I was doing my part-time work, most of their outside prep work, getting a new heating system, had a 10 day house guest sleeping in my writing studio, cooked Thanksgiving dinner and keeping my word counts up and other NaNo-ey nonsense.

    Between Christmas and New Years the relative decided that my writing aspiration was a pipe dream despite the fact that published writers were starting to send me their agents’ contact information and my part-time work gets me published every week. Regardless the said relative tried to throw me under the tractor with an ultimatum to stop writing and get a real job like at “Target.” If it weren’t so damned tragic that could almost be funny.

    This November will be far more challenging that last year because it will come with some significant unknowns that can only be sketchily prepared for and the timeline has not been set. But I am determined to do NaNo until I can no longer keep my eyes open or find no way to upload my word counts -in that case I would keep doing it but I wouldn’t get a purple bar at the end; oh well.

    I think it was Tim Ferriss who wrote that “can’t” is a smoke screen for fear; or something like that. I definitely resemble that remark. I’m reading “The Four Hour Work Week” and “Ladies Who Launch” simultaneously so it might have been in LWL. Anyway, conjure up a feisty attitude because NaNo is not for the timid. You have to go after it, it will not come to you.

    Deb´s last blog post..The NaNos are coming!

  3. @Jason – I did that last year because I had paper deadlines every weekend; and I built-in 36 hours for Thanx stuff. I also recommend getting one-third written on the first week’s adrenalin high because after Thanx the pre-Xmas zoo turns writing kind of on its head in the best of circumstances. And Thanx is late this year so it would be wise to be at 40K or above by the end of the 26th.

    Word count calendars can be downloaded on the NaNo site and the counts goals adjusted to your personal taste.

    Deb´s last blog post..The NaNos are coming!

  4. Jamie, this is great! I am already your buddy and I am spreading the word about my own participation. This is my first time and after reading this post I feel so much better. The daily word count is actually not bad. Thanks for the 12 steps and support!

    Karen Swim´s last blog post..I Heart Friday!

  5. @Strikethru Thanks so much!

    @Jason If you’ve trained yourself to write 2.8K then you can do it. If not, it’s going to take a heap of will power. The biggest thing is setting up those hours to write and then sticking to it. If you can do that, then you’re halfway home.

    When I’m grooving, I write very fast. On a weekend, when I might take 6 hrs to write, I can blast out as much as 5-6K before I crap out. However, I find that the next day the ink well is a bit dry. 3K is doable but you may find the mere 800 word crack between 2,200 and 3,000 becomes a chasm. I’d recommend trying to get a few training sessions of that length in now so that you can see what it will be like.

    If it helps, I’ll be sure to tweet you every day. 🙂

    @BelleEnchanted Rock on! That’s exactly what I was hoping for! Big thank you to Ann-Kat!

    @Deb That was an awesome reply (plus the advice for Jason). Wouldn’t it be something to turn your experience last year into the plot for this year’s novel? I’ll bet you’d have some cracking dialogue with that relative and plenty of fuel to power through about 5K a day.

    I’ve had my fair share of friends and family that shook their heads at my perspiration (yeah, I said that on purpose), but the last time I checked I was in control of my life. I like your attitude!

    @Alexa I hope that you jump in the pool feet first and get busy! I find that when I’m insanely busy I don’t have time to fear. (P.S. those really are some kicking shoes on you latest post!)

  6. @n.l. belardes Thanks for the encouragement! I still remember the tweets you sent me earlier this year about getting on with it already! 😉

    @Karen You bet, dear friend! The encouragement won’t stop either. I’ve got something very special in store for November. Very special indeed!!!!

  7. I’d just like to add an effort at punting your fear into the next dimension: whether you finish or not, you have an incredible jump start on a manuscript aided by the crazy energy of NaNoWriMo.

    Listen to WrimoRadio, get a writing buddy on the website, and tweet away at the rest of us who are happy to surrender our sanity to the delightful delirium that is writing with a deadline.

  8. @Laura You’re absolutely right about that. I had a comment on the LJ version of this post that echoes exactly what you’re saying. Thanks for plugging WrimoRadio too. That’s definitely something everyone should check out! Here’s a link to the feed – WrimoRadio Podcast.

  9. Never having attempted NaNo before (but I /have/ written a 200k word long novel before, which still astounds me to this day), I found this very useful! And extremely hilarious – I have to agree with #8. I guess everyone has their own style, and it’s only a matter of how good it is. It’s not like Math where you have a certain structure to it – I’ve read books written in email/IM format, and they’re just as attention-catching as proper novels.

    Also, something every NaNo author should download: the writing programme Q10. It’s got a little bar at the bottom counting the number of words, pages, paragraphs, etc, and when you type, there’s this kickass typewriter sound that makes you feel on top of the world. I used to work on Microsoft Word, but rest assured Q10 will be my number 1 NaNo buddy. 🙂

    Louisa´s last blog post..The Little Red Dot

  10. @ Diane & Sean Rock on!!! Best of luck to both of you!

    @Louisa 200K! Wow! Now that’s a huge book! Congrats!

    I just updated this post with a quote from Wallace Stegner (see way up at the top) to further emphasize the point made in #8, but I love your point about Math and writing. I’ve spent years studying writing books (as most everyone here has probably done) and not a one has helped me to write a book, not even the book from which I purloined the Stegner quote…

    What’s funny is that as I think about this, I realize that the person who inspired me to become a novelist – Piers Anthony – also happens to be the first author on the NaNo PepTalks list. Mr. Anthony didn’t inspire me to write by discoursing on the topic of fantasy or even fiction in general. He did it by publishing a book called Ogre, Ogre. I read Ogre, Ogre in one sitting on Christmas Day way back in 1982. When I was done, I said, “I can do this!” (which upon reflection may not make Mr. Anthony feel so great since I was only 12 – LOL)

    Thanks for sharing your advice on Q10! I use Scrivener on the Mac and it has a similar word count tool for projects but it doesn’t have that typewriter bling!

  11. @RhodesTer Now, I know you’re going to write one crazy-ass book next month! Can’t wait to read it!!!

  12. WOOT! Oh how I love the October frenzy of NaNo goers! Absolutely fabulous post, and comments. I have done NaNo 3 times now, and guess what happens when you don’t reach that set goal? You think. Thats about it… Makes you think. I spent about 3 days thinking when I failed. I came out of it determined to correct mistakes, refine the way I did NaNo, and hugging the realization that I have more words down than I did before. Last year NaNo was hard because I had no home computer. I typed on a 1962 type writer and soon gave up trying to count the words. I can guess that I was shy of the goal, but now that started work will be my diving board this Nov. The only fear left in me is whether or not my Husband, kids, and cats will eat well while I’m in my “bubble”. That and running out of spearmint gum…

    Kala Jun´s last blog post..KalaJun: Oh yeah… That’s good. Got boys to school, came home and crashed for 3 hours. Much better now! Now for some coffee.

  13. @Kat Hooray for Kat! Heroine of NATIONAL ALL CAPS DAY! Welcome aboard!

    @Kala Jun Thanks for sharing your story and your advice. I’ll add that when you finish a novel it also makes you think. I call it post-novel depression, and it’s real. The key thing is to do what you did – dust yourself off and get back to it! 🙂

  14. Just a couple of things….the note about not going beyond the 1700 a day is madness. Life happens. The best thing (in my opinion) is to be at least a couple of days ahead so that when life DOES happen you don’t have angsty fits over not getting your words in, or fall behind. I’ve done this successfully for five straight years – four of the five novels are sold, and the fifth has a novella excerpted from it that sold.

    If anyone is interested, I have dedicated a separate site to my nano novels, and to writing tips for participants: Vintage Soul – the Nano Books and every year I let a group of readers follow along as I complete my nano book – this year it’s called THE LEDGER – that’s over here…. The Ledger

    The most important point I usually like to make about Nano is this – most writers who write regularly or professionally claim to write around 2k a day. They already, then, write MORE than 1,667 words a day. Half of us blog more than that. It’s not really an insurmountable goal – it’s just a good, healthy dose of deadline, self-applied.

    Good to see new folks jumping into the game!


    David Niall Wilson´s last blog post..Relevance in the Land That Won’t Stand Still

  15. I’ve participated twice before and completely sabotaged myself with many of the excuses you’ve outlined above. Thanks for the great post. I’ve already buddied up (SamaraLeigh). Looking forward to the ride and to completing my goal this year.

  16. @Roxanne You’re welcome and thanks for buddying up! Best of luck in making the goal! I’ll be cheering for you through the bleary eyes of 4AM novelist in need of sleep and coffee!!!

    (hmmm, just how many exclamation points have I used today?)

  17. @David Thanks for the comment. Sorry it got stuck in the filter!

    You’re 100% right in noting that people should try to work ahead as much as possible. I’m going to go back and add a qualifier there because this is a good point.

    The spirit of my threshold comment was to keep new folks from burning themselves out by “blasting beyond” the goal into the 3-5K range. For an inexperienced writer, the euphoria that accompanies a few large writing sessions is often met on the other side by an empty inkwell.

    I find that I can do about 2.2K on any single project during the course of the day though I might write in excess of 8-9K overall.

  18. I find that my output is directly related to my enthusiasm. On a day when I’m really forcing myself, I might only manage 1500-2000 words of usable material, but when I’m really into a project, and have it well-outlined and planned, 5-10k in a day is not outside the realm of possibility. My average is probably 3-4k. I’d like to think if I didn’t have a day job, it would go up, but I’m not sure it would…there seems to be an inner “governor” on writing output.

    In any case, I know that Nanowrimo taught me more about outlining -which has helped me reach goals outside of November, and that participation in the program has given me at least three novels that were “outside” my schedule – and that they are sold – so Nanowrimo has been very good to me…I try to help others with it because I think it’s a lot of fun, and a very useful tool for novelists with or without experience.


    David Niall Wilson´s last blog post..Relevance in the Land That Won’t Stand Still

  19. @DNW I hear what you’re saying, David. I know that when I’m really going I can do quite a bit in one go. Fun is the key element there. 🙂

    As a relatively experienced writer, I’m looking forward to NaNoWriMo for the same reasons you list above: discipline, structure, connecting with others (old hands and new), as well as just the fun of writing with a deadline.

  20. I did NaNo last year and have signed up again this year. Writing 50,000 words in a months sounds harder than it actually is. Revisions, now that is another story…

    Linda´s last blog post..Revisions

  21. @Linda {revisions} LOL! You said it! I love your post on Revisions, Linda.

    Below is a teaser, folks. Click through above to read the rest. 🙂

    I’m sick of my novel. If I got too close to a box of matches… I won’t complete that sentence. It might give me ideas best left alone. Instead, I’m dreaming of desk drawers. Or boxes under the bed. Or a shovel, tin can and the back yard. Give me a moment, I’ll be okay.

  22. I tried Nanowrimo last year but didn’t make it to the goal. However, I did write parts of my dissertation at the time so if you added in the nonfiction maybe it was closer to the goal.

    This year I am going to do it. Of course, I haven’t signed up yet so your post is a great kick in the pants to get beyond saying I am going to do it and actually sign up.

    As a recent post on my new blog says, “I am a writer”–and that makes all the difference!

    (Recently found your blog–enjoying it, so thanks!)

    Kim´s last blog post..The Barnacle of My Imagination

  23. @Kim Congrats to you for blasting out our dissertation! Hope you finished it and are now filled with PhD goodness! I agree that just getting past the whole idea of accepting yourself as a writer is half the battle. I added “writer” to my LinkedIn profile yesterday, erased it, and added it back.

    I am a writer. No qualifiers. No sarcasm. I am a writer. 🙂

  24. Nicely said. I’m liking that first line prompt. It leads to a whole world of possibilities.

    One of the things I like to do before/during NaNo (and any other time really) is to collect random stuff people say, or thoughts that pop into my head, and keep them for possible use in writing. Also, I tend to have some form of pen/pencil and paper nearby most of the time.

    Keep up the interesting blog 🙂

  25. Thanks for the advice. I’m a first time NaNo-er and could use all the advice I can get. Even if I find I have nothing to say, at least NaNo inspired me to finally paint my office a deep bold red. Story? Story? I don’t need no stinkin’ story, I got me a red office.

    LazyBuddhist´s last blog post..In search of the perfect red

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