“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! 🙂