Monday, November 03, 2014

How to Win NaNoWriMo Without Driving Yourself Crazy

It's November, and for those of us who love reading, writing, making goals, and undertaking challenges, that means one thing: National Novel Writing Month is here! (Or NaNoWriMo, as it is more commonly known.) 

NaNoWriMo has gained a lot of popularity over the years, and most people (at least in my bubble) have heard of it. Just in case you haven't, the challenge is simple: write a 50K novel in 30 days. While 50K is actually more of a novella, it's close enough - especially for a shitty first draft, which is what you'll actually be penning. NaNoWriMo prizes quantity over quality, which can actually be a good thing, especially if you're trying to establish a daily writing habit and/or conquer your own self doubt. 

I've won NaNoWriMo a total of four times - in 2004, 2006, 2007, and 2008. Since those are also the only years I attempted it, I'm proud of this record. While I believe NaNoWriMo is a great exercise, I'm not quite ready to dive into another novel just yet. On the other hand, I haven't written much of anything since I started querying agents, unless you count a thousand freelance articles and blog posts, which I'd really rather not. Thus, it feels like a good time to give NaNoWriMo another spin, but this time with a twist.

Amazing mug available here.

Instead of writing a 50K novel, I'm going to challenge myself to write one flash fiction for every day in November. While the daily word goal for NaNoWriMo novels is 1,667, my flash pieces can be anywhere from 100 to 1,000 words. This means that I won't reach the 50K finish line, but I will end up with 30 new ideas to play with in the coming months. Right now, that's exactly what I need. 

Even though I'm not doing a traditional NaNoWriMo challenge, I do have some tips and tricks for anyone who plans to take on this challenge. You learn a thing or two after four wins, and I'm happy to share my hard-won knowledge with you. 
1. Find a pocket of time, and exploit it as best you can.  
These days, I do my best writing first thing in the morning, while the house is quiet and the coffee is fresh, so I'll be writing my daily flash pieces then. One year during NaNoWriMo, while working as a librarian, I got most of my writing done by shutting the door to my office, turning off the light, and using my lunch break to write. While eating my daily PB&J at my desk wasn't the most glamorous feeling, it paid off. The point is to find a time, and treat it as a doctor's appointment, or a college class. Show up every day, preferably on time. Pants are, of course, optional.  
2. Now is not the time to revise.  
One of my favorite quotes about writing comes from Gustave Flaubert: "I spent the morning putting in a comma and the afternoon removing it." While I'm one of those people who loves revision more than the act of actually writing, now is not the time to polish and perfect a sentence. Remember: quantity, not quality, is the name of the game. Plus, if I've learned anything about the novel-writing process, it's that only about 25% of your first draft will make it into your final revision - if you're lucky. Work now, and be an artist later.  
3. Check out the forums or the Twitter hashtags #NaNoWriMo2014.  
While reading the NaNoWriMo forums might seem like a form of procrastination, it can actually be quite motivating. One of the best things about this particular challenge is the community and collective energy of so many people attempting the same crazy goal at once. Knowing others are just as blocked and tired and out of ideas as you is strangely comforting. There are also fun challenges that can help you gain momentum in your book. Personally, I love writing sprints. Everyone starts at the same time and writes like mad for 20 minutes or so, then reports back with their word count. Sprints help keep me focused for short amounts of time, and the friendly competition of trying to write more words than someone else is fun.  
4. When it doubt, write a sex scene.  
Sex is one of the most revealing acts a person can engage in, and it's a great way to show your reader the essence of a character. I'm not saying you need to go full erotica (though I'd be happy to read that) or that you need to turn your sci-fi extravaganza into a bodice-ripper. But writing your way through a sex scene, as awkward as it may be, will help you see your characters in a new light, even if they do it in the dark.  
5. If you fall behind, don't worry. That's what Thanksgiving break is for.  
One year, I feel woefully behind in my NaNo novel. With only five days left, I had something like 15,000 words to go - a far cry from the 1,667 a day that once seemed so manageable. But I'd come so far, and I was determined to win, and so, the day after Thanksgiving, fueled by leftover tofurkey and pie, I cranked out 10,000 words and got back on track just in time. It remains my record for most words ever written in one day, but it's proof that if you're determined, ambitious, and riding the wave of excess calories, you can do just about anything.
I'd love to hear from anyone doing any version of NaNoWriMo this year. We can cheer each other on! And if you've got any tips I didn't cover, let me now. It's been a while since I attempted a month-long writing challenge, and some new tricks would be nice.