For Those About to Write, I Salute You (with 5 NaNoWriMo Tips)
Only two days left until the start of NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month—the one time of year where hundreds of thousands of writers set out together on a terrifying quest to each finish a complete, 50,000-word novel by the end of the month. It’s perfect for beginners, inspired to write but intimidated by the time and scope of a novel. It’s perfect for advanced writers with overdeveloped critical faculties, looking to fall back in love with the creative side of things. And it’s a perfect excuse for just about anyone to get in some practice—both in writing, and in that good old fashioned butt-in-chair discipline.
So: for those about to write, I salute you. And on top of that, I offer you these tips to being one of the awe-inspiring 14% who walk away 50,000 words and a new story richer.
1. Write Outlines for Your Plot and Characters: I know, I know! Outlines suck. They really do. I have yet to meet a person who, when I suggest an outline, goes “yay, outlines, that’s my favoritest part!” And there’s a reason for that. Outlines force you to work through all the muckiest parts first. It points out conflicts you just really didn’t want to have to think about quite yet, and spotlights holes you’re positive weren’t there when you thought up the idea. It makes you hold the whole book in your head at the same time—like a giant Rubik’s cube, where every piece you fiddle with breaks some other piece, so you have to mess with yet another piece--generally making your head feel like it's going to explode, until the whole thing finally--mercifully--clicks into place. But once you understand your plot and your characters, it’s easier to visualize your story. And once you can visualize it, all you have to do is write down what you see. Easy-peasy, right? But one more thing: since this is NaNoWriMo, do not spend too much time on this stage. Normally, I endorse spending as much time as you need to untangle plot and character elements before moving on—as there’s nothing worse than encountering a novel-breaker three-quarters of the way in—but set yourself a time-limit on this one: no more than three days. That’s 10% of your time, and that’s about right for NaNoWriMo.
2. Give Yourself Permission to Suck: This goes hand-in-hand with not editing until the end. I know! It’s tempting. And when not in NaNoWriMo, I totally say screw this rule and edit all you damn well please if you know that’s how you work. But NaNoWriMo is not about crafting a story slowly and with perfect technique: it’s about embracing the creative and writing with a speed that would put the bubonic plague to shame. So, while I’m not going to say don’t tinker with any troublesome turns of phrase, I am going to say set yourself a limit: 5 minutes of working with old material before you have to move on to the new. And also: give yourself permission to leave yourself a note to go back and hit it later, when you’re done with the first pass and have a better idea of what you’re writing about. Hell, you can rewrite the whole book from scratch once you get to the end! But first you have to get there.
3. Read Before You Write: It seems counterintuitive to waste valuable writing time on reading when you have just 30 short days to turn out a whole novel (and you don’t want it to suck quite as badly as you’re supposed to give yourself permission for). But writing is often easiest when you are in the right frame of mind, and I have found nothing better for getting me in that frame of mind than reading. Of course, you don’t necessarily have to read something new (though that does have its own benefits)! If I read something new when I’m writing, sometimes I get so absorbed I forget to write at all. But pick a book you know you love, one with a gorgeous writing style, and read just five pages before you write, every time—like a meditation. You can even read the same five pages every time, and see if that helps you focus. Try it—I swear, it works like a charm for me. (It can also help to pick out a soundtrack to write to, and to make an inspiration wall, with pictures and words that embody the themes and moods of your piece—just be careful not to let this playful preparation turn into full-fledged procrastination!)
4. Always Have a Way to Write: Isn’t it always that the best ideas--the twistiest twists of plot, and the, uhm . . . turniest turns of phrase—hit us when we are at our absolute farthest from anything on which we can write? Forcing us to turn to gum wrappers and coffee cups and sometimes even the skin of our own arms? And then it rains, smearing the words beyond recognition, or someone helpfully throws out your muffin-wrapper masterwork, forcing you to dig through the trash to try to recover it… Don’t let that smelly, dirty writer be you! Always have pen and paper. Or a tablet or iphone or recorder or whatever other new-fangled device you keep your words in. This also means that if you happen to get to the doctor’s office early, or have a few minutes before class, you can just pick up where you left off—and keep on adding to that ever-growing word count.
5. Make Writing a Priority: Writing 50,000 words in a month is damn hard. So, if you’re going to have a shot at it, you’re going to have to get obsessed. Think about it in the shower. Think about it on the way to work. Think about it in boring meetings, on the treadmill, and during unsatisfactory make-out sessions (but don’t blame that on me!). Think about it all the time, so that when you do have time to write, you know exactly what you’re going to say. And then, in step two of this process, set a schedule—reserving time to write and setting goals. I know—schedules are super sexy, almost as hot as outlines. But, if only for this one month out of only this year, make writing your number one priority, and block that time out in bold and all caps on your electronic and paper schedules. Set a number of words you’d like to get done each week, with rewards for when you hit your goals, and keep track of your progress with a color-me-thermometer on the wall. And then, even if you just sit there and doodle pictures of your characters wielding bananas like swords the whole time, actually spend that time with your butt in that chair, thinking about your book. (To keep you focused, try turning off your access to the internet—Twitter and Facebook can survive without us for a month, and I have been amazed at my resulting spike in productivity.)
Writing a book is damn hard! And writing one in a month is even harder. But that’s what makes this challenge so appealing: no one can do this perfectly. And for that reason, it’s not about perfection. It’s about writing for the sake of writing, letting your creativity run amok, and seeing what you can do without your hard-ass critical side breathing down your neck. Of course, after the month is over, feel free to invite that hard-ass back for a turn at NaNoEdMo—where you can look at what you wrote, and work on editing it. But for now, give yourself over to the creative, and see what you can do.