Writing and Real Life: NaNoWriMo as a Tool

Last month, I participated in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) for the third year in a row. The premise is easy to understand; NaNo-ers are to complete 50,000 words in the thirty days of November. Each author wannabe has a page, where one can post their profile, synopsis of the work in progress, sample writing and even dream cover designs. There are forums discussing a myriad of writing topics and cheering email sent weekly. A handy graph reveals your progress and that of your writing buddies.

Writing a novel is not as easy as one may think. My first year of NaNo went poorly. I don’t think I wrote a thousand words, much less fifty thousand. My failure was in part because of “real” life. Not many of us are professional writers able to devote entire workdays to writing. Most of us have day jobs, families and other commitments digging into our writing time.

I often refer to my writing life as a clandestine tryst between me and my other love, Writing. If I find two hours of solitary silence where I can concentrate on writing, it’s a rare thing indeed. Writing involves a certain amount of guilt, especially if a week’s worth of dirty laundry is staring at you from across the room.

My other huge problem is that I’m a lazy writer and easily distracted. Writers inhabit a solitary work existence. They need to be self-starters. There is no one on the workroom floor to glare at you and yell you into production. Your only supervisor is YOU. Even going online to ask writing friends a question is dangerous for me, as I tend to wander off to other web sites and other tangents. Successful writers need a certain amount of dedication to the craft. Books don’t write themselves.

This is the brilliance of NaNoWriMo. It’s the online representation of a writer’s cattle prod.

Some participants wrongly think that the great American novel will miraculously spring from the computers of one of the thousands that use the web site as a tracking tool. Actually, NaNoWriMo is only a tool, meant to instill good writing habits. The intention is not to complete a novel in thirty days, but to get as many words down as you can in thirty days.

There is no time for editing, for thinking of the back story or for looking for grammatical errors. The idea is to plunge in and don’t look back until December 1.

That’s not to say that having a plan isn’t helpful. With my first year attempt woeful at best, I used Year Two to jumpstart the work I started a year and a half before. That work in progress started out as a stream of consciousness piece with no plan. After eighteen months of aimless meanderings, I had been stalled at Chapter 13 and hadn’t gotten to the halfway mark.

This year, I came prepared. I had a premise, I had characters with names and locations, and I knew what was going to happen and how it was going to end. I arranged my work to have thirty chapters, to coincide with the number of days in NaNo. I used to be a fly by the seat of your pants kind of writer letting my characters show me the way. I can now see where having an outline or sketch of the novel is necessary to success.

Since that Real Life thing is a constant, budgeting time wisely is of utmost importance. There were only two days in November when I couldn’t write, and one of those was Thanksgiving. I knew in advance and adjusted my writing schedule accordingly. Even with the two days off, I reached the 50K goal on November 29 and finished the novel on December 1.

My book has flaws and some gaping holes but only because I was writing as fast as I could. After letting the piece ferment for a week or two, rewrites will come next.

I hope to continue using my newfound writing schedule, but knowing my history, I’m sure I’ll return to slacker writing soon enough. Still, I would recommend NaNoWriMo to any aspiring novelist. It’s not perfect, but at least it will get the words out, and that’s the first step.


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