“A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.” ― Franz Kafka
This year, as I expected, NaNo was a greater challenge than ever before. I’ve never had a problem writing a lot in one day, so 1,667 words per day is not difficult for me to imagine. Thus scheduling my writing around a week and a half road trip (where I didn’t expect to write anything), kicked my daily goal to 2,500 words. This didn’t scare me. Perhaps it should have.
The word count wasn’t what nearly sunk me this year. I can write 2,500 words a day. Once I get 500 words written, the rest of the words come quickly. But what really threw me off was getting out of the habit of sitting down to write. After a few days, I fill those chunks of time with something else and entirely forget how I used to be writing. So NaNoWriMo 2013 was a learning lesson for me.
And here are 12 of the things I learned over the past 30 days, complete with quotes from other writers.
1. Prepare ahead of time
Even if all you do is write a one-page summary of what happens in your story, an outline of some kind helps you know where to start when you’re blocked. Don’t know what happens next or how to get to the next scene and writer’s block strikes? Go to the outline or summary you have, and start writing a scene where you know what happens. But don’t let that outline constrict you–if you get inspiration to take your novel in a new direction, go there! Don’t be afraid to try something new. You lose nothing by allowing your characters to lead the way in their own story.
“No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. No surprise in the writer, no surprise in the reader.” ― Robert Frost
2. One word after the other.
“This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until its done. It’s that easy, and that hard.” ― Neil Gaiman
Still can’t shake the writer’s block? Write anyway.
“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.” ― Jack London
True writers sit down on a regular basis and write–whether or not inspiration strikes or whether or not they feel like it. Treat it like a job. One word after the other gets the story written.
3. Put away distractions.
You know that video game you bought on Halloween? Yeah, don’t plan on playing it until you’ve met your writing goal for the day. That new paperback? Don’t open it until you’ve written your quota for the day. Distracted by the Internet? Disable it until you’ve met your daily goal.
Yes, putting away the distractions takes discipline. It proves to you just how important you put your writing, and what you put it above. If you lose track of time when you’re reading a book, playing a game, or chatting online with friends, or reading blogs, or running, or baking, or whatever your distraction is, get your writing done first, then treat yourself to that “forbidden” pleasure. Or, if you have the willpower (or lack it completely), put it away for the entire month of November. Short on entertainment? Write your own story.
It is never so vital as in winning NaNo to put away distractions. But further than that–putting away distractions for the month teaches you discipline. When you win NaNo, you know that you can be a writer. Yes, this is a marathon of a writing sprint. This month and this level of achievement may not be attainable every month of the year, but it teaches you that you can do it. You can carve out time from your busy life to write. Make it important to you. Put that video game back in the case. Put that book back on the shelf. It can wait until you’ve met your daily goal.
*Let it be noted that I think reading is an integral part to the writing process. But if you constantly read, you’re only a bookworm, not a writer. In this, I agree with Stephen King:
“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
And don’t forget Faulkner’s words of advice:
“Read, read, read. Read everything — trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.” ― William Faulkner
4. The second draft is for the details.
“One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.” ― Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums
There are two things that can pull me out of a first draft like nothing else.
a) realizing I haven’t done some research I need to do to get the details right in a scene (and sometimes even to write the scene itself)
b) naming characters and places (does anyone else struggle with this?)
So ignore the details. If you can’t think of a name, write AAA, BBB, CCC, etc., and search for them later to replace them with a real name. If you find out that you need to do some research, make a note to the side (Scrivener is great for notes, or use “add comment” in Word or Pages) reminding yourself what you need to look up later.
It drives me crazy to ignore the details, but during NaNo, you can’t stop and research. You can’t stop and find that perfect name for your minor Uncle Sam character. Go with the first thing that pops into your mind. So what if they’re all J names and really similar? So what if you gave your antagonist your mother’s name? Or your boyfriend’s? Change it later. They’ll never know. As quickly as possible, throw in an answer, and move on. Type another word before you can get distracted by the details.
The right words will come later, during revision. Struggle over them then. Right now, just get the words written.
5. It doesn’t matter if you get NaNo’s winner goodies or not.
“You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” ― Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing
“There are books of which the backs and covers are by far the best parts.” ― Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist
Don’t get me wrong, validating your novel at the end of November is an awesome feeling of accomplishment. But not reaching that 50K goal isn’t shameful. I’ve read a lot of people’s blogs saying this very thing lately, and I wholeheartedly agree.
Whether or not you get to 50K and get the chance to validate, no matter how close you got, you still have more than you did on November 1st (assuming you at least started NaNo).
And whether or not your novel is a good one–there is time for evaluation later. Even a poorly written novel can be turned into a well-written novel with enough dedication. But an unwritten novel can never be turned into a well-written one.
6. Be an overachiever.
“Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout with some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.” ― George Orwell
There will be days you want to quit. There will be days where you don’t feel like writing, where you can’t write, where you don’t meet the word count you need to be on goal. But, if you always quit at 1,667 words, when those days come where you don’t meet your goal, then you’ll be behind. So be an overachiever. Write 2,000 words, or 2,500, or 3,000 if the muse is present and the words are flowing. Don’t stop short simply because you’ve met your goal. Write on.
7. Make it a habit.
“Tomorrow may be hell, but today was a good writing day, and on the good writing days nothing else matters.” ― Neil Gaiman
Taking a day off from writing may sound like a great idea. I mean, everyone needs a break, right? Even writers? (Yes, they do.) However, as I learned this year, after a long hiatus from writing, it is extremely difficult to get back into the swing of things. So difficult, in fact, that my word count suffered for it. Days after my return from my road trip, my discipline was sadly lacking. I was uninspired and unenthusiastic about my novel. I didn’t want to sit down and write, and when I did, I wrote the bare minimum. It took me forcing myself to open my Scrivener project, and glue my butt to the chair and fingers to the keyboard. After a few days, I was back in the habit. A few more ill-timed days off though, and my win was seriously in risk of not happening this year.
8. If the muse strikes–write!
Now is not the time to push the muse aside. (This is much different than number 2, I swear.)
“You never have to change anything you got up in the middle of the night to write.” ― Saul Bellow.
Do not ignore those middle of the night urgings. If a scene comes to you with utmost clarity, get up and write it. Do not ignore the muse, because when you want her to appear later, she may not be available. Those words may not be there when you want them to appear in the morning.
9. Doubt not thyself.
“And by the way, everything in life is writable about if you have the outgoing guts to do it, and the imagination to improvise. The worst enemy to creativity is self-doubt.” ― Sylvia Plath
If you doubt yourself, you will not succeed. If you are not determined, you will not win.
So give yourself the benefit of the doubt. Read those NaNo pep talks when they come to your inbox–allow them to inspire you. And, when you get inspired reading them, shut off the Internet, and write.
10. Wax poetic.
“Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” ― Anton Chekhov
Now is the time to write three paragraphs on the way the light shines through the window pane. Or write a full page on that minor character you just introduced. Don’t be shy. Type a paragraph, then keep typing. Don’t worry if you’re repeating yourself, just keep going. You will cut out the superfluous stuff later.
11. Don’t forget why you wanted to write this novel in the first place.
For me, I write because … okay, perhaps it’s best just to let other authors do the speaking for me here.
“Writing is like sex. First you do it for love, then you do it for your friends, and then you do it for money.” ― Virginia Woolf
“I write to give myself strength. I write to be the characters that I am not. I write to explore all the things I’m afraid of. ” ― Joss Whedon
“If you do not breathe through writing, if you do not cry out in writing, or sing in writing, then don’t write, because our culture has no use for it.” ― Anaïs Nin
“After nourishment, shelter and companionship, stories are the thing we need most in the world.” ― Philip Pullman
“Write the kind of story you would like to read. People will give you all sorts of advice about writing, but if you are not writing something you like, no one else will like it either.” ― Meg Cabot
“You can make anything by writing.” ― C.S. Lewis
“Write what should not be forgotten.” ― Isabel Allende
“The purpose of a writer is to keep civilization from destroying itself.” ― Albert Camus
“Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depth of your heart; confess to yourself you would have to die if you were forbidden to write.” ― Rainer Maria Rilke
12. Ignore every rule about writing you’ve ever heard.
“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” ― W. Somerset Maugham
Show don’t tell–ignore it.
Don’t use exclamation points–ignore it.
Write what you know–by all means, ignore this. We want to write about something that interests us, and many times, that thing that interests us is something we’ve never experienced.
Don’t put someone you know in your novel–ignore it.
Be concise–ha! Now is definitely the time to ignore this golden rule.
And most importantly, don’t listen to someone who says you can’t write a novel in 30 days. It can be done. It won’t be perfect, it probably won’t be great. But it can be written.
What did NaNoWriMo 2013 teach you?