Making NaNo Work For You (Even if November's Over)
National Novel Writing Month is coming to an end. Is there something we can learn from it to use during the rest of the year? That all depends on how we understand tools.
Before we talk about National Novel Writing Month (aka, NaNoWriMo--a misnomer considering just how international it has become over the years), let's look at the writing habits of three New York Times Bestselling authors.
John Green (The Fault in Our Stars) described his writing process like this:
I am the worst at consistency. (...) I've never been able to write every day. Sometimes I write at night, usually I squeeze in writing between other things. (...)
I wrote parts of my first novel, Looking for Alaska, on lunch breaks, and part of it on weekends, and sometimes I would write it in the margin of whatever book I was reading. I would write for like, six weeks every night, and then for two weeks I wouldn't write at all.
His brother, Hank Green (An Absolutely Remarkable Thing), describes a slightly different process:
If I do not write at least a thousand words a week the story leaves my brain, I no longer think about it in the shower, when I'm taking a walk, and starting back up again becomes a whole process. For me, a thousand words is like, one or two hours of writing time, and if I don't make that time, I'm not writing the book anymore, and I might not write again for months.
In On Writing, Stephen King says this:
I used to tell interviewers that I wrote every day except for Christmas, the Fourth of July, and my birthday. That was a lie. I told them that because if you agree to an interview, you have to say something, and it plays better if it's something at least half-clever. Also, I didn't want to sound like a workaholic dweeb (just a workaholic, I guess). The truth is that when I'm writing, I write every day, workaholic dweeb or not.
So which is the right approach?
The answer is tied directly to whether or not NaNoWriMo is worth it. But before we go any further, if you have been participating in NaNoWriMo this year, and you've managed to stay on top of it, I cannot overstate this:
NaNoWriMo is very straightforward. Every year, thousands of writers around the world attempt to each write a full, 50k word novel over the course of November. The rules are very simple: outlines are fine, but you have to start at the beginning of a fresh book. Write an average of 1667 words per day, and congrats. You win.
Does it work? Should you participate next year? And is there anything you can learn from NaNoWriMo during the 11 months during which it isn't November?
We can answer those questions, but we're going to need to shift the focus away from NaNoWriMo for one quick second and instead talk about...
Imagine that you approach a master of DIY home improvement. They're someone you respect, and you want to be able to do home improvement exactly the same way they do. So you have the chance to talk to them, and you ask a simple question:
"Should I use a hammer?"
How will the DIY master respond?
They won't say yes, and they won't say no. They'll instead turn the question back on you: "What are you trying to make?"
That's the thing about tools. They're designed with a specific purpose in mind, and the question of whether or not you should use them is always going to be contextual. A hammer is great under certain circumstances, but it is totally useless in others. Learning to become that DIY master, you're going to need to learn more than just how to use tools. You also need to learn when to use tools.
In the arts, we have a tendency to be a little bit precious about our tools, and that's where we return to NaNoWriMo.
Just a Tool
For the purpose of this post, you need to imagine tools as more than just the literal tools of the trade. We're not talking exclusively about pen-and-paper vs. word processor, or Scrivner vs. Microsoft Word, although some of these points may apply to those tools.
Instead, let's focus on the big tools.
If we're going to talk about NaNoWriMo, we need to acknowledge that it is ultimately just one big tool. Is it a good tool? That's going to depend on what you're going to use it for. The same is true about the never-ending debate between people who write outlines before they work on a new project or people who attack new projects in the heat of inspiration. Those are just tools. Approaches to editing? Even more tools. Character boards and themed playlists? Tools.
A good tool is useless if you're using it on the wrong project. A mediocre tool can be life-saving under the right circumstances. A screwdriver isn't a bad tool just because it's a lousy paint-roller.
So with that in mind, what does NaNoWriMo offer?
Imagine that it is New Years Eve and you are making a list of resolutions. You want to eat better, or you want to take your writing seriously this year, or you want to be a better friend. Those are all great ideas, but they all are going to fail for the same simple reason. They're nice, but they're not clear. You won't be able to tell if you're making the correct little decisions that add up to massive outcomes.
When you sign up to attack NaNoWriMo, you are given a very clear goal. On Halloween night, you will have 0 words of your new novel. By the beginning of December, you have 50k+ words of your new novel. It couldn't be clearer if it was a mirror.
You are going to know how you are performing in NaNoWriMo, and that can be stressful, but it can also be liberating. You've written 1668 words today? Congrats, you are one word over your goal, and if you want to take the rest of the day off, you are invited to do so.
Imagine instead that your goal is to improve your presence on Vocal.Media. That's a great goal, but you're going to need to dig a little deeper to find out exactly what that means for you. If your goal is vague, it is hard to know if you are actually doing your part in accomplishing it.
NaNoWriMo is startlingly clear. It even provides a startlingly clear end-point, and that makes it easier to tackle in your own brain. Writing every day for a year? Intimidating. Writing every day for a month? Less so. Writing 50k? Intimidating. Writing 1667 words for 30 days? Less so.
You've probably heard the story of the time JK Rowling was struggling to finish the final Harry Potter book. In an effort to make progress, she rented an extremely expensive hotel room, and she used it as her writing studio. It was a grand, dramatic gesture that said, "I will finish this book, and I will do whatever I need in order to do that."
Most of us don't have that kind of money or lifestyle, but NaNoWriMo actually ticks a similar box. By taking on NaNoWriMo as a goal, you are making a dramatic statement that writing is important to you, and that you are going to prioritise this aspect of your life. You are practically setting a whole month aside for the challenge.
Your friends want to do a zoom call, but you know that you need to do your writing? You can tell them about NaNoWriMo and explain why you're going to need to come up with alternate arrangements.
Goals you prioritise are more likely to be accomplished, and you can signal your priorities (both to yourself and to other people) through dramatic gestures. Choosing to tackle NaNoWriMo publicly? That's a dramatic gesture.
Writing is a solitary, lonely task, and I can say that from experience.
When you get published or develop some kind of readership, you can hope for external encouragement to come from a variety of places. If you get traditionally published, you will probably have an agent and an editor cheering on your next book. If you go a more solitary route, you might have fans.
Hell, the fact that I've got Vocal subscribers encourages me to write here.
But when you're getting started, it's easy to feel like no one in the world cares about your work, and that's for a simple reason: they probably don't.
NaNo injects some excitement into that equation, though. When you sign up for NaNoWriMo, you will start getting regular pep-talks from other authors who have been exactly where you are. They remember what it is like to be at the start, and even if they don't know the particulars of your situation, they can sympathise because they were once in a very similar situation.
Some of those pep-talks will probably be meaningless to you, but others might resonate on a deep level, and that might be all the encouragement you need to get a few more days of good writing in.
Building off that last point, NaNoWriMo comes with a built in community, so when you feel like you are very alone at your writing desk, you can check in with other people who are striving towards the exact same goal as you. If you don't have writer friends who you can commiserate with, you can make new friends. If you do have writer friends already, you can agree to do it as a group.
Writing can often be lonely, and there probably are parts of it that should be. But what do we keep saying in this post? A tool has a purpose. Lonely writing times are healthy for actually getting the work done. Community is healthy for bouncing ideas off of people, or encouragement, or just realising that if your friends can achieve this goal, so can you.
NaNoWriMo has one of the biggest writing communities in the world. If community is something you're looking for, NaNoWriMo has things to offer.
So Should You Use This Tool?
Again, we can only answer that question with a question: what are you trying to build?
NaNoWriMo can be great, but it also has downsides. The prioritisation of word count above all else can lead to rough drafts that are too rough to be useful. Sometimes it's helpful to take time in order to let ideas develop organically. You might be focused on a problem in your plot, and then three weeks pass and you suddenly have the perfect epiphany.
If you're comfortable with a lot of editing, NaNoWriMo can be a great way to pump out a draft that you can edit into a better shape later. But is NaNoWriMo the right tool to use if editing is actually the part of your writing process that you're trying to improve?
However, if you're looking to build the habit of regular writing, it can be great.
Remember the three authors we compared at the top? They're all building wildly different things, so it makes sense that they're using wildly different tools. They all realise that writing takes time, but the number of novels they're producing and the type of novels they're producing demand different tools. John Green has published eight books since 2005, two of which were co-written. Stephen King has published 21 books in the same time, and a couple of those books are over a thousand pages.
Does it make sense that they use different tools?
So the choice is, which tools are you going to use? What are you trying to build? While NaNo might not be for everyone, there is a decent chance that at least some aspects of NaNoWriMo can help you achieve your goals.
But November Is Ending?
That's true! NaNo is coming to a close, so there is basically a full year before November starts again. However, if we don't treat NaNo as if it is magic, but instead accept that it is just one tool among many, we can actually recreate a lot of NaNo's benefits without actually using NaNoWriMo.
Let's start with clarity: instead of aiming to write a novel in November, you could tell your contacts that you want to write a novel in December. Or you could decide that you're going to write one story for Vocal every week for a month. Or you could come up with a different goal of your own, as long as it is clear. That's the benefit NaNo offers, but you can recreate it in any number of ways.
What about making a dramatic gesture? Honestly, by publicly admitting to your goal, you might find that you made a dramatic enough gesture right there. If not, you can cancel a subscription service until you achieve your writing goal, or you can change your schedule in some dramatic way to emphasise that this goal is important to you.
Encouragement? Find some writers you like on Vocal and subscribe to their posts. Get a few books of writing advice out from your local library and read a few pages before bed. Tell a few trusted friends about your goal and see if they are excited for you.
Community? You're in luck, because you're here. There are plenty of Vocal communities around the internet, and in that group you will find other people with goals like yours. It might take a bit of work to get those relationships started, but that doesn't mean it's impossible.
NaNoWriMo is a big, fancy, exciting tool, but ultimately it only is a tool. If you use it right, you will be thrilled with the results, but there might be other tools that are better suited to you and your projects. The important thing is to do some introspection and figure out what you're actually trying to accomplish, and then ask yourself if NaNoWriMo (or any other tool) will bring you closer to that goal or not.
You can achieve your goals. You can write that novel, or you can start that blog, or whatever else. But ultimately, whether it succeeds or fails is up to how well you understand yourself and how wisely you pick your tools.
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