In the year 2002, Thanksgiving in the U.S. fell relatively late in the month of November. So it was that on November 30th, I found myself at my mother’s house, home from college for the weekend. I lay on the log bed in the guest room, my stomach full of turkey leftovers, furiously pounding at the last novel I would finish before landing a book deal the following year.
I’d done NaNoWriMo the previous year, and had found the experience to be wonderful. This year, my friends and I were holding a competition to see which of us could finish first, and it came down to the last day. I won. And I didn’t.
You see, while I’ve had a lot of fun with NaNoWriMo over the years, I think it’s time to come clean. Though I’ve participated seven times so far, and I’ve never actually won. Oh, I’ve completed the fifty thousand words. I commonly write 50k words in a given month these days, as writing is my profession. However, what I’ve never done is start a brand new project on the first of November, then keep writing straight through on it.
I have a good excuse. Each November, I’ve always already been in the middle of a book and it never felt right to stop and start something new. You could say that what I’ve done is still in the spirit of the competition, and I’ve always found NaNoWriMo to be more about the experience itself—and the people in the community—than “winning.” Still, truth be told, I don’t honestly feel that I’ve ever finished the competition in the way it was intended. Does that bother me? Not a bit.
This is a pep talk, you see. It’s my job to encourage you to keep going, to push toward that finish line. I want to do that by reinforcing a single truth: This competition (or whatever you want to call it) is a tool, and you should use it in the way that helps you the most.
Every writer uses different tools to write books, and none of those tools are right for every writer—or even for every project a given writer tries. Part of making that transition from apprentice writer to journeyman is learning how to apply the right tools in the right way. For example, outlines are a tool. Some writers hate them, others love them. Character dossiers, three-act format and other plotting formulas, even a given word processing program—these are all tools. Sometimes they’ll work, sometimes they won’t. Nobody can tell you if any specific one will help you on a given project. Only through practice and experience can you get a sense of what works for you as a writer.
As a writing tool, NaNoWriMo has its own specific limitations and advantages. My goal here is to list a few of the ways it can help, and by so doing, I hope to make you look at all of this in a new light. The only failure here is giving up, and perhaps using NaNo in a different way than you have in the past can help you get more out of the process.
NaNo Lesson One: Learning to Finish
The first and most important thing I believe that someone can learn from NaNoWriMo is to finish. On the path to becoming a professional writer, I’ve noticed that there are many drop-out points. These are points where I’ve noticed that a large number of aspiring writers tend to give up. The biggest one is finishing that first novel.
Many people claim they want to write one, but a mere fraction of those people will actually make it to the end. Some new writers spend years planning and preparing, but never get to the actual writing of the book. Others are “eternal rewriters” who habitually get three chapters into a book, then go back and revise over and over. Others get mired in the death zone: that most difficult part of a book between the one-third and two-third marks.
If you’ve never finished a book before, your goal in NaNoWriMo should be to hit that finish line. Don’t revise. Don’t stop and plan. Keep going, no matter what. The NaNo website talks a great deal about this goal, and I suspect other pep talks will cover the point in depth. So rather than belaboring the point, I’ll just reference my own personal experience.
The biggest jump in quality I made as a writer came in finishing my first book and starting my second. Writing an ending, then being able to look back and see the entire book, taught me more about the process than years of education, years of reading, and years of starting ever had. Finishing one book is more valuable than a dozen creative writing courses and a thousand books started. I’ve seen this time and time again in other writers I know.
Finish. That’s the first way to use this tool.
NaNo Lesson Two: Consistency vs. Burst Writing
Not all writers are what I’d call “consistent” writers. I write every day. I plug away at a novel, piece by piece, word by word. Slowly but surely, I creep toward the ending.
A good friend of mine (and an excellent writer) is very much a “burst” writer. She lets a story stew in her head, spends six months feeling that the story is terrible and that she shouldn’t write it, and then suddenly has a burst of insight, gets excited, and writes furiously for three or four months. At the end of it, she has a brilliant novel—and the process starts again.
Consistent writing and burst writing are both writing tools. The nice thing about NaNoWriMo is that it can help you practice either one. By its nature—write a book in a month—it’s a burst writing experience. However, I want to highlight its ability to teach you good writing habits as well. One way to use NaNo is to test different writing practices, trying to find those that will be sustainable over a long period.
Try writing on your lunch hour. Try getting up a few hours early each day. Try turning off the television or World of Warcraft and spending that time on your novel. Experiment. The goal is to show yourself that you can make room for writing in your life. Then, when the month is through, try to keep those habits up. When using NaNo as this type of tool, I’d suggest that finishing isn’t nearly as important as building habits. (Blasphemy, perhaps.)
It’s been shown time and time again that if human beings can keep up a certain pattern for a short time (usually a few weeks), they’ll make a habit of it and keep going. If you have trouble finding space for writing in your life, but really want to be a consistent writer, I suggest using NaNo as an excuse to create a repeatable writing habit in your life. Perhaps you’re already behind; perhaps you know you aren’t going to “win” this year. However, if you make this your goal and write every day—no matter how little—you may find this month a huge benefit even if you only write 10k words. After all, 10k words every month for a year is a novel.
Lesson Three: Thinking Like a Storyteller
If you truly immerse yourself in NaNo, you’re going to be eating, breathing, and drinking your story all month. One thing that non-writers don’t understand is that for most of us, we have a kind of “writing reservoir” inside of us. Consider it a creative well that can be tapped only so far in a given day. Once it runs dry, it’s often hard to create anything, even if we have the time to do so.
One of the lessons I learned as a storyteller was how to refill the creative well while doing other activities. You can do it while driving, exercising, eating . . . anything that doesn’t take your full attention. During these times, many writers I know run through plots in their heads, feel out character personalities, think about conflicts. They make connections, overcoming blocks.
Personally, I’ve found this practice to be essential in promoting healthy writing habits. As a full-time writer, it can actually be harder to refill my creative well, as I’m working on my writing all of the time. One of the ways NaNo could help a writer is by training them to use off moments to delve, mentally, into their stories. Instead of turning on the television as you wash dishes, turn on some music and think through character interactions. Plan out what you’re going to write the next day.
Even if you don’t have much time to write every day, you can supercharge that time by planning out for hours what you’ll do. Teach yourself to think like a writer. It’s a habit you’ll find very useful.
Lesson Four: Overcoming Writer’s Block
Writer’s block is a pernicious thing. It’s a slayer of writers, a destroyer of creativity. Like cancer, there seem to be as many varieties of writer’s block as there are days in the year.
NaNo and writer’s block basically cannot exist together. If you get blocked for a few days, that can mean the end of your NaNo attempt. It is vital, therefore, that you find tools to help you past writer’s block.
This one is tough because of how different every writer is. However, the one thing I’ve seen work best in overcoming writer’s block is to just keep going. Writer’s block should really be rendered “creativity block.” Nobody is forcing a writer to stop typing. The thing stopping us is more nebulous—some void of creativity caused by dissatisfaction with the writing, an uncertainty about where to go next, a lack of faith in the project. A writer might feel there is a flaw in their story, and doesn’t want to keep going and risk magnifying the problem, or they might have an image in their head of how the book should be going, and get frustrated that it’s not turning out right.
Soldiering on anyway can often solve each of these problems. I have a lot of personal experience with this. I often have to write something poorly before I can write it well. I go through a scene once, knowing that I’m doing it wrong—but searching for the answers, exploring the story, as I actually write. I don’t break momentum that way, and I find that once I’m done, nine times out of ten I’ve figured out how to fix the problem. I can toss aside that poorly written scene and try again, this time doing it right.
If that doesn’t work for you, here are a few other suggestions. Change the viewpoint character for the problem scene. Change the setting of the problem scene. Add a new character, and have them really make things messy in the conflict. Kill a character. Have a bomb go off. (Or have the ship sink, ninjas attack, etc. A big disaster. The goal is often not to keep the scene, but to explore how your characters would react so you can explore them more in depth.) Do a first-person character monologue for a character you haven’t fleshed out enough.
If you find yourself doing the scene over and over, however, stop and just move forward. You may not be able to fix the problem until you’ve worked out the next ten chapters. Don’t worry so much about magnifying the problem; worry about getting stopped and losing momentum. If this is an issue for you, try writing in longhand to keep yourself from revising too much. Or even try dictating a scene into a tape recorder, then typing it out—and doing a light revision—later on as you listen.
I never won NaNoWriMo, but NaNoWriMo certainly helped me become a better writer. That was because, in coming to understand myself as a writer, I began to learn how to use writing tools. NaNoWriMo trained me in habits I still rely upon today. Beyond that, the excellent community—working with friends, all trying to reach that marathon finish line—helped me build a local writing community that still supports me.
If we went back to that Thanksgiving weekend in 2002, you’d find me typing the very last words of an extremely long book. That book, The Way of Kings, finally came out last year—and it debuted at #7 on the New York Times hardcover fiction bestseller list.
It took me almost nine years—including a complete start-over from the beginning—to get the book to its final stage. It was worth it every step of the way. May you find even more success in your writing endeavors.
You can learn more about Brandon’s work here.