October 17, 2017 § 12 Comments
Sometimes it’s all about brevity. Other times, the writing practice is all about length. Fifty thousand words in thirty days, to be exact.
Yes, coming up in November is the annual National Novel Writing Month–NaNoWriMo. If you’re not already familiar with it, the goal is to blaze through a first draft of 50K words, in one month. There are online forums for checking in and discussing your work, and timed “sprints” on social media. Many cities have in-person meetups to sit and write. And a fair number of agents dread December, when inexperienced writers send out their newly completed “novel” without realizing there are a few more steps between getting the idea on paper and a submission-ready manuscript.
NaNo has its fans, and for good reason: it’s a great way to start a habit if writing more frequently is your goal; online support is everywhere; and joining a regional group can be a way to connect with writers you didn’t know you lived near. But there are plenty of detractors. Jim Breslin blogged about his experience in 2010:
During Nanowrimo, I’ve tended to breeze through certain points because I’m trying to make my word count. For me, slow and steady may prove to be a better way to win the race.
My most successful NaNo experience was a few years ago, when I joined the Mumbai online group–I was heading to India at the end of November and thought it would be nice to know some writers before I got there. I didn’t finish a novel, but I met some terrific people, taught some workshops, and still love having a tenuous connection to that literary community.
Whether the idea of whipping through that many words in that short a time appeals to you or not there are some useful takeaways from the NaNo process.
What writing pace suits you? NaNo is all about speed, sometimes at the expense of craft. Breslin quotes another blogger quoting Kurt Vonnegut:
…there are “swoopers” and “bashers.” Swoopers can write a first draft quickly, where bashers tend to plod along slowly, perfecting each sentence, each paragraph as they go. Marc identifies himself as a basher and makes a valid argument on why Nanowrimo is really an event for swoopers. I’ve come to believe my style is also more basher than swooper, and that my next attempt should be written away from the Nanowrimo playing field.
I’m a basher. I also tend to write the first third, then the ending, then fill in the middle of a novel, not necessarily in order. At some point I make an outline and figure out what’s missing. I polish and edit as I go. NaNo is often better suited to writers who, as Alice’s King of Hearts suggests, “Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
What could you accomplish in a focused time over a number of days? We all love workshops, conferences and residencies. As well as community and a setting conducive to focused work, it’s also focused time. By setting numerical goals, whether that’s word count or chapters or number of submissions, for a specific period, we feel a little more obligated to get to the page–and a little more entitled to stay there, despite laundry, spouses, and children calling our names. We’re not just dicking around with that writing thing we do, we’re working on something.
How much prep do you need? Just as NaNo’s word-count goal gives us a target to reach in a hazy process, it’s also a reason to think through our plans. The most successful participants are often those with a detailed outline, a substantial pile of research, and a focused idea as of November 1st. The act of preparing for the run can help solidify ideas, think through plots, consider which incidents to include in a memoir. The decision to participate brings our work to mind more regularly, then gives us a deadline to shift from preparation to the creation stage.
Whether you’ve got NaNoWriMo coming up or plain old November, it might be worth setting out a project with specific goals and a dedicated time. Maybe send out X number of submissions, or revise a set number of pages. Read a group of books you’ve been meaning to get to, and boldly give away the ones you don’t like after all. If you like the community aspect, pair up with a writer buddy who’s got a project of their own. If you need accountability, enlist a friend of iron will to report to when you hit a milestone, or plan rewards for your accomplishments.
Whatever you plan, pick something with an end you can tick off when you get there and feel satisfied. That’s the real strength of participating in NaNoWriMo: you know when you’re done.