October 17, 2017 § 12 Comments

Women in 1920's apparel at a long wooden desk, writing letters

Day One and Counting

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.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. If you’d like to receive her bimonthly TinyLetter of adventure postcards and travel stories, please do join here.

§ 12 Responses to NaNoWriteMore

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  • I did NaNo last year for the first time. I had a story that I have struggled with for many years. It is a great story that no one will publish, and I finally recognized that a part of the problem is that I am trying to scrunch a novel into twenty pages. So I wrote 78k words in a thirty days. Easy as pie.

    Of course I started with several thousand words and I steamed and stressed about that story for eleven years. And I outlined before the months started and for the first time in my life I tried to write from beginning to end, which I did not, and I got so far ahead of myself that I stopped in the middle and revised the first half, and my husband brought me coffee in bed.

  • Amy says:

    Your second to last paragraph really articulated how I’ve been trying to look at November. Even beyond “bashers vs swoopers,” sometimes cranking out a new novel does not match my current list of writing projects. For example, if I’m trying to revise/finish a current collection, starting a new one is actually a form of “grasping the shiny object/procrastinating on doing the current hard work.” I also think bashers might adapt the Nanowrimo concept to encourage the playfulness of writing fast/not editing as you go, but in a more feasible way for bashers. For example, this year I am thinking of doing a flash challenge–write a new flash piece every day, just whip them out without worrying about how much they suck. I hope to do this at lunch or in other stolen moments during the day rather than during my regular writing time, which is already committed to a different project. It would be fun to tap into a Nanowrimo-type community formed around more custom November writing goals.

    • Allison K Williams says:

      What a FANTASTIC idea!

    • Allison K Williams says:

      (And terrific points in general. I like the shiny object theory and I need to write that on my desk…)

      • Amy says:

        Thank you! I am getting excited about a flash challenge month. I took a photography class once, and the instructor talked about a time when he only let himself take one photograph per day. Each day, he would be on the lookout for an image. I think a flash per day challenge might help foster a similar mindset, where each day you look for your flash by keeping an eye out for an image, a line of dialogue, a headline, etc. Or riff off of the style or a line in something you read. I also like the idea of turning the page at the end of the day and moving on. Print out the page with the new story (or turn the page if writing hardcopy) and don’t look at it again until the end of the month, when you can lay out the bounty and see what you managed to find during the month. (Then bash away, if desired.) Sometimes when engaged in a long writing project, I miss the sense of fun and discovery that comes with experimenting with new styles, etc. I hope a flash project will let me do this–but with an end in sight, which as you suggest, is a strength in Nanowrimo. Also, I now have a day job with a very set schedule, so my writing time is now planned/calculated. Special times like November are both feasible (finite) yet give a whiff of the sense of freedom to roam in my writing.

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  • mjhowes says:

    Thank you for expanding the use of the month beyond writing a novel. Other goals can help focus on the work!

  • […] via NaNoWriteMore — BREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog […]

  • What I got from this as PREPARING for writing. So often I stop in the middle of a sentence to research ( aka: procrastinate). I’m off to a short residency Nov. 11, and will prepare by taking along select photos from our many albums to jog my memory just enough, notebooks of lists from the time period I’m writing about–all those shiny objects will be at my fingers tips and keep me in my seat.

  • Nano helped to reinforce the benefit of consistent writing although the pace was faster than I’d normally write. Must be more of a basher, but I have the start of a novel that needs more work. I’m glad I tried it last year.

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