I’m a long-time fan of the National Novel Writing Month (belatedly called NaNoWriMo) challenge to complete 50,000 words of a novel in the month of November. (If you want to know more about it, a recent episode of Annotated looks at the history of the NaNo challenge and why people dig it.)
I’m not entirely sure when I first starting taking part — probably around twelve or so years ago (way back in my LiveJournal days). I was immediately drawn in to the sense of camaraderie inherent in the challenge and often attended local write-ins, where I was able to sit down with a dozen other writers at a coffee shop and share in the experience of putting words on the page.
Some of the years, I completed the challenge, and some of the years I didn’t. Either way I always enjoyed the experience — regardless of whether I churned out anything editable or not.
It’s been several years since I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo (the last one being in 2014), and I’ve finally decided that it’s time I jumped back on the bandwagon.
Why I’ve Avoided NaNo in Recent Years
There are plenty of legitimate reasons to not participate in NaNo. For some people the challenge doesn’t jive with their personal writing style, and for others it might not be conductive to their health.
Over the past several years, my personal reasons have largely revolved around reasons like:
- Existing unfinished projects. None of the stories I started during in NaNo has (thus far) resulted in a polished draft. Combined with these are any number of short stories, poetry collections, and individual poems that are in various stages of completion. How, I asked myself, could I possiblely start a new project without finishing some or ALL of these first?
- I wasn’t in the right headspace. NaNo takes a lot of focus and a lot of dedication — two things I didn’t have readily available to me when past Novembers rolled around. Could I have rallied and made it happen? Yeah, probably. But I don’t think it would have been healthy.
- I didn’t think I had enough time. Some years this was true, some years less so. I probably could have found work-arounds, if I really wanted to, but see #2.
- Self doubt and judgement. I was terribly afraid of failing, of writing another thing I would never finish, of hating every word I wrote. These are the kinds of doubts that NaNoWriMo aims to bash into the ground through the sheer act of rapid firing words onto the page. But these were mental blocks that I couldn’t get past at the time.
- I just didn’t want to. I didn’t want to do NaNo just because it was there, just because all the other writers you know are playing. There were other projects, other personal challenges that were more exciting to me at the time. I didn’t want to, and that was reason enough.
Why I’m Returning
I’ve been putting an immense amount of pressure on myself regarding THE NOVEL, declaring at the beginning of 2019 that this would be the year I finished it. (I think the fact that I feel the need to write “THE NOVEL” out in all caps every time is an indicator of just how much I’ve built it up in my mind.)
It makes it hard to keep moving forward when you’re trapped in that big of a shadow.
In a way I’ve tied my success as a writer to the completion of this one project, and I need to ease up on myself. Essentially I need a break — and I don’t mean the kind of break in which I set THE NOVEL aside and “accidentally” didn’t come back to it for four years.
What I need is a break from the pressure of creating something that has to be perfect and publishable. I want to turn off the inner critic and the self judgement and all the expectations I’ve placed on myself about my career.
In other words, I want to experiment the joy of just writing, to dive into a story I find fascinating and fun and see where it takes me. I want the freedom to let it be weird and nonsensical and terrible.
NaNoWriMo, I believe, can provide these things.
I’ll be working on a story tentatively titled The Monsters I Keep, about a teenage girl traveling alone in an apocalyptic world full of shadowy monsters. The idea is crunchy and scary — and I haven’t been this excited to launch in on a project for a long time.
How to Prepare
Ten years ago, I made a video highlighting tips and tricks for surviving NaNoWriMo, with suggestions such as “Don’t Delete Anything” and “Plot Ninjas Are Your Friends” — all of which is perfectly serviceable advice. Although I’m not sure it applies to my current needs anymore.
- Let go of all future considerations. The idea of needing to have a novel to publish has been one of the things stopping from writing. So none of that. I’m very carefully avoiding all thoughts of the future when it comes to my NaNo project, swatting away any thoughts of publishing, editing, or even finishing. None of that matters.
- Sit with your story. I’m personally skipping the outline this year — at least, I’m not writing anything down. I have a general plan in my head, ideas for scenes and characters, conflicts and dangers. I don’t know exactly what’ll happen when the words hit the page, but I’m keeping it present in my head in the days leading up to launch, letting it simmer and play out in my mind’s eye. Many scenarios are available to me, any could happen. If sitting with your novel involved nailing down an outline, then do that. If not, then find space in this time before launch to ponder and wonder and imagine.
- Create a mood board and/or music soundtrack. A mood board is compiled of images or words that reflect the tone or feel of your story. This can be a physical board with cut-outs glued to it, or a digital one. I’ve been having ridiculous amounts of fun with the Pinterest board I’ve created for The Monsters I Keep, the more I gather images together the more ideas keep spiraling. Every time I look at the board, I get excited all over again. A soundtrack works similarly in creating a resource that you can return to for inspiration.
- Plan your writing schedule for the month. Generally speaking, you need to write 1,667 words every day to get to 50,000 by the end of the month. That’s all gravy if you don’t have any prior commitments. Already, I know November brings a work trip (where there doth be many distractions) and press time at the day job (which tends to eat my brain). Therefore I’m already planning out time and space for those periods, allowing for days when I might not be able to write.
- Enjoy the experience. The other side of #1 is to enjoy the process and act of writing itself. Toss around some word play. Take zany risks. Try things you wouldn’t under normal writing circumstances. Have — I hope, I hope, I hope — fun with your NaNo adventures.
I hope these preparation ideas are helpful to other writers looking to attempt NaNoWriMo this year. I’m looking forward to a wild month of writing fun.
Will you be NaNo-ing this year? Let me know in the comments if you’re joining the bandwagon and what project you’ll be working on.