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How I Won NaNoWriMo in My First (and Last?) Attempt

NaNoWriMo 2016 winner
Last November I wrote over 50,000 words of a new novel and won my first National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Are you on the fence about participating this year? Do you have the same skeptical reaction I did every year? Let this post provide catharsis for your worries and guidance for making a decision on how to spend this November. Read on for my strategy for winning (e.g. writing 50,000 words by Nov. 30) and a reflection on what I would and wouldn’t repeat.

 

Why Bother with NaNoWriMo?

The best way to tank NaNoWriMo is to sit on the sidelines and complain—50,000 words is too much / too little / I don’t need a deadline / I already have too many deadlines. You don’t have to do it. Nobody has to. And even if you do, no one has to know the outcome. But don’t knock a writing experiment until you try it. I had all the usual reservations you can read about in any other post, but I showed up anyway to get my licks and challenge my expectations.

What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

You invest 30 days into your writing and nothing productive comes of it. Now you’ll have 30 days more experience with what not to do and more scathing comments for future NaNoWriMo blog posts. It’ll feel great to be right. But it’ll feel better to have tried and challenged yourself. I know if I stop challenging myself, my prose will suffer. The best reason to spend November on NaNoWriMo is to learn more about yourself, regardless of how much you already think you know.

I’m Not You (or Am I?)

Prior to NaNoWriMo, I had finished four drafts of my first novel, completed the 3-day Novel Contest a few years earlier, and worked full-time while carving out an hour for writing 2-3 days week. I started learning about the publishing industry, attending conferences, querying agents, and reading and submitting to literary journals. And yet, NaNoWriMo taught me plenty over its 30 days.

  • Never written a novel? NaNoWriMo will give you a sample of the time and dedication a draft requires.
  • Not your first novel? Great, it’ll show you tactics you’d be unlikely to take on your own. Your past approach isn’t the only way to a draft.

Plotter or Pantser? It Doesn’t Matter

I’m definitely a plotter. I prefer an outline for even 2,000+ word short stories—heck I outlined this blog post. But last November I tried flying by the seat of my pants, and my world didn’t explode.

  • If your gut prefers one way, listen to it.
  • But if your gut prefers one way and that way is not producing results, why not try the opposite? The only risk is learning.

 


What Can I Do Before November?

How I prepared in October set me up to win nearly as much as showing up and writing as much as I could every day. These tips are borrowed with love and attribution from numerous wonderful resources like the Shut Up & Write(!) NaNoWriMo prep pack [1], TheRightMargin’s NaNoWriMo project [2], conversations I can’t link to, and things I’m forgetting. Source amnesia strikes again!

1. Get Accountability Buddies

Find somebody else doing NaNoWriMo this year. As much as your family and friends support your creative expression, you need someone who’ll be in the trenches with you.

Cat Ellsworth [3], a dear friend from Shut Up & Write(!) meetups, and Will Sullivan [4], a critique partner and coworker, were instrumental to me not losing my mind in November. Or losing it together and productively, a la venting words on the page.

The three of us met up for writing lunches every Thursday where hundreds of words happened before anyone left at the end of the hour. Will led us through our first word sprints. Cat introduced me to freewriting before each session, freeing up my mind to flow back into my story. Across meetups, texts, random get-togethers, and The Night of Writing Dangerously, there were no two people I looked forward to seeing more in November because they understood what my month was like.

Cat and Art at NaNoWriMo Night of Writing Dangerously

2. Define Success for Yourself

TheRightMargin encouraged me to set an intention for NaNoWriMo. Here’s mine:

I want to start my second novel with an exploratory and perfectly reckless first draft before I get married and hopefully become a father. I surrender myself to a writer’s November.


Note there’s nothing about word count, dates, or numbers. Is it vague? Perhaps. Was it an empowering and liberating message to reflect on, as I did many times during November? Absolutely.

My accountability buddy Will was a true NaNoWriMo rebel. His November aim was adding 15,000 words to his existing manuscript. Which he did. By hand. Writing lunch by writing lunch, word by word.

Will - NaNo rebel, Art - NaNo conformist
Defining success for myself enabled me to reach beyond my goals because I wasn’t preoccupied with constantly measuring up to them.

3. Clean That Calendar

  1. Open your calendar to November 1. Delegate, decline, or delete every possible event for the next 30 days.
  2. Open Facebook. Decline every event invite for your writing month.
  3. Wash, rinse, repeat for every commitment that doesn’t have to do with writing.

All of those things will still be there on December 1.

Now schedule time for writing. An hour or more every day will help. Don’t worry about consistency in place, time, or any excuse for not keeping the appointment. Title each event “Write My Novel.” Find writing meetups [5] or NaNoWriMo write-ins [6] in your region. Create as many opportunities as you can for showing up and releasing words.

Leave Thanksgiving as open as it can be. If you need a break then, take it. If you need to catch up, catch up.

4. Obsess About Writing Tools

Buy that fancy journal you’ve been coveting. Play with that new writing tool for your laptop—many of them run NaNoWriMo promotions. Make a playlist that motivates you. Find a comfy pair of headphones, a pen with nice ink flow, a great keyboard, whatever it takes. Obsess about your tools now; you won’t have time in November. Unless it actively prevents you from typing or scribbling, it’ll just be an excuse.

 


Survive November

It’s Always Writing Time

Do you write best in the morning? Great, but what happens when you oversleep on November 2? You’re going to make the most of what’s left in the day.

Don’t expect to always hit the same time every day. That calendar you cleared? It’s about defending your writing time and otherwise is mostly aspirational. Work in one long session. Work across many. Do as many writing sessions as you need in a day. Show up until you feel you’ve done all you can today.

This was my least favorite part of November. Each day won’t feel complete until you’ve spent enough time with your novel. Look back at your intention. Now back to your writing. Back to your intention. Back to writing. Is that all you have to write today?

Find Your Places

Where did you enjoy writing before? Tap into those places again. But if you’re out of coffee, there’s no place to sit in your favorite spot, and your latte explodes, remember your draft doesn’t care about any of these things. Keep writing. Try a library, try a park, try a community center, try your desk at lunch, try not to make excuses.

Don’t wait for the perfect place, do something wherever you are. Broaden your definition of writing effort. Make a character decision. Decide how this chapter closes or the next one opens. Name a new setting. These may not involve words on the page to add to your word count, but they will help you flow when you are back to writing.

Get Hooked on Habits

Don’t mind your word count while writing. Counting words is like going on vacation and counting miles. When you’re done, count them all you want. Hell, get a calendar and put it on your fridge with a daily tally so it’s the first thing you see before breakfast. Whatever helps.

30 days of NaNoWriMo
If you write with music, have your inspiring playlist ready. Put it on shuffle because that’s what every session will feel like. Embrace serendipity.

If your writing app has full screen mode, try it. Immersion is invaluable. Did you know Word can look like this?

Word full screen
Freewrite before your writing sessions. No words are wasted. This is an opportunity to release everything on your mind. How frustrating NaNoWriMo is. All the other ways you can be spending November. Where you’re stuck in your writing. Your biggest fears for this novel. Or the very next step.

Are you done writing for today? If not, ignore your email for as long as possible. Even those nanowrimo.org ones. They’re lovely and encouraging but there are too many. Reading’s for December.

Don’t lose your health over any of this though. Take care of all basic needs. Hydrate. Eat. Sleep. Take deep, delicious breaths outside. It’s writing, not martyrdom.


Reflect in December

Where Am I Now?

Here’s where I arrived on November 30, following my approach above:

NaNoWriMo 2016 winner
I continued to write daily in December, though my word count died a slow death before Christmas. I decided the theme of my novel and left it at that, confident that this was a solid point to return to and begin writing from.

Writing in this manner exhausted me and I’ve spent most of 2017 writing, revising, and submitting short stories and flash fiction. I can’t convey how satisfying finishing shorter work now feels. Eleven months later, I haven’t finished the novel draft I started. I have, however, achieved all my other writing goals for 2017 and with more momentum than I expected. And this does feel like the best novel I have in me right now, so it will get done.

Wash, Rinse, Repeat?

On December 1, my gut told me I wouldn’t do NaNoWriMo again. I learned that I can write fast, with reckless abandon, without an outline, and not be disappointed with the results. There were hard-earned passages that made me cry, even in this early draft. But was November worth the effort?

I’m closer to Cat and Will in a toughened, battle-tested way from many other writers I know. We continued our writing lunches for months after November. I’d be honored to beta read or edit their work. I’m fond of what we cultivated in ourselves in our intense month together.

But do I need the daily anxiety over word count? Do I need more word sprints to show me how fast I can type ideas that may come out at other speeds? How many of these strategies will enable me to write beyond NaNoWriMo?

What else could I learn from this writing experiment? What could you?

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About Arthur Klepchukov [7]

Arthur Klepchukov [8] writes literary and speculative fiction from numerous cafes and the occasional park. He completed The Lemon Tree House Residency for Writers [9] in Tuscany and was awarded Honorable Mention by Writers of the Future. Art loves hosting Shut Up & Write(!) meetups [10]. Follow his writing journey at Arsenal of Words [8] and on Twitter [11].