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Write a novel in a month? How??
September 27, 2010 2:40 PM   Subscribe

I have a story in my head, and since we're relatively close to November, I figured I'd give NaNoWriMo a try this year to get it written. What are your experiences with NaNoWriMo, and how can I overcome my obsessive self-editing and various sources of distraction to be successful?

I wrote quite a bit in college (byproduct of an English major), but since graduating three years ago, my creative output has been zilch. I'm terrible about getting distracted, not just by the internet, though primarily so, backspacing, editing too much as I write (which I realize is a problem in the realm of the nanowrimo challenge). I'm very self-critical, and have a hard time letting a sentence, or even word choice go if I think it's wrong. I also share home office space with my husband, who is an internet gamer, which means that I can't just turn off the modem to rid myself of internet distractions. I have a traditional hours full-time job, so time will be somewhat limited as well.

What are your experiences with nanowrimo, and how can I overcome my writing faults to meet my goal?

(I did see this question, but it doesn't cover all of my potential stumbling blocks, and I'd like to hear about experiences too, not just hacks. Plus, I figure maybe more people have done nanowrimo since October of last year).
posted by litnerd to Writing & Language (25 answers total) 40 users marked this as a favorite
 
Well, to 'win' NanoWriMo, you need to hit 1667 words a day. That's quite a lot. You need to write pretty fast to hit it each day.

I'm very self-critical, and have a hard time letting a sentence, or even word choice go if I think it's wrong.

Well, that's sort of the point. You are supposed to use the time limitation as a motivation to ignore the 'editing' part of your brain and get words down. I've done it once and it's remarkably effective. Build yourself a spreadsheet and track the words every day so you can see your progress.

I also share home office space with my husband, who is an internet gamer, which means that I can't just turn off the modem to rid myself of internet distractions.

Unplug your desktop computer (or, even easier, your laptop, if you have one!) take it into another room, set it up and close the door. If it's got a wireless card, take it out. If you're on a Mac, get a good writing program like Scrivener. A good Windows equivalent is Page Four. Stick a regular time in your calendar or phone alarm and do your best to stick to it.

I have a traditional hours full-time job, so time will be somewhat limited as well.

Mefi's Own John Scalzi has something to say on this matter.

To which I would add, put your TV in your closet.

Good luck! One final thing - don't get too heavily into the NanoWriMo website stuff, all the mutual backpatting and agonising over characters and plotting with fellow NaNoWriMo participants - it's nice n'all, but it's just another avenue for procrastination.
posted by Happy Dave at 2:54 PM on September 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


Oh, and ask the mods to give you a timeout from Mefi, if this place is one of your day-to-day time sucks.
posted by Happy Dave at 2:55 PM on September 27, 2010


One of my tricks two years ago (my closest try yet) was a small piece of PC Software called Darkroom, which is really just a notepad shell. It helps cut down on distractions, since the screen is totally full and black.

I also joined my local nanowrimo group, which had meetups about once or twice a week to get some dedicated writing time in. For me, the biggest thing was just dedicating time every day to writing, if you do that, it's only like 1600 words a day or something, which isn't too bad.

Another thing I did was something similar to weight-loss blogs, I started a nanowrimo blog and told all of my friends about it. I posted my progress every day or two, and had several regular readers. The fact that people wanted to know what was going to happen in my world helped push me when motivation flagged. I wish I could have finished it that year, but we had a family tragedy and out went the novel.

Good luck!
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 2:59 PM on September 27, 2010


It comes down to whether or not you want to write or you want to keep making excuses. Most people doing NaNo have full time jobs, families or other commitments.

IMHO, once you have an idea, Being successful in NaNo is all about hitting word count, period. Butt in chair, hit your word count.
Get up early.
Stay up late.
Write all weekend.
Use the message boards for support, put up a post asking for someone to be your virtual writing buddy - maybe someone with the same tendencies that you do - to be accountable in terms of word count, email each other at the beginning and end of every day with your word count.
If you have a local NaNo group, they're likely doing write-ins somewhere on the weekend - go there and use the support.
The NaNo system is super in terms of supporting someone who's never done this before. Follow their suggestions even if they make you roll your eyes.

I have written two novels. The third goes to my agent in about two weeks. I work full time. I have written through heartbreak, cross-country moves, terrible soul-sucking jobs, and a whole host of other excuses I could have used to not write.

Butt in chair. Type. Or move hand across the page. Even if you write "This is stupid and I am dumb" for 30 minutes, the good stuff will come out eventually. But it can't if you don't show up.

*I am not addressing editing, story concept, or creative talent because NaNo is IMHO just about showing up and writing.
posted by micawber at 2:59 PM on September 27, 2010 [6 favorites]


I've done NaNo three times. Once, just after high school, my project died at around 40 pages. Once, just after college, I got within 6000 words of winning, but hated my project so much that I couldn't bear to finish it. I finally "won" last November, with time to spare--but it was the third novel I finished that year. I've since finished a fourth. Honestly, for me, the distancing between winning and not was all about learning how to write a novel. I now know the following about my writing habits, which may or may not apply to you:For what it's worth, I didn't find the NaNo boards all that helpful last year. They seemed overrun with people who do "speed drafting," reaching the 50k goal in the first week. I have no idea how people manage that without drugs, but anyway, it felt like my own goals were a bit different than theirs.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 3:29 PM on September 27, 2010 [9 favorites]


Identify your time-sucks and put them on hiatus. I've temporarily abandoned LiveJournal and World of Warcraft for NaNo's sake; I've also "won" without banishing them for the month of November.

Sometimes 1700 words a day is ridiculously easy; sometimes it's disgusting and impossible. Whenever you're able, build up a cushion so if you do run into a Disgusting and Impossible day it won't destroy you.

Remind yourself that after midnight on November 30 your "inner editor" can come on out and do its thing but if you don't silence it for now there will be nothing to edit, and that would be a bummer.

Honestly, everybody's experience is different. Even year-to-year NaNo has varied for me. It's a lot of fun, I promise--but what works for me might not work for you and vicey versey. (For example I've never really needed "writing buddies" or word-count war opponents. Some folks swear by them.)

I guess the biggest thing is to stop making excuses. Just keep typing. You can totally do it.
posted by Neofelis at 3:35 PM on September 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


What PhoBWanKenobi said. That's what I meant. Listen to the Kenobi. Her comment is wise.
posted by Neofelis at 3:39 PM on September 27, 2010


NaNoWriMo is the best butt-kicker for creativity. I will proselytize the good word of The Office of Letters and Light given any chance. :)

I've been doing it since 2001 or so, but it wasn't until 2007 that I actually reached the 50,000-word goal. Even when I failed miserably, the strange and wonderful things that my mind came up with under the pressure was reason enough to try! (Honestly, 1667 words really isn't too large of a goal, once you get into the swing of it, and once you're able to block out a time for writing. My earlier failures came from a lack of planning and a too-large class-load.)

I know that you say you have problems being overly-critical in your writing, so my biggest piece of advice is to not go back and reread what you've written. I have friends who have had success starting a new document each day, then cutting and pasting all 30 files into one giant document at the end, so that they're not tempted into reading what crap they've previously written. And it will be just that: crap. Utter, utter drivel. But amongst the drivel will be some genius material that you may like later on, and who knows? You may even be inspired enough to edit some of that crap into a workable piece once the month is over.

Having friends interested in NaNo can also be very helpful in reaching the goal (Neofelis and I must disagree here!). There's a Facebook app that syncs with the NaNo API and will update your word count whenever you refresh it with the site. Even my non-novelling friends will egg me on toward the finish line once they know what I'm doing. If you're too embarrassed to tell people what you're up to, the NaNoWriMo community is very vibrant, and it's far too easy to find like-minded writers to keep you on track. Come October 1st, when site sign-ups are once again available, there will be more than enough inspiration and tips on the forums to help you out!

Just try it. If you don't finish, it doesn't matter; at the very least, you will have written more than you might have otherwise. NaNo is great for motivation -- so long as you don't hang out for too long on the forums, as I am want to do in lieu of actually writing!

Good luck!
posted by Maya Cecile at 3:41 PM on September 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


I did NaNoWriMo once, and succeeded. It took a lot of time, but I was also living my life with a job, husband, and two kids. My tips for not self-editing: don't look back; don't re-read. Just write. If you are tempted to backspace, don't. Just rewrite the sentence without deleting the previous sentence. Don't organize or edit. If you get five paragraphs into a section and realize you've messed up the plot, don't erase. Just start rewriting it.

I ended up writing the plot a bit differently than I had anticipated, and I didn't delete the now nonsensical stuff. I left it, figuring it might be good for something, if only word count.

Sometimes I stumbled a bit and couldn't figure out where something was going, and so if I didn't want to write that part, I'd write something like this:

John and Doug went for a walk along the river that day. [Plotline here about meeting Fred the Hunter and having a picnic lunch with him which introduces John to Herman the dog.]

That way I could know what I needed to go back and write without actually writing it.

Don't plan to make up all your writing time on the weekend. Aim for 2000 words/day.

On preview: I just looked at my advice from that last thread a year ago, and it's almost exactly the same! I'm so consistent!

What bears repeating: don't make a lot of social plans for that month, and know you will neglect some basic household things.

Also, Freedom or some other internet blocker will probably help a lot.
posted by bluedaisy at 3:45 PM on September 27, 2010 [1 favorite]


Maya reminded me of something: announce to the whole frickin' world that you are doing it. Then you will feel too ashamed not to write.
posted by bluedaisy at 3:45 PM on September 27, 2010


Nthing 'join your local Nano group and go to the meetings' Having a group of people around who are going through the same thing is very useful. At some of the better get togethers of my local group we would write for an hour, hour and a half, and then break for 15 minutes or so to talk plot and grab snacks.

You can also try switching up HOW you write. I have a hard time with distractions, so I always write my Nano long hand. It's a lot harder to fiddle with text when you have it in ink on paper. Or, you could try an Alphasmart. It's more typewriter than computer. You can only see a line or two of what you've written. Then you can export it to a document file on your computer.

The lovely, brilliant thing about Nano is that when you CAN make that internal editor shut up...when you spend paragraphs lost writing nonsense while trying to come up with what happens next.... you come up with the most amazing things. Fantastic, creative things that you can't believe came from you. And you can cut out the awful bits later.
posted by Caravantea at 3:46 PM on September 27, 2010


If you have problems with obsessive self-editing, then you absolutely have to do Nano. That's it's greatest benefit. You either learn how to get past the obsessive self-editing, or you do not complete Nano, end of story. (Heh!)

I completed Nano one year after many spent watching from the sidelines. From my experience I concluded (much to my surprise) that I hated writing fiction. HATED.

Armed with this new knowledge, and much abashed, I gave up on my novelist dreams. A month later I started looking for non-fiction-writing jobs.

I found one, and have been writing for a living ever since. It ain't much of a living financially speaking, but it's awesome AWESOME AWESOME. And I owe it all to Nano!

My suggestion is to buy the book No Plot? No Problem! it really is invaluable. You might want to order or purchase a copy now; they become increasingly hard to find as 11/1 draws near.
posted by ErikaB at 4:08 PM on September 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


I've attempted Nano twice and I succeeded the first time. How I did it was to get an old laptop that wasn't connected to the internet at all and had virtually nothing but Windows 2000 installed on it. I sat my ass down at my desk at the same time each day and just plowed through it. Some days it wasn't so bad and other days it was fairly excruciating, but I made a pact with myself that I had to do it. I doubt it ever took me more than an hour and a half to do my 1667 words.

I should also add that at the time I was working a horrible job on third shift. About two thirds of the way though November I was threatened with firing if I didn't shape up. (My crummy job performance had nothing to do with Nanowrimo.) And then a little later they moved me to first shift. The novel got derailed and I started skipping my daily writing. The Thanksgiving holiday came up and I used the extra time off from work to not just catch up, but to finish ahead of schedule.

My novel ended up being fairly crappy, but I'm still proud of it because I set myself a goal and succeeded.
posted by cropshy at 4:18 PM on September 27, 2010


I did it twice and made it both times. The thing that worked best for me to stop the compulsive need to look back and edit was to turn my monitor off. I'd set up my editor of choice, scan the last two or so paragraphs of what I'd written the day before, turn the monitor off and start typing.

The knowledge that if I stopped I might lose my entire train of thought was a horrifically effective motivator.
posted by VeritableSaintOfBrevity at 4:28 PM on September 27, 2010


I've done NaNo successfully twice now.

For me, it's really important to know where I'm going with a story in general, but not necessarily in specific. If I plot and plan too tightly ahead of time, I end up worrying the details endlessly and doing a lot more fretting about getting x and y to happen than actually writing. If I don't know this big points I need to hit, though, then things just ramble, eventually I lose steam or get frustrated, and I throw up my hands in disgust and move on to something else.

Give yourself permission to write a lousy novel. That is part of what NaNo is for: writing something and letting go of your notions that it HAS to be perfect as it leaves your fingers. You have a story you want to tell - you may decide after the fact that you want to tell it in a completely different voice, or swap out one character in favor of another, or cut entire chapters as fluff. That's ok. AFTER the fact. While you're writing, you're learning. And if part of what you're learning is "I hate this character, and I am SO cutting him from the final draft", that's ok. And maybe instead you'll decide to kill him off and it will be far more cathartic than anything you would have come up with in Perfectionland.

It's absolutely important to me to not be struggling with my writing tools - I never write in Word, for instance, because it makes me want to scream and throw my laptop through windows. I write in Scrivener, and I love it. Play around with different writing software well before November to find one which will just get the hell out of the way and let you write. Turn off highlighting of grammatical or spelling errors too, if your gadget does that - that's editing. That's for December. Do not slow yourself down with anything.

There's loads of good advice here. My final suggestion is echoed by many - do more than your minimum word count whenever you can, so you have a buffer, and write every single day. Even one paragraph. Get those words down on the page. The more you write, the more you'll have to say. Good luck!
posted by lriG rorriM at 4:45 PM on September 27, 2010 [2 favorites]


I've been doing Nanowrimo for awhile now and I'm the municipal liaison for my area. Here's what works for me and for other folks in my region:

Set your goal and stick to it. 1667 words per day will do it but I like to set my goal a little higher just in case something happens to disrupt a day.

Find a time to write and stick to it. For me, it's early morning. I get up an hour earlier than usual and, like you, I simply must avoid the Internet if I'm going to write. It seems like a lot of people prefer to write at the end of the day. If that works for you, great.

Find out if there is a local Nanowrimo group sponsoring write-ins. If so, try to attend. At first, I didn't think I would like a write-in. But once I started doing the write-ins I found there was something really special about being in a place with a whole bunch of people doing creative stuff at the same time. We had people in our region who stopped doing Nanowrimo be still came to the write-ins because they enjoyed the creative energy.

Finally, embrace the Nanowrimo idea that it's okay to write a crappy first draft. We're all writing crappy first drafts and we understand.

Oh, one more thing that I'm a little nervous about suggesting. I share my Nanowrimo novels with my wife. Most people will tell you not to share your novel with anyone who isn't doing one at the same time because your reader needs to understand what Nanowrimo is all about. This worked for me because my wife gently prompted me to keep writing to she could find out what happened next. It might not work for you.
posted by maurice at 4:47 PM on September 27, 2010


Speaketh the 10-year NaNo vet:

Laptops are awesome. Moving your ass to a less distracting location (home always has fun things to do, right?) is a good idea. Parks, coffee shops, trains, whatever. Step AWAY from the Warcraft.

Go on the boards, find the people closest to you, and go to every write-in you can.

Some people are "plotters" and some are "pantsers" (i.e. make it up out of their ass). Figure out which one you are, if you don't already know. If you are a plotter, spend October PLOTTING. Write an outline of where you want the story to go so that when you hit brain dead moments, you'll know what to write next.

If possible (assuming you don't have a super busy day and night), keep writing until you've at least hit word count for the day. Preferably keep writing until you've written enough word count for two days to cushion yourself from getting too behind, but at the very least, writing to word count every day will be maybe a couple of hours of your life every night, but still leave you time to deal with other human beings. Also, November does tend to have some vacation times in it. However, if you are the one who plans the meals and every single holiday thing for Thanksgiving for four days, WRITE AHEAD A LOT so that you can skip the busy day(s). This year you're lucky in that NaNo does not end during Thanksgiving weekend, so even if you can't write during those four days due to your family, you can have a few days of catchup.

If you don't like your word choice or whatever, LEAVE IT BE for now and keep writing. That's what National Novel Editing Month is for. You can delete it later. Also, what VeritableSaint said about monitor turnoff.
posted by jenfullmoon at 4:50 PM on September 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


3-time NaNo winner here.

If you touch-type, closing your eyes while you type can help shut down the self-editing. Unless of course one of your hands slips and suddenly tiy;re wrutubg akk tge wribg jets,

If you are the easily distractable type, practice for NaNo by using a timer on your computer to give you fifteen-minute intervals of concentrated writing time. This is just me personally, but I find that if I use one of the applications that turns off internet access or turns off certain web sites, I just end up gaming my way around it somehow, or obsessing about getting around it. If I set myself a very short easy interval -- ten, fifteen minutes -- and keep that for just writing, I can write like the wind for that interval and still be reassured that I'll be able to check e-mail soon.

If you have a main character with a desperate and difficult and emotionally resonant problem, if you are writing something you care about even if you also think it's kind of crap, you're less likely to get stuck spinning your wheels and throwing ninja pirates into the gears of the plot to make something happen.

If you write in the morning, think about what's going to happen next when you go to bed at night. If you write in the evening, think about what's going to happen next when you're at work or commuting. I find that 1667 words is a LOT to write in a single session (because I'm very distractable and work better in 15-minute intervals) so you may find it easier if you can manage to squeeze in both morning and evening sessions.

Good luck, and: the goal of NaNoWriMo is not to write a great novel in a month, it's not to write 50,000 words in a month just for the sake of writing words. It's like those high school physics projects where you have to float an egg down from a height. It's not that the egg is so important; the point is to get you to muster every possible strategy at your disposal so that you can find out what works -- and particularly, what works for YOU -- when it comes to getting words down on paper. What you find out about yourself is what you take into the rest of your writing life, and that's what's really important.
posted by Jeanne at 5:52 PM on September 27, 2010 [3 favorites]


When I successfully did it three years ago, I wrote on an AlphaSmart Dana--a little dedicated word-processing device. It let me write without any distraction--no e-mail, internet, solitaire games. But the text could be copied to the computer later. My Dana has since died, and I do miss it.
posted by not that girl at 6:24 PM on September 27, 2010


"Writing equals ass in chair." --Oliver Stone
posted by zardoz at 7:11 PM on September 27, 2010


I've done it four times. Indeed, focus on writing badly and voluminously. It's counterintuitive, but you'll get some good material that way. If you must fuss over the silly words, don't go back and edit anything. Just write it again. I've written whole scenes twice, just because I wanted to try it a different way.
posted by chrchr at 7:18 PM on September 27, 2010


I found it very helpful to write before going to work. There really wasn't anything else to do in the morning, and I couldn't trust myself to say no to an afterwork drink or show or whatever life threw at me.

If you live with people, tell them you're doing it. That way you'll have to be sitting there by the time they get up or you'll have to lie, and no one likes a liar.

I did it, but it totally sucked the first time because I didn't have something plotted out. You might want to gather some ideas this October.
posted by OrangeDrink at 10:44 PM on September 27, 2010


I've won every year since 2004. I'm an obsessive editor, but when I edit things they always get longer, so I rarely have to stop myself from editing in NaNo. I like to highlight the bothersome passages for later nonetheless. Never, ever delete anything (though I do fix spelling typos,) and write something every single day. I always have big production days - my football team always beats Michigan during NaNo crunch time, and that's usually a 6k day. I always have a day where I write six words and hate myself. Let yourself fail at motivation gimmicks - some years I need candy, some years I need permission to geek out with a Stargate marathon, some years I just need to do it and stop thinking about NaNo till tomorrow. I never know till the challenge starts. I also never know whether a year will be crazy hard or not till I'm in the trenches. I've hit 50k on the 12th and on the 30th. Don't make huge assumptions about yourself or the challenge based on first-year performance.

My biggest challenge, however, is actually finishing the story. If you look at my stats, I do 50k in about 13 days on average, but I have yet to finish a story (I have six incomplete 50k manuscripts.) This year I have a full-time job and am taking 10 credit hours, but I have high hopes of actually reaching "the end."
posted by SMPA at 3:44 AM on September 28, 2010


A few thoughts, having finished last year -- the first long writing project I ever finished, BTW:

If you think you're a pantser, try just a smidge of plotting. I always thought of myself as someone who "discovered the story," but when I tried having the story laid out ahead of time, it was INSANELY helpful, I actually finished the story, because I knew where I needed to go next. (I like the Snowflake Method, at least through Step 4. YMMV.)

Rack up extra words whenever you can. I had one day where for a bunch of reasons (not all of them great, honestly) I wrote for a solid day. That helped a lot in dealing with a crazy busy streak in my life.

Don't look back, just keep writing. I kept telling myself that I was planning to write a cheesy book, so I wouldn't agonize over it.

Scrivener is pretty awesome: the "distraction-free" writing environment, the card-based story organizer thing, and a space to keep notes & inspirational bits. (I had some pictures that were either about the story or that resembled my characters.)

One cool trick I got out of the No Plot? No Problem! book - make a list of all the things you like in novels: kinds of plots, tone of voice, particular elements, etc. Then make another list of the things you hate. When you get stuck, look at the lists. Are you doing something you hate? Then stop! Otherwise, it might be time to just toss in something you love, just to get rolling again. (Actually, I need to go find/recreate my list from last year....)

I ended up incredibly proud of myself for Finally. Finishing. Something. (I have two other half-written novels, both almost 15 years old.) And the final result wasn't horrible, either. I sent a draft to a couple of friends whose judgement I trust, and they both said it was worth revising. Which I haven't finished doing yet, but that's another story. :\
posted by epersonae at 9:46 AM on October 26, 2010


The first rule of NaNoWriMo is don’t fall behind.
The second rule of NaNoWriMo is don’t fall behind.
The third rule of NaNoWriMo...

Actually, Baty’s No Plot No Problem suggests what is probably the proper principle: skip a day if you must but do not skip two in a row. It’s not that you can’t catch up. Many people write the bulk of their stories approaching the finish line. But momentum helps keep you writing, helps silence your internal editor, and helps keeps you away from the “there’s-always-next-year” Give-Up Demon. I also think there’s value to be gained in the week-to-week transformation of your story and your approach to it, but the larger danger is that you’ll simply give up. (or doubts will mount and you will be tempted to start over, something I’ve done on more than one occasion)

While the pace helps keep your internal editor at bay, if you have as much trouble as I do with that aspect, you may need more help with this. Baty actually suggests adopting the attitude of “exuberant imperfection” in other things during this time, as both doubt and reckless confidence are catchy (you’ll find me both painting and playing piano, badly, across this month). I also try to think of the product of NNWM as a 50k first draft. That’s not very glamorous, but it helps keep my expectations in check. Baty talks about the ratio of good to bad – it might be one bit in ten – that may find their way into your final story (if you do re-write and edit someday). In Minecraft terms, you’re going through a lot of cobblestone to find that diamond. The cobblestone (dead end plot points, characters you don’t end up wanting, clunky dialogue) is a necessary part of the process, so try not to sweat it. It would not be appropriate for anyone, including you, to judge the wheat by the chaff (ore by the tailing?).

Also, I find the NaNoWriMo forums deadly to my progress, because they give me the shallow excuse of “researching” or “support-seeking” or some other worthy side activity when I'm really just chatting and procrastinating. If this is your weakness, stay away. For other distractions, it's all about delay of gratification. Don't even think about other non-essential tasks or rewards until you've met your goal for the day. Tasks get cover of "doing something useful" but during NNWM they should acquire the same status as rewards (again, if nonessential). Being busy, though, isn't a bad thing. Rather, as Baty relates (and I can confirm), too much time can be paralytic. Compressed writing time helps keep the pace up and the editor away.

We're already just a week away, but you might consider picking up a daily writing habit as of now. Write a (very) short story every day. I know the rule is that you don't build on existing writing for NNWM but that's about avoiding emotionally investment in the product (which is essential, I agree), so a one day product shouldn't have this effect if you find one of them suddenly a springboard for an extended tale. And by Nov 1 you'll be continuing your writing, rather than both adopting an entirely new habit and a new product as well.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 1:10 PM on October 26, 2010 [1 favorite]


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