There’s plenty that’s already been written about the business of writing a 50,000 word novel in the thirty days of November – an annual act of insanity for the last ten years known as ‘National Novel Writing Month’, or just NaNoWriMo (the pedant in me – and it’s a considerable percentage of my personality, sadly – really wishes that could be changed to ‘International Novel Writing Month’ or even just ‘Novel Writing Month’; do we have to point out to America yet again that there are other countries in the world?). If you’ve previously completed or attempted this feat, or gone no further even than just registering at www.nanowrimo.org, you will no doubt have received plenty of emailed advice and be fully familiar with such constructs as ‘the Inner Editor’, that pesky critic inside you that deplores every last word you’ve written and stops you from getting any more than a few pages into any novel-length writing attempt. The Inner Editor is bad and must be silenced. If, on the other hand, you’re completely new to the process, have a nose around on the website for this advice: it’s definitely worth reading.
What leads me to think I have any sort of right to add to this accumulated wisdom? Only that I’ve produced a novel out of NaNoWriMo six times now. In 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2011 I completed my 50,000 words with a few extra to spare by 30 November, whilst last year I fell 10,000 words short but had the book finished by January. Without a doubt, NaNoWriMo has become part of my Autumn routine now and not doing it would feel like not doing Christmas in December. I adore NaNoWriMo.
Over the years, I’ve come to certain conclusions about what things seem to work for me personally during November. They might not work for you. Here, in no particular order, are a few of them.
Write using a pseudonym
Writing anonymously is a liberating experience. A significant part of the inner editor’s sting is that nagging thought, “What will people who know me think about me writing this?” Adopting a pseudonym isn’t cart blanche to go into unnecessary graphic detail on that sex scene you’ve always secretly wanted to write – and it certainly shouldn’t be viewed as absolving you of all social responsibility for your text – but it might just be the thing that enables you to write something punchy and powerful rather than something safe and bland. Be bold. Be outrageous, if necessary. Don’t let worrying about how others see you paralyse your creativity.
Occasionally talk about your novel to someone
Actively talking about your plot to someone will bring it to life in a way that’s much harder to achieve if it remains only in your head. Find a friend and throw the topic into conversation over a beer or a coffee. You’ll be amazed at the new ideas that come to you from simply speaking aloud your ideas. What’s more, your friend doesn’t have to say a single word in reply; even if their eyes glaze over in boredom, even if they slip into a coma right in front of you, you’ll still find the act of talking it through helpful. If you’re writing anonymously, incidentally, the friend doesn’t necessarily need to know that you’re actually writing this story; you could introduce the plot as a hypothetical tale or perhaps the premise of something you read by someone else.
Connect to a NaNoWriMo community (but not too frequently)
Writing a novel is ultimately a solitary experience, even if you’re surrounded by people; if friends and family aren’t constantly having to repeat what they just said to you because your head’s immersed in the issue of what sort of one-liner your protagonist might use after beating up a bad guy then, quite frankly, you’re not doing it right. That said, knowing that others are going through the same sort of authorial highs and lows as you are can be immensely helpful to your mental wellbeing. Connecting to a group – as I do in Second Life® – should prevent you from sliding too far into the solipsistic delusion that your novel is the only reality and you and others around you are actually fictional characters. Talking with other novellers, however, should be done only in small measures. Spend too much time around them and you’ll start getting distracted by such non-important detail as how in God’s name they’ve managed that high a word count in so short a time.
Give yourself permission to write without knowing where your plot is going
The likelihood is you’re one of the millions upon millions of people who, as a child, were taught that stories have to be planned out in advance before you actually start writing them. They do not. Not only do they not, but plenty of bestselling novels have been written by writers who readily admit to pretty much making things up as they go along. There’s nothing wrong in having an idea in your head on how things are going to turn out in advance of day one, but if you find that the text starts taking you in a new direction, just go with it. In all my NaNoWriMos, I very rarely have any sort of a plan in mind before I start writing and only once have I had to delete a whole chunk of text because I decided this wasn’t the book I wanted to write (last year, as it happens; also one of the main reasons I was 10,000 words short by the end of the month). Remember: you can always edit once the month is up.
Track your progress using a spreadsheet
Time might be money during the other eleven months of the year, but for the thirty days of a novelling November, wasted minutes equals not generated word count. An inevitable consequence of this quantitative contest is the maths required each day in order to know whether or not you’re on target for the big 50k. If, like me, word count is something you check up on on a paragraph-by-paragraph basis, that adds up to a lot of time spent doing calculations which could be better spent doing writing or thinking about writing or any number of task-avoidance activities you’ve talked yourself into believing are in some way ‘for the good of the novel’. Save that time by using a NaNoWriMo spreadsheet. I constructed one myself several years ago (a task-avoidance activity that was for the good of my novel) and you can download it from http://huckleberryhax.blogspot.co.uk/2009/10/free-nanowrimo-progess-spreadsheet.html. Enter your word count into the current day’s cell and the spreadsheet will not only tell you how many words you’ve written that day, but also whether you’re in credit or debit for the overall project. It will even draw you a pretty graph. A hunt around the web will find you other, similar tools, but just think what better procrastination purposes you could put that time to.