I love the idea of NaNoWriMo, National Novel-Writing Month, which encourages us to write 50,000 words in the 30 days of November. That’s an impressive chunk of a book, enough heft to provide the momentum to keep going. And the rush of pushing through resistance to surf a torrent of words sounds breathtaking.
Not that I’ve ever experienced it.
In reality, I find every November a painful avalanche of fist-sized rocks bounding downhill at my already-dented writer’s self-image. By mid-month, everyone else is all, “I wrote 29,000 words!” “I’m at 38k!” “I wrote a fantasy trilogy and a prequel! But they’re in Kingon.” while I just mumble, “Uh, I rewrote my first two chapters in first-person present.” (It’s still not right.)
(I'm participating in the more popular "National Novel Writing Decade")
So while everyone else is crowing about their word count this month, I feel like that one out-of-place penguin at a convention of flying birds: They’re all urging me to soar, and telling me it’s not that hard, while I look down at my stubby flippers and think, “I might be designed for a different approach.”
It’s possible that I just don’t get NaNoWriMo, despite admiring the idea. My internal editor is a vicious thug, and the best I can currently work out with him is an uneasy truce: He gets out of the way only briefly, for parts of the first draft, and then piles on during revision.
The truth is, there are lots of ways to write a novel, and many of them don’t involve 50,000 words in one month. I’m trying to find a sustainable pace and process for writing—more of a marathon pace than a one-month sprint. That’s part of the difficulty in being a writer: You have to figure out your story, learn your craft, and also find—through trial and error—the process that works for you.
While I don’t have 50,000 words of advice (or of anything else) this month, I do have some process suggestions of things that sometimes work for me. One or two might work for you, too.
Sometimes write by hand. When I write longhand, I know it’s a draft—just playing—not something I’m typing in the document, so that frees me a little from my cranky internal editor.
Start with the raisins, before the oatmeal. Do some of the fun stuff first. For me, that’s the jokes and the dialogue. Later, I can fill in the rest of the scene.
When you’re stuck, use the “one-inch frame.” I got this advice from Anne Lamott’s wonderful book on writing, Bird by Bird. Reduce the scope of what you’re trying to do to a small thing—the transition to the next scene, the paragraph describing the setting, the dialogue where the characters are talking past each other.
Edit yesterday’s pages before going on to today’s. This advice, of course, is anathema to the hot first draft notion of NaNoWriMo, but writer M.T. Anderson advises doing it anyway. Editing is easier than writing, and starting there helps you overcome the resistance to writing by sneaking into it: You revise yesterday’s pages, and by the time you’re done doing that, your head is in the book again, constructing what’s next. It seems to work pretty well for M.T. Anderson, what with the National Book Award, and all.
Write in 40-minute sprints. When you can, it’s helpful to write in 40-minute sprints: That’s long enough to push through resistance and get something done, but not so long that it seems interminable. Then repeat.
Get away from the Internet. That’s good advice generally, but especially in 2017, where it’s easy to get wrapped around the axel of the news cycle before eight in the morning and then spend the rest of the day rotating helplessly in a useless jabbering rage. Don’t. Not if you also want to be productive. Channel that anxiety into art and activism, not an endless cycle of freak out and distraction.
There's a room in our house where the wi-fi signal doesn’t reach, and I take my laptop there to write. There are also software solutions that will keep you off the Internet for timed periods.
However you do it, find your way to write, which may not be 50,000 words in one month. And be kind and compassionate to yourself. Writing is hard for everyone I know.
Do you have a process tip to pass along? Share it with us in the comments. Write on, friends.
Dean Gloster graduated with an MFA in writing for children and young adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts in July 2017. He is a former stand-up comedian and a former law clerk at the U.S. Supreme Court. His debut YA novel DESSERT FIRST is out now from Merit Press/Simon Pulse. School Library Journal called it “a sweet, sorrowful, and simply divine debut novel that teens will be sinking their teeth into. This wonderful story…will be a hit with fans of John Green's and Jesse Andrews's .” Your word count is bigger than his.