A few years ago I wrote a scathing blog about NaNoWriMo or National Novel Writing Month, for the uninitiated. Every November, the amateurs come out of the woodwork to play author while those of us who do this full time smile and pat them on their heads. Most authors simply look at this month as a raised awareness of writing fiction as art, and celebrate it as a victory for writers everywhere.
I did not look a it that way.
I raged and pointed out the common sense reasons why one cannot simply become a novelist for one month a year because one wants to. My blog was published in a college literary journal, and I pranced around like Mr. Know-It-All for months afterward. I still stand by those words, but today I realize that NaNoWriMo isn’t going anywhere. I can’t be angry at the amateurs every single year and sing them the same finger-wringing song of doom and failure each time I see that familiar hashtag. So this year, I’m going to present you newcomers to the novel writing game with five easy steps to ensure that you’ll complete this year’s challenge. Best of luck!
1. Have a game plan before you begin
I’ve said in the past, I’m not a meticulous outliner. But one of the easiest ways to fail at writing a novel is to have no idea what you’re writing to begin with. Too much outlining ruins the fun of discovery, but no direction at all will keep your book from being a cohesive page turner. Even if you finish, you’ll have a bunch of meandering exposition, not an engaging potboiler that will keep your readers up at night, turning pages, wondering what happens next.
Personally, I visualize my books in three acts. An introductory act that leads into a conflict act that leads into a climax and resolution act. I might not know exactly what happens to my characters, but I have a solid idea of who they are at the start, what their conflict is, and at least one or two paths that might lead them to some sort of change, be it death, an inner turmoil resolved, or solidarity in a belief they’d lost faith in before the book began. Know your characters’ arcs before you send them out in the maze or they’ll surely get lost, starve, and die the death of the unfinished novel.
2. Keep it simple, stupid
NaNoWriMo isn’t about starting on your nine part urban fantasy/YA/post apocalyptic series. It’s about boots to ground, one foot in front of the other, get the shit done writing, right? It’s about completing a 50,000 word novel in 30 days, right? You ain’t going to tell Princess Esmarelda’s sprawling 580 page novel in 30 days. You’re just not. Instead, thinking about writing a story about your cat gaining human-like sentience and enslaving all of the dogs in the neighborhood toward its goal of world domination. In other words, the simpler the concept, the easier the execution. Choosing a complicated concept is one sure fire way to fail at your goal and not finish your book. Think of something fun, fast, and interesting enough to keep your attention every day. You’ll be surprised how fast your word count adds up when you’re cranking out 2k in the morning or before lunch 7 days a week for month. If you can’t explain your novel’s concept in a couple of short, concise sentences, you’re destined to paint yourself into a corner and barely get through Esmarelda’s elderly aunt’s back story by the time you hit 50k.
3. Word count means everything
Speaking of word count, that’s your life-line, kid. Like long distance runners count miles and minutes to keep pace, so too will your words to hours ratio keep you motivated, on task, and pounding through pages toward all the glory and victory your bragging rights will grant you for being the only one on your Starbucks barista shift to actually have a completed 50 thousand word novel come November 30th.
You’re going to need about 1700 words a day to finish your book by the end of the month. I’m sure you’ve seen that stat all over the internet by now, but this is what it means. It means you’re going to devote about three hours a day, every single day, for thirty days in a row in order to write your novel. Does that seem like a lot of work? You’re the one wants to write a novel in a single month, bud. I already told you in my last blog on the subject that you shouldn’t even try. But here we are, two years later and you’re still hashtag: NaNoWriMo lol-ing it up all over my facebook feed. You asked for it, this the work part. Get up early, turn off your phone, have your internet tabs closed and your word document open when you get up in the morning. Have your coffee ready to go and your playlist synched up on your iPod. From 9am to noon, your ass is in the seat, and you’re typing eight or nine pages a day.
Some of you don’t have mornings free. You’re going to have to do your three hours in the afternoon or at night after work, before you go to bed. Regardless, the rules still apply. Get rid of your distractions, set yourself up for success, and plan your hours ahead of time. Do not try to write 5,000 words a day and gloat all over social media that you’ll be finished with your novel in two weeks. You won’t. You’ll fail. You’ll burn out. And you’ll lol and say you didn’t really expect to finish anyway. That’s why real writers don’t like you. This is a long distance marathon, kids. Not a sprint. You’ll gas and fall over dead long before you hit the finish line. Find your pace and stick to it. Some people can pound out 1700 words in an hour. For me it takes about three hours, give or take how easily the words are coming that day. Your word count is your anchor. Respect it. Pace yourself. Be patient. The 30th will be here before you know it.
4. Word count means nothing
It took me a lot of years to find my pace and rhythm and to figure out what kind of writing schedule works for me. As a writer new to the novel writing game, it’s going to take you years to figure it out as well. NaNoWriMo is about exploring and expanding your abilities as an author. Maybe you like to outline a bit in the morning, plan your scenes in your head in the afternoon, and do your hardcore writing late into the night. Maybe you’re a marathoner who works great under pressure. If that’s you, maybe you’ll write your novel in three hardcore binges over the weekends cranking out 10k a day in a frenzied panic. Whatever gets you the best results is how you’ll succeed as a novelist. My above advice is what I think is the easiest way for a new writer to keep from getting discouraged and quitting because their word count doesn’t match their deadline. However you write is the right way. There is no wrong way. The only way to fail at NaNoWriMo is to not write at all.
For me, I go both ways. A lot of times, I’ll get my first twenty or twenty five thousand words done at a slow, methodical pace, and then rent a hotel room and binge the last twenty in a couple of crazy days and nights. I’ve written entire books the slow way, and the marathon way. I can’t say one method works better, or produces a better quality book than the other. Every single book is different and will present its own unique challenges. As soon as you think you’ve got it all figured out and the writing game mastered, your next book will throw you for a loop, and make you question how you ever got through the other books you wrote in one piece. Writing a novel is a humbling, taxing experience every time. Adapt. Change. Be ready for anything.
5. Finish, finish, finish!
Whether you finish your novel a week early or a week late, finish the book. So many writers out there are sitting on half or three quarters finished books. That, to me, is a great tragedy. All books deserve to be written, and deserve to be read. No one can read your book, REALLY read your book unless it’s got a beginning, a middle, AND an end. Respect your book, and respect yourself as an author. Finish it. Have an ideal reader in mind. Confide in them throughout the process. Make it someone in love with your novel concept who loves to read. Get excited about your ideal reader getting to that twist midway through the book. Think of their eyes widening when you kill off the character they’ll least expect. See the anger in their eyes as they violently turn the page when they think your protagonist is making the dumbest mistake ever, only to cheer when it turns out the whole thing was an elaborate ruse, and picture the tears in their eyes when the displaced lovers are finally reunited in the end. This is why we write. We’re storytellers. We want to move people with our wild fantasies. Picture your ideal reader reading every line as you type it. That is victory. That is success. Finish your book. Let it be read.
Good luck, amateurs. Here’s to your success this November. May you fall in love with writing, and write the greatest novel of all time.