If you peek behind the writer’s curtain on November 1st, you’ll see novelists and novelist-wannabes around the world plopping down in front of their writing devices to begin the tortuous task of writing a 50,000-world novel in thirty days. This amounts to 1,667 words per day, or approximately seven double-spaced pages.
Why do they do this?
Because of the challenge.
Because they are writers.
Because it’s National Novel Writing Month. Otherwise known as NaNoWriMo.
I have participated in this excruciating yet exhilarating task four times. I have “won” three times. To “win” means that I wrote at least 50,000 words and emailed it to NaNoWriMo headquarters before the stroke of midnight, and received in return a nifty graphic that flashed “YOU’RE A WINNER!” in bold letters on my computer screen.
For that, I sacrificed good posture, balanced meals, social activity, sleep, and any semblance of life beyond the day job and the writing of my novel.
Let’s be honest. What I ended up with was less of a novel and more of a work in progress.
To be revised.
Or stashed away in a cardboard box in storage.
So, as a seasoned NaNoWriMo finalist, I offer ten tips that I learned from my experience, in case you’re thinking of taking the plunge.
1. The inner editor must go. Send the persnickety one on a vacation. If he (mine is definitely a “he”) refuses to leave, then write before he wakes up. Write quickly, so he can’t keep up if he’s leaning over your shoulder emitting noxious fumes. Do not pay attention if he leaps out of the closet and yells, “plot flaw!,” or whispers in your ear when you’re sleeping. Just lock him up again.
2. Ask family members to provide treats to keep you fueled. My mother sent a weekly care package of power bars, dried fruit, and trail mix in an old Jif Peanut Butter jar. The jar held a place of honor next to my laptop.
3. Every word counts. If you misspell a word, do not backspace to correct it. If you write garbage, do not delete it. If you can’t think of the right word to use, type a stream of words, and if none of them work, type FILL IN LATER which is three more words to add to your daily quota. If you write a scene and think of a better way to write it, write it again immediately. You can quickly italicize the weak scene so you know to cut it later. Trust me…if you backspace, your novel will flatline. Keep the heart beating in the piece and power on.
4. Everything you encounter, dream, overhear, or recall during the month of November is fodder for your story. The overweight man stepping out of an SUV will appear in the novel. You’ll notice the details: red sports cap, lumbering gate. The waitress with an attitude who serves you tuna salad for lunch will be your villain. You’ll wonder what drives people to behave that way. You’ll develop a novelist’s eye, a novelist’s mindset. You’ll gobble up the details and turn them into a waking dream. It’s like making bean muck—opening the pantry and taking out a can of beans, a can of corn, a can of tomatoes, a carton of broth—whatever is on hand to fill the pot. And a handful of cheese from the fridge. Sounds awful, but it all comes together in a weird way.
5. You will find yourself, somewhere around week three, veering off your plotted course. Don’t beat yourself up. Even Frank Sinatra veered. I saw him perform live…back when he was alive. He sang the classic “My Way” by Paul Anka, and at one point in the song he went his way and the orchestra went another. Ol’ Blue Eyes meandered around the stage for awhile while the orchestra played gamely on and Sinatra’s bodyguards flexed their muscles. Eventually, he found his way again. You will, too.
6. Your characters will take over. You can rein them back in, or let them take the lead. I say go with the flow. It will lead you to unexpected rewards. Remember: you can fix anything in the rewrite.
7. Ideas will come to you in the shower. You’ll turn on the faucet and ideas will pour out. My advice: don’t power down your computer until after your shower, so you can quickly capture these thoughts.
8. Sitting for hours takes a physical toll. Be sure to get up now and then to stretch, squat, or walk around the block. Otherwise, when December 1st rolls around, you’ll be permanently hunched, blinking at the sun’s glare when you step outside.
9. On the upside, all of this wordsmithing will improve your communication skills. Words will spill forth, and you’ll find yourself entertaining your coworkers, friends and family with stories, anecdotes and jokes. Milk it. You’ll be your boring self again come December. But you’ll be a novelist.
10. On the final third of this marathon writing madness you will find your writer’s voice. It’s a beautiful thing. Honor it. Treasure it. And celebrate.