Okay, now that I’m done navel-gazing, how about some things I’ve found helpful and not-so-helpful during NaNos of the past for those of you who are gearing up to participate for the first time?
Before November 1st:
- Set time aside every day to write. Budget it now. Take a look at your calendar for November and figure out where you’re putting your NaNo time. You might have some days where you’re so full that you don’t think you have time to write. In that case, budget a little more into other days that have more free time, but also look for places where you might be able to snatch ten or fifteen minutes to keep your momentum going on the days that are packed. Can you write during your commute? While you’re waiting for class to begin? Can you spare a few minutes of your lunch break? Get up fifteen minutes earlier?
- Set goals. 50,000 words in 30 days averages out to a minimum of 1667 words a day. But if there are days where you just don’t make that goal, understand that you can make that up on other days. Is it better to think about it in terms of weekly goals? 50,000 divided by four weeks gives you 12,500 words/week. Again, take another look at your calendar and see what’s realistic for you. Maybe you want to be halfway done by November 12th so you can feel a bit of breathing room. That’s 2083 words/day for the first 12 days, but that means the last 18 days, your daily goal drops to 1389.
- Do some story prep. You don’t have to know every little thing that happens, or the nuances of every character. Hell, with less than two days to go, there’s not a lot of time left for worldbuilding. But there’s still time to think about the arc of your story and get acquainted with your characters.
- Stock up on what you need. If you’re doing any of your NaNo longhand, do you have something to write in yet? What about pens? For me, the pen is more important than the paper I’m writing on. I’ve tried writing in nice looking journals and found myself feeling guilty at marring the aesthetic quality when I scratch out words. So, regular cheap college-lined notebooks work for me, but the pen had better a pleasure to hold.
- Set your playlists now. If you need music playing while you write, weed through your music folders before November 1st. Otherwise you’re going to spend time that you could be writing trying to find the perfect songs for your project, and then spend time getting those songs in the right order, and then oh, I totally forgot I had this song and then before you know it, where’d that hour go? Yeah. Playlists now, so you’re not procrastinating later.
- Get your writing space ready. Go to the place you plan to do the majority of your writing (provided you’re not doing all of it in coffee shops, that is.) Look at your desktop/kitchen table/blanket fort. Is something nearby going to distract you? Are you going to sit down on November 1st and say “I really should sort through this pile of junk mail?” Get rid of it now.
November 1st and onward
- Sit down and write. I know. No shit, right? But it’s way too easy, if you’re inclined towards procrastination, to say “I don’t really have to write today. I have 29 more days! I’ll just write an extra 57 words a day, and I’ll be set.”
- That said, it’s okay to take breaks. If you read the NaNo forums (oh god stay away from the forums, you cat vacuumers) you’ll see people talking about marathon writing sessions, where they sat at their computers for six straight hours and churned out a third of their word count. You don’t have to do that. Sometimes you’re going to find yourself staring at the screen. Sometimes you’re going to feel your mind wandering. If you can’t pull your concentration back to writing, take five minutes and do something else. Go say hello to your significant other or your kids. Get up, stretch, sort through five minutes’ worth of that junk mail, tweet about how your writing’s coming along. But once those five minutes are up, sit your ass back down and go back to writing.
- Don’t give up if you fall behind. It happens. Keep writing. Even if you fall so far behind you don’t think you’ll hit 50,000 by the 31st, keep writing. So you’ve missed a few days, through life intervening or succumbing to cat-vacuuming. Don’t beat yourself up over it. Suck it up, acknowledge that you’ve fallen behind, then pick up your pen or open up your gdoc and press the hell on.
- Check in with other writers. NaNo doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Ask other people how their writing’s going. Tell them about your own. Commiserate together. Applaud one another. Be willing to be on both the giving and receiving end of pep talks. Be ready to kick someone else in the ass should they need it, and if you think you need a kick of your own, ask for it.
- Get rid of distractions. If you find yourself tabbing out to do things that aren’t writing during your writing time, unplug the gorram internet. This doesn’t mean checking thesaurus.com for help finding a different word, or googling the date of a battle for research. But if you’re tabbing out to twitter or youtube or icanhascheezburger or your RSS reader, you’re not writing. Stop it. Same thing if the TV’s on and you’re paying more attention to Castle than your screen. Shut it off, or, if someone else is watching, move to another room. Set your Gtalk/IM/MSN/<insert messenger here> status to “Do Not Disturb: Writing.”
- Reward yourself. You’ve hit your word count goals for five days running? Buy yourself a song on iTunes. Make it to the halfway point? Victory ice cream sundae! But remember to keep those goals (and therefore their rewards) attainable.
It Burns Us, Precious: “Padding Techniques” and Other Things That Hurt More Than Help. I’ll go into the reason that padding techniques drive me batshit afterwards, but let’s see if you can suss it out as you read the list.
- SO MANY ADJECTIVES OMG. Description is good, don’t get me wrong. But some NaNo-ers live by the creed “the more adjectives and adverbs, the better.” If a noun or a verb goes without a modifier, they’ll tack one on. Or two, or three. And throw in a prepositional phrase while they’re at it. Reading back a bit and looking for places you can add useful description, that’s fine. But if you find yourself describing the exact shade of yellow just to stretch your word count, it’s pretty ridiculous.
- “When in doubt, dream sequence!” Yes, some dream sequences are useful. They advance the plot or aid character development. If that’s what your dream sequence does, that’s fine. But if you’re having Bob dream about purple sparkly dinosaurs and it’s not in any way connected to your plot, don’t do it.
- Micromanaging your characters. Does anything important happen between the time Bob wakes up at 8:00 AM and when he gets the call at 2PM that there’s been a murder? No? Then why are you telling me about the color of his cereal bowl and the expiration date on the milk?
- Backstory that goes nowhere. Again, if it matters to the plot or to the character, hell, if you’re not sure if it matters, but it might, then yes, by all means, backstory away! But if you’re writing about Bob’s third grade teacher just to add another thousand words, I probably want to smite you.
There are so very many more. There’s a whole thread dedicated to “Cheats” in the Reaching 50,000! forum. It’s six pages long, and it’s only going to get longer as November progresses. They make me grit my teeth for two reasons: first, it’s exactly what it says it is: cheating. Now, honestly, the only thing you get for winning NaNo is the pride that you, y’know, won NaNo. So no, it doesn’t hurt my story if someone else does it. But I know that if I employed those cheats, I’d feel pretty hollow about the “victory” in the end.
Secondly, once November’s over and I got back and re-read what I’ve done, all that padding will get edited right the fuck out. Not only that, but while I’m hacking them out of my work-in-progress, all I’ll be thinking is “God, this sucks so much. I’m such a shitty writer. UGH.”
Okay, yes, I do that to myself by default, but let me tell you this: now and then, I open the file with my 2003 NaNo — a story whose original premise I was really excited about (remember the angel story, Hill?) — and it’s so full of extra bullshit that I just close it again, disappointed. I wasn’t intentionally padding, no, but I got so mired in backstory for the sake of word count (I kid you not, it was actually backstory-within-backstory-within-backstory), that if I ever do decide to go back to it, I’m going to have to scrap nearly the whole thing.
It was probably around 20,000 words. Not quite halfway, but the actual plot got lost somewhere around the 10,000 mark. The second half is useless.
NaNoing means silencing your inner editor. You’re not supposed to agonize over every word because it can slow you down, make you second-guess yourself. That’s for the other eleven months of the year. I can agree with that. NaNo is for letting your ideas flow and damn the consequences. Only, I’d argue that you have to let your inner editor see a few glimpses of sunlight, here and there. Sure, the stated goal is to write a 50,000 word novel in a month. What I want to do is get 50,000 words into a novel that I’ll want to finish come December.
(This post, by the way, is 1667 words on the nose.)