October 26, 2015

Talking Shop: Taking on National Novel Writing Month

I participated in NationalNovel Writing Month for the first time in 2006, and I really never expected to finish. At the time I was just out of college, working part-time at Starbucks, and had just discovered a love of tabletop roleplaying.

I don’t recall exactly what motivated me to finally undertake the challenge of writing 50,000 words in 30 days. I’d heard of NaNoWriMo before and even been encouraged by friends to try it out, but I’d never had the inspiration—i.e., courage—to give it a try.

In 2006, I actually started NaNo five days late. I began my first novel, The Pact, a supernatural fantasy western, a week into National Novel Writing Month, and I was fairly sure I wouldn’t be able to make up the lost writing time. In order to finish a 50k-word novel in 30 days, you have to write 1667 words per day...and sometimes, under pressure, that’s an incredible undertaking. I know NaNo buddies who commit to writing double that. There are days I can’t even make half.

But there’s an element of National Novel Writing Month I didn’t take into consideration: the community. When you sign up on the NaNoWriMo website, you can use the website tools to merely track your progress and make those 1667 words per day, validate your work at the end and receive the achievement badge and winner’s token and widgets...but you can also check out your local and regional groups and fellow writers. Regional groups and writer’s boards on the site provide places to challenge yourself or participate in “writing sprints” – time trials to see how many words you can write in a given amount of time.

You can also find local meet-ups called “Write-ins”. Gatherings of other NaNo writers staking out space at libraries, coffee houses, cafes—writers in my region even sometimes meet at Disneyland!

I host write-ins every week at a Coffee Klatch in my neighborhood. We meet for four hours, set up our laptops, chat, compare notes, run writing sprints, and generally talk shop. It’s been one of the most helpful ways to keep up with the daily word counts and catch up to any missed words in the past week.

It’s also a great way to connect with other writers and learn more about the craft. The NaNoWriMo community provides the priceless benefit of bringing together writers and organizing writing groups. If you’ve read some of my previous posts on Talking Shop, you’ll know how much I recommend participation in writer’s groups and collaboration with others in the craft.

Ultimately, though, for any writer at any level, the challenge of National Novel Writing Month is a very valuable experience. It requires a daily commitment to write, a habit all serious writers recommend. It provides an easy-to-understand breakdown and schedule, if that’s the kind of thing that aids you as a writer. Or, you can write at top speed like a manic typewriting gopher and finish as fast as your little fingers can take you, if that’s the kind of thing that works for you.

I’ve done NaNoWriMo for almost ten years now, and I’ve taken both paths to the finish line. The fastest I’ve ever finished is by November 14th; just a little less than halfway through the month. Last year, though, I barely made it in by the buzzer. My final days were spent throwing myself in at full-tilt, grinding away at word sprints until the last minute.

The best thing about NaNoWriMo, though, is learning how to finish. Until my first National Novel Writing Month I’d only ever finished one story, and it took me seven years to do it. Since my first NaNoWriMo, I’ve managed to finish at least the bulk of one new story per year. That’s not including editing and polishing, of course, and it takes a lot more than one month to bring one of my books to its full potential. But everything requires a first draft, and every November gives me the opportunity and incentive to put together a new first draft, a new fledgling story out and on paper. Sometimes I don’t go back to a NaNo story for years, but when I do, I find myself with a solid foundation ready to be worked into something great.

My second published novel, Goblin Fires, was a NaNoWriMo project. My first seven years of NaNo yielded a whole series, which is next on my docket for submission. Whether or not you cross the finish line, the experience of writing for thirty straight days gives results. It hones your writing habits and strengthens your skill. It exposes you to new networks in your craft and offers you new perspectives.

If you’re serious about writing, it’s a great experience. If you write as a hobby or just for fun, it’s still a great experience. You don’t have to cross the finish line to succeed. You simply have to throw in, get involved, and recognize what you are getting out of it.

If you’ve never done it before, this is the year to start. If you’re a seasoned veteran, it’s time to stock up on coffee, ready your pencils and keyboards, strap yourself in and be ready for the ride.

National Novel Writing Month begins in less than a week. I hope I’ll see you there!

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