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Why NaNoWriMo Works for Me (And Might Not for You)

The day after NaNoWriMo 2017 I saw a conversation from someone saying they haven’t been able to win since the November they were unemployed. I also saw confessions from people who gave up or from people who never started. Being a Municipal Liaison, it’s easy to forget that NaNoWriMo isn’t for everyone, that—in fact—writing 50,000 words in a month with everyone watching might be unhealthy for some people.

So before you sign up for NaNoWriMo 2018, consider these ways in which NaNoWriMo works for me, but may not work for you.

I’m a Plantser

Plantsing is the combination of planning and “pantsing” (writing by the seat of your pants). While I normally write with a planned structure and outline, I’m flexible enough in my plans to let inspiration take me off course.

This combo can save me if I get stuck in my outline or am having difficulty with a character or a scene. Because I have a plan, I can skip ahead and write a later scene that isn’t giving me trouble. Conversely, because I’m flexible, I can get “distracted” by an interesting minor character, or wind up inventing a new subplot because of something I discovered about the characters. Since I have flexibility, I don’t feel restrained by my outline, and since I have a plan, I’m not a slave to the muse. I can write forward by either following my plan or by following my inspiration. The ability to shift back and forth between those writing methodologies helps keep me writing throughout the month.

I Hate Writing First Drafts

I really hate writing first drafts. There’s a reason I’m an editor, and it’s because I like improving content that’s already written. Revising makes sense to me because it’s like untangling a ball of yarn. But writing a first draft is making the knot, and I’ve always liked creating order rather than chaos.

NaNoWriMo forces me to write the first draft as quickly as possible, and it forces me to keep working on the draft. While I could potentially spend November rewriting the same scene multiple times until it’s perfect, it’s difficult to hit 1,667 words a day if you’re only tweaking text. NaNoWriMo is full steam ahead on the first draft, which is a gift for me because otherwise I will relentlessly avoid writing a first draft. (Case in point: I’ve been working on the same first draft the past three NaNos because, without a deadline, I struggle with forcing myself to write it at other times of the year.)

I Can Write 1K in 30 Minutes

When I’m on my game, I can write 1,000 words in about thirty minutes. It’s a valuable skill for NaNoWriMo, to be sure. It means I can hit the pace-goal of 1,667 words in less than an hour. Since I don’t write at that pace year-round, I have to work to get myself back into that kind of writing shape (I typically start November around 700 words in thirty minutes), but once I’m into the stride of things, it’s something I can rely on to make NaNo easier. Spending less time physically writing means I’m more likely to fit writing 1,667 words into my day every day.

Healthy Competition Keeps Me Motivated

A little healthy competition keeps me writing. Most days I’m just competing with myself and the pace bar in the word count graph, but sometimes my co-ML and I pit our word counts against each other. Nothing got me writing more than when Brad was going to beat me! We kept all our battles lighthearted, which is the key to competition being a positive motivator.

I’ve had plenty of NaNos in which I knew I wouldn’t meet the 50K, so I used the month to write as much as I could without adding on the pressure of “winning,” But every time I’ve set out to win NaNoWriMo, I’m one of those writers who will kill myself to win. I find deadlines invigorating. They’re stressful and tiring, too, but pushing myself electrifies me and helps me actually finish. I thrive on that, and it’s a big reason why NaNoWriMo works for me.

 

Those are some aspects of my writing life that make NaNoWriMo a good match for me, but since all writers are different, it’s easy to see that the 30-day deadline or the suggested pace count or the feeling of falling behind could easily stress out or intimidate another writer. It’s sometimes hard to say no to NaNo, especially if it seems like all your friends are signing up, but if you know the challenge doesn’t work for you, keep this in mind: writing is hard enough without the added stress. Keep writing and keep working on a process that works for you.

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Camp NaNo: The Kinder, Gentler NaNoWriMo

April marks the first Camp NaNo of 2018. If you’ve been intimidated by National Novel Writing Month, or just had the misfortune of having a busy November, Camp NaNo is an opportunity to commit to your writing with less stress and greater control.

In addition to not being set right before holiday season, Camp NaNo allows participants to set their own goals. Writing 50,000 words in one month is a challenge even the most successful writers may skip. But the customizable goal during Camp NaNo allows you to set your own word count goal, or pledge to work on a certain number of pages or lines (welcome, poets) or even for a certain number of hours or minutes. That flexibility allows writers who are revising or who are juggling other responsibilities to also participate. It also allows you to factor in what is actually the most productive accountability for you. Does tracking words stress you out? Are you more interested in making sure you write for 30 hours over the month? Then Camp NaNo may be the NaNo for you.

Goal flexibility also means that if you are more successful when you’re ahead, you can arrange to be ahead and stay motivated. Surpassing my goal is highly motivating, so even if I think I’ll write 25K during the month, I tend to aim lower, maybe 18K, so I can feel that boost of accomplishment for hitting the initial goal early. Without the 50K pressure, I feel much more motivated to extend beyond my goal, and—if it turns out I misjudged my available time—I have a buffer to still be successful.

Camp NaNo is also a closer, more intimate environment. Instead of the massive forums and regional groups, Camp is organized around “cabins,” which are private chats with up to twelve writers. You can be assigned to a random cabin, or create a private cabin, accessible via invite. Personally, I go the private route, cultivating a cabin of positivity and productivity among like-minded friends and colleagues. We take turns asking, “Have you written yet? What are you working on?” which makes for a nice daily check-in about our writing. It’s also encouraging to see our small group combine to hit our target goals.

Because there isn’t as much outside activity around Camp NaNo as there is during NaNoWriMo—there aren’t daily tweets and blog posts about composing a novel in a month, maintaining motivation, or dealing with writing anxiety—it’s easier to forget about the event or to let check-ins slide. NaNoWriMo is a little like being in a big city, with eye-catching advertisements directing you to write, but Camp NaNo is like taking a breath in the woods and recharging creative energies. It requires a little more mindfulness to check-in daily, but it is peaceful in comparison to the chaos of November. If that sounds like the kind of thing your writing life needs, sign-ups for Camp NaNo are currently open. Camp runs in April and in July. Use your NaNoWriMo username, if you have one, or create a new account. I wish you many productive hours of writing.

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NaNoWriMo Lessons: Community

Writing is often a solitary pursuit. After all, usually you’re the only one working on your book! Even though writing is a solo venture, that doesn’t mean it has to be a lonely venture.

Last year was the tenth year I signed up for National Novel Writing Month, but the first time I really embraced the community aspects of the challenge. As an assistant to the Municipal Liaison (our region leader), I ran the majority of the social media, offering encouragement and congratulations to participants using our #NaNOrlando hashtag. I also attended more write-ins than I ever had before. By the end of the month—after going to my usual weekly write-ins, write-ins at Writer’s Atelier, leading a write-in at Universal, and joining the NaNo Orlando group for the annual Write Around the (Disney) World event—I finally felt like I was part of a local writing community.

Since quitting my job in 2014 I have struggled with loneliness. I hadn’t realized how much I depended on the social nature of working in an office. Because I needed social interaction, but also needed to write, NaNoWriMo write-ins were the perfect place for me to fulfill both needs. Just like being at work, during a write-in writers work on their own projects and then take short breaks to socialize. At an event like Write Around the (Disney) World, most of those breaks came in the form of transportation between writing locations. Last year we started in Disney Springs and then took the boat to Port Orleans Riverside. We chatted on the boat and as we walked to our destination, and then everyone sat down and got to work. Similarly we chatted on the bus and monorail when traveling to our next two stops of the day. Between each round of traveling and chatting, we got to work, writing for about an hour at each stop. I got so much writing done, and I ended the day by knowing more writers in the Orlando area.

Since then, I’ve made attending local writing events a priority, and have felt more confident branching out and going to events outside of my comfort zone. It’s gotten easier the more I’ve thought about writers as colleagues. Colleagues understand the troubles you’re going through in your work life, can offer advice, and can learn from your experiences. Having a local writing community reminded me that while I might be in a career geared to solitary work, I’m not working in solitude.

 

NaNoWriMo is a month full of writing challenges and writing lessons. I’m a better writer for having participated in NaNo because it allowed me to learn things about my writing life and process I may not have discovered without the pressure. NaNo has also helped introduce me to the rich and wonderful community of local writers, and it has helped me get more involved. This is my first year working as a Municipal Liaison with NaNoWriMo, and I’m excited to get out there to help motivate writers to write. If you’re a writer, consider signing up for the challenge, even if you don’t finish the 50,000 words, you still might learn something about yourself.

The Right Writing Group

One of my favorite things every week is going to writing group. Even though I write every day, there’s something special about meeting with other writers to write. But attending a writing group—especially a weekly one—can be a big time commitment in our busy lives. Finding the right group, a group that will be productive and help me achieve my goals, has taken some time. I first had to figure out what I wanted from a writing group, and then I needed to find a writing group that provided those things.

In my experience, writing groups tend to focus on one or more of the following:

  • offering time to write
  • networking or socializing
  • critiquing or feedback

When I first started attending writing groups, I was working a full time job (with frequent overtime) and had a calendar full of family and social obligations. I needed a writing group that would emphasize productivity over all else since often the time I spent at writing group was the only time I had to write all week.

The group I found was full of passionate, wonderful writers who participated in NaNoWriMo every year and who were seeking agents or publishers. Their attitude matched mine—aspiring to publish novels—and their experience writing query letters, self-publishing, and working local conventions formed a foundation of what it meant to be a working writer.

Over the years the group membership changed, people moved away or new writers joined the group, and the dynamic slowly shifted. If I arrived early, I could get a solid hour of work in before the meeting turned into social hour. The problem wasn’t socializing—I liked these writers!—but this was the majority of my writing time for the week, so having that time taken over by socializing was frustrating.

It took me awhile to admit it, but my writing group was no longer providing what I needed. And that’s an important thing to remember—if the group dynamic changes, it’s okay to leave.

I’m currently active with two writing groups. One group meets weekly and the other group meets monthly. Both groups are focused on productive writing tasks (which can include things like promotion, presentations, or managing author websites) and are patronized (primarily) by writers who have a goal to publish. The weekly group has the laid back style of the first writing group I joined, in which writers are encouraged to be self-directed. We poke writers who seem to be staring off into space or who appear to be off-task (we are all guilty of checking Twitter or Facebook), but we mostly chat as we get settled or when we’re packing up.

The monthly group uses twenty-minute sprints to get writers to focus, and then allows chat breaks in between sprints. I wouldn’t be happy writing like that on a weekly basis, but for a monthly group, I know to come prepared because I will be getting a lot of work done. (That monthly writing group is usually my highest word count day of the month.)

I have yet to be in a critique group outside of the MFA program, but based on my experience there, I know a critique group would have to be very special. Critique groups require a lot of dedication from all participants. The group itself needs to be big enough that if someone is sick one week, you haven’t lost the whole conversation, but small enough that you’re not piling on a ton of extra work. Also it helps if everyone is familiar with the genres being submitted for critique. While writing is writing and stories are stories, being familiar with the rules and tropes of a genre can greatly improve the confidence of the readers and the quality of the critiques.

Knowing what you want out of a writing group is the best way to find the right group. I’ve been very lucky to find such amazing writing groups, most of which I found by participating in NaNoWriMo. If you’re struggling to carve out time to write or lack motivation once you sit down, consider finding a writing group. And if you can’t find the right writing group for yourself, maybe you should just start your own.

Talking It Out

I had dinner with a writer friend last week and after gushing about the novel I’m currently developing, I asked what he’s working on. After a long awkward pause, he finally confessed that he didn’t want to talk about it until he had a first draft.

I subscribed to this methodology once upon a time, holding my ideas close to my chest and trying not to “spend” them too soon. I once talked myself out of writing a novel because after outlining it and explaining it to a friend, I grew bored with the idea and eventually shelved it. I have completely forgotten what the idea was, which is further evidence that the reason I shelved the idea wasn’t because I’d talked about it too much, but because I wasn’t actually all that interested in writing it—or, rather, that the idea wasn’t strong enough to be a novel.

I believe that’s the case for most writers who lose their ideas in talking. I worked on the novel I’m querying for roughly three years. That is a long time to spend with the same characters, in the same world, going over their problems and relationships with a fine-tooth comb. If I had been able to “talk out” this idea, to talk about it enough to essentially “ruin” it, I assure you I would have. A year and a half of that development time included monthly meetings with my thesis supervisor where we did nothing but talk about the novel for hours. I couldn’t talk out this story because I was invested in it. Because the idea had legs and it needed to be a novel. Yes, there were days when I was sick of those characters because I had been living with them for so long, and there were days when I tossed out chapters or followed the wrong path, but I never wanted to shelve this story. In all this talking, I never lost the idea.

One of the best ways for me to work through an idea is to talk about it with trusted friends. Aside from figuring out if I actually want to write the story, articulating my ideas to someone else helps me discover plot holes, character weaknesses, and other areas that need development. Even better, once I describe a story to someone, I have a cheerleader who has insight into the idea. After that conversation they don’t just ask how the novel is going, they’ll say things like, “How’s my girl Eve?” or “Did you figure out what happens on the train?” Honestly, there’s no better motivation than having people who are invested in your story.

All of this is probably the same reason I’m part of a writing group, discuss writing with my friends regularly, and wanted to be part of an MFA program. Talking about writing (and about my writing) is motivating. But that’s not the case for everyone. Are you a talker or do you keep your ideas quiet like my friend? Every method has a benefit, what do you see as the benefit for your method?