National Novel Writing Month is an odd creature. Most publishable novels are at least 70,000 words long, and it’s most common during an editing process to cut words, not add them. But for me, NaNoWriMo is a challenge which reminds me that I am a writer, even if my daily life isn’t supporting me to write. It allows me to feel accomplished, to reset my writing routine and to re-learn how to write even without inspiration or a solid plot.
For me, these are good lessons to be reminded of.
I love the community around this time of year: and this year in particular I met a wonderful online forum for writers living local to me. We had many hours each day to chat and run word sprints – where two or more writers agree to write for X minutes and compare word-counts, like a race – which are often prompted. These ideas are optional to use, but great for the moment you are stuck.
I work best with a few sprints to get warmed up – they force quick problem-solving (no time to dawdle about what colour dress a character wears when you’ve only got 30 more seconds on the clock) and quick writing, which then means I can continue that speed for a little while after: it builds momentum. And you don’t feel alone; even if you have the lowest count of all the sprinters, there will be one sprint later where you aren’t the lowest scorer; and that feels like big progress.
Also, seeing others have the same problems as you is motivating. Particularly by the end, there were three other people imagining a tiny cactus, which believed in all of us. Having fun really is the best strategy.
All Words Are Not Equal
I did one sprint where the prompt was “firework.”
But fireworks don’t exist in my fantasy universe; the technology doesn’t exist. So I wrote a scene where my falconer called for her bird, and ten birds of various hawk and falcon species swept down into the courtyard and then burst out like a firework might: from one point to many strands. And that scene meant I then had an idea for my character to set up her own aviary.
However, there is a fine line between writing anything “just to get words on the page” and writing in ways which keep the momentum in the story so you’ll be able to add more words later. So although I try to push through any blocks, I don’t just add any old idea in if I can’t make it fit with the plot or setting, as this could be a roadblock later on.
Short, Productive Bursts
For me, sprinting is my best tactic. In 2012, I took note of my average time to write and how long I’d write for before I got distracted. By now, I know what’s best for me.
In 2012, I discovered I could write 1,000 words in 40 minutes. I have completed 1,000 words in less time, but my general, reliable stint to get 1,000 words written, was around 40 minutes.
But in a 10-minute sprint, I write around 350 to 400 words. In 4 sprints, with maybe 5 minutes between each set, I would write 1,400 words across the hour; including four 5-minute breaks.
Plotting As You Go
Chuck Wendig calls this “The Bring Your Flashlight” technique.
For NaNoWriMo, with those few tweaks and complete run-out-of-steams, the plot changes often. With three POV characters, I’d write three scenes: one per character, and then plot the next 3-4 scenes. For example, in my scene where J & S argue about his leaving, I didn’t know in my plan, how the conversation end.
Once it was written, I could see that the next scene, from B’s point of view, required J to stay; I knew what would happen in B and J’s next scene: so I wrote a single sentence summary about her sending a message, and him coming to help her.
Reaching for the Sun
Rather than for “reaching the stars” in general, reach for the nearest star.
On day 26, I wrote over 5,700 words to catch up, using my spreadsheet for motivation.
My spreadsheet has one row per day, and a few separate columns:
- Today’s Words Written (Q) [Words added to PlanesDaughter]
- Total Manuscript Length (R) [Total Planes Daughter Wordcount]
- The NaNoWriMO Aim For The End of that Day (S) [Required Total Wordcount]
- The Difference Between Those Wordcounts (T) [How Far Ahead/Behind I Am From That Requirement]
Each time I felt that I ‘should’ write but don’t want to, or felt overwhelmed by how much I still had to write: I focused on whichever is the smallest difference to make to a round number.
In the case of the image above, I aimed just to write 20 words, to bring my daily word-count up to 4,100.
Equally, I could choose to write 27 words. That would bring my “left to write today” down to 1,400.
Compared to the 94 words that would take my manuscript to 42,000: it feels very do-able.
Although 94 words is much “easier” to push for than the 1,427 I technically should write today.
I wrote 81 words in the pursuit of those 20 words — often the next lines almost write themselves once you’ve started. And then my manuscript wordcount was 41,987 words: 13 words away from 42,000.
And being that close? It’s motivational.
This is how I sprint. You don’t need a muse or inspiration to write 13 words during NaNoWriMo. I can go back and add a single sentence describing the room, or the child’s hair colour to fill that in. In fact, I wrote another 1,600 words by the end of that day, and this blog post on top.