Lessons from NaNoWriMo

This November, I did something a little crazy.

After a few years of placating my gently stirring curiosity with soothing murmurs of ‘that sounds interesting but I’ll try it when I have something to write about’ and ‘I’m so busy – I’ll do it when I have time to commit properly’, I buckled to internal pressure and signed myself up to NaNoWriMo.

What’s that, I hear you ask? NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. On 1st November every year, thousands of people put pen to paper (or fingers to keys) with the goal of writing 50,000 words of an original novel by 11.59pm on  30th November. That breaks down to 1667 words per day, every day for a month.

Is it a slightly bonkers endeavour? Yes. Clearly.

Was it worth it? Yes. Unequivocally.

By a miraculous concurrence of good timing, willpower and sheer hard work, I actually managed to reach 50,000 words (after a few stumbles mid-month when a holiday threw off my word count) but, as I came to discover, hitting the target wasn’t the important part. The best bit of NaNoWriMo was that I got to prove to myself that I value my creativity highly enough to put it first. I was willing to get up an hour earlier or turn down invitations to reach my daily word count. Every day in November (aforementioned holiday aside), my alarm would buzz torturously at 6am, dragging me from the depths of sleep. At the start of the month, when the temperature was still relatively comfortable, I would get up and bring my laptop and a cup of tea to sit at my dining room table, writing as the sun rose; as the days passed and the early mornings became too cold to bear, I would switch on my electric blanket and pull my laptop onto my knees, my fingers reluctantly emerging from the duvet to tap away until a second alarm warned me it was time to get ready for work.

Every time I went to update my word count and realised I’d smashed my daily targets, I got a little jolt of adrenaline, followed by a warm tingling of pure joy at the fact that I was finally chipping away at a task that at has times has felt insurmountable.

I may not have finished my novel yet but NaNoWriMo helped me confront the yawning chasm that is the blank page and take a few giant strides towards the finish line. It’s a crazy task, but there’s a difference between crazy and impossible. I may not have finished but I’ve made myself a promise that I will – and shown myself I’m capable of keeping it.

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5 key lessons from NaNoWriMo:

1.Rules can set you free
As antithetical as it may sound to the concept of creating art, I’ve finally accepted that I write better when certain parameters have been set. When faced with an endless expanse of time and a broad subject matter, I found it difficult to force myself to sit down and untangle my thoughts. NaNoWriMo gave me targets to aim for and the motivation to get on with it, and having a daily writing habit transformed my creativity, as well as my productivity. I’ve found that writing daily is addictive; while I’ve taken a week off to recharge in the wake of reaching 50,000 words, I’ve missed the way that regular writing keeps my story fresh in my mind. I’m already raring to get back to it.

2. You can always surprise yourself
I had certain ideas in my mind about the kind of writer I would be, once I developed a sustained writing habit. I thought my preferred method would be ordered, starting at the beginning of the story and finishing at the end. In fact, I quickly realised that I enjoy jumping around between scenes, one day writing the opening chapter and the next skipping almost to the end, depending on what tickled my fancy.

3. Your imaginary world shifts underneath you
Unlike many NaNoWriMo-ers, I started November with a relatively well-honed idea that I’d been working on for quite a while. However, as the month wore on, I found that the novel began to change of its own accord. I got new ideas through writing old ones, cut whole characters, even considered changing the genre of the piece. Writing with such intensity forces you to be flexible and brave. It also makes you accept the inevitability of a terrible first draft. When the onus is on hitting your word count, there’s no time for self-doubt. Editing is for December.

4. Your passion can still feel like a job
Have you ever been told you should ‘do what you love and you’ll never work a day in your life’? Well, the cliché doesn’t feel quite so inspiring when it’s 6am and you’re trying to bash out 1000 words of vaguely intelligible fiction before you’ve even put on any clean underwear – which, by the way, you don’t actually have because you’ve been too busy writing to remember to wash your clothes.

5. Community is key
I’ve never really got on with the phrase ‘find your tribe’ but I couldn’t have got through NaNoWriMo without the support of an amazing community of writers. NaNoWriMo is run by a non-profit, with a website that allows you to track your progress via word count updates and time scale predictions, shows you other writers in your area and even sends you regular messages of encouragement. What’s more, the NaNoWriMo Twitter account hosted daily advice sessions which provided me with much-needed pick-me-ups and enabled virtual introductions to other writers who understood why I couldn’t stop thinking about the contents of my next chapter. Another brilliant resource was the Journeyman Writer podcast, run by StoryWonk, which offers 10 minute snippets of creative advice, from practical plotting tips to musings on the craft, bolstered by plenty of Tolkein quotes (if you haven’t heard any StoryWonk podcasts before, I highly recommend them). Finally, I am lucky enough to belong to an amazing collective of women writers, Write Like a Grrrl (their creative writing courses changed my life), who are always there to cheerlead as you limp passed the finish line.

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