6 Lessons Every Writer Can Learn from NaNoWriMo

Every November, National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) begins—a monthlong writerly marathon where authors challenge themselves to generate a fifty-thousand-word manuscript in one month. Some are prepared. Others (like me) always seem to be taken by surprise when October ends and November is suddenly on our doorstep, smiling cheerily and announcing, “Let’s get to work!”

Not every writer participates in NaNoWriMo for a host of reasons: massive time constraints, other obligations, disorganization, or simply, they’re not interested. And that’s OK. But you don’t need to be a NaNoWriMo-er to learn some of the best lessons the event has to offer.

Because if you’re a writer, or you’re aiming to be, this challenge is a fantastic way to shake up your routine, changing and even improving how you approach your writing.

1.  Make room for a daily writing practice.

Life can come at you mercilessly. Have a full-time job? Have a family or people to look after? Have erratic hours that make it almost impossible to accommodate a daily writing practice? It doesn’t matter. What’s important is that if writing is meaningful to you, you must find time to write. Even if it means scraping out time during your lunch hour, after work, first thing in the morning (while everyone is asleep), or at the end of the day (also while everyone is asleep).

In her excellent “Here’s How I Work” blog, Nora Roberts discusses the importance of showing up and not missing deadlines. “Someone asked me once, in a Q&A, what three pieces of advice I had for other writers,” she writes. “Here they are: Stop making excuses and write. Stop whining and write. Stop f***ing around and write. I take my own advice.”

But don’t just make room in your schedule. Make room for writing in your home by creating a place where you can feel comfortable. Or create the practice of hitting up a quiet coffee shop or pub several times a week to “escape” to your writing. Whatever it is, you must make time for writing if you want writing to stay in your life. Like any relationship, it requires time, dedication, occasional fights, and most of all, being happy in the moment.

2.  A rough outline can help you through the rough spots.

Some authors approach their writing from a very structured, organized place. Whether it’s Excel spreadsheets, reams of note cards, Venn diagrams, whiteboards, or sticky notes, these authors embrace the structured “plotter” approach. But even “pantsers”—those authors who write from a more instinctive place—can benefit from at least having a rough outline. Because when you are writing up a storm, you don’t want to get stuck in a plot hole or, worse, have to go back and erase your steps. If you can maintain forward momentum for as long as possible, you can make it to your goal more efficiently. And an outline can give you that gentle nudge when you’re facing a deadline and you feel yourself growing tired or lost.

3.  Write without fear.

“Good writing is often about letting go of fear and affectation,” writes Stephen King in his must-read guidebook, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. “Affectation itself, beginning with the need to define some sort of writing as ‘good’ and other sorts as ‘bad,’ is fearful behavior. Good writing is also about making good choices when it comes to picking the tools you plan to work with.”

Whether you love King’s books or loathe them, most writers won’t deny that when it comes to craft, King has the score nailed. So many of us writerly types bring in the “tools” that can slow us down—including self-editing, doubting our work, or even writing from a disingenuous place. But one of the greatest gifts writers can give themselves is the permission to create without censure or fear.

“Write like no one will read it” proclaims a sticky note I keep over my desk. When you are writing with the intent of making a word count goal (like, say, fifty thousand words in a month), you have neither the time nor the leisure to doubt yourself or overthink. NaNoWriMo can remind us that writing can be an exercise in stream-of-thought. Without self-imposed constraints, you can let go of some of those doubts about your writing—or how it may be perceived—that prevent you from creating from as honest and open a place as you might otherwise write from.

4.  Community support can boost success.

Writing for a living can be a pretty solitary profession, and for many of us, it’s a natural fit for more introverted personalities. However, there are some significant disadvantages to going it alone. Not having a community to encourage you, give you advice, share gripes, or even help you brainstorm your way out of a plot hole is … well, it’s kind of a bummer. One of the biggest benefits of NaNoWriMo is its potential to provide social support from writers like yourself, some starting out and others bestselling published authors. It can connect you to local writers in your community, as well as invite you to engage in large writing-based forums on social media.

Writing alone is one thing. Writing alone and knowing the writing community has your back is quite another.

5.  Your goals don’t need to be everyone else’s goals.

Writers take NaNoWriMo seriously. It’s a big challenge, and the possibility of writing a book that (at least after revisions and major edits) could be published is a deliciously attractive possibility. But while it’s a feasible goal for many, it might not be your goal.

Maybe you’re on the last stretch with your book and just need another twenty thousand words to finish it off. Maybe you flunked spectacularly last year and only managed to reach a small word goal (Oh hi, me) and are aiming for something lower. What’s important is that you make a goal for yourself and keep it. It doesn’t need to be a fifty-thousand-word manuscript every month. What’s important is that you set the pace, and you decide what is best for you.

6. Thou shalt trust thyself always.

We spoke already about the importance of not writing from a place of doubt because it can slow you down, but one of the things NaNoWriMo teaches a lot of writers is not only that they need to trust in themselves to achieve this goal, but they can.

“You know your story better than anyone,” explains writer Leigh Shulman in “11 lessons NaNoWriMo Taught Me About Writing.” “You know what your characters want. You know what your book means. All the writing advice in the world will not replace decisions you make for your writing. You are the expert in your own creation.”

Once you have that sense of confidence in your project, you’ll find sitting down to write can be a much more enjoyable experience. We never realize how many factors are always at work to make us second-guess ourselves and our abilities. After all, writers don’t usually have a supportive boss leaning over and saying, “You really did an excellent job there with that plot twist.”

In fact, most of us sit and look at our writing with a hypercritical eye, recalling that frustrating moment when what we had imagined didn’t quite land as elegantly on the page. Add into that mix the frustrating and sometimes discouraging efforts of trying to pitch our book and story ideas to potential agents and editors—often receiving either silence or kind rejection—and you have almost an entire industry of dejected and sometimes miserable scribes whispering, “Did I choose the right profession?”

We write because we must. We write because it’s who we are.

But we must always trust ourselves, our abilities, and remember that while we are always learning, we are also always getting better. And the best way to make that happen is to keep writing.

“If you did not write every day, the poisons would accumulate and you would begin to die, or act crazy, or both,” writes Ray Bradbury in Zen in the Art of Writing. “You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.”     

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