Lessons Learned from a Month of Novel-Writing Insanity By Sarah White

I typed furiously, checking the word count for the hundredth time that hour, waiting to see the magic number “50,000.” Fifty thousand would mean reaching the goal I and thousands of others had set for the month of November: To write a novel of at least 50,000 words in 30 days.

National Novel Writing Month began five years ago as a way to use the power of deadlines to get writers to complete novels. Participants often are people who say they would like to write a novel “one day,” but without this pressure they would never actually do it.

I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo, as it is affectionately known, for three years and have “won” all three times. (You don’t actually win anything but the satisfaction of having set a goal and met it, but that’s pretty heady.) This year I crossed the line at 12:41 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 29, and finished the novel with 50,207 words. It tells the story of a Japanese woman laid off from her technology job and dumped by her boyfriend of seven years. She contemplates suicide with the help of people she meets on an Internet message board (it’s a cheerful holiday story).

Over the years, I’ve learned a lot by writing novels in a month that can help any writer who wants to meet a goal, whether it’s a novel in a month or a screenplay in a year.

1. Don’t be afraid to be bad. If you’re serious about writing 50,000 words in a month, know that they’re not all going to be gems. In fact, most of them won’t be worth sharing with your best friend. Take the end of my novel: “Everything okay?” he asked, wrapping his arms around her. “Maybe not,” she said, smiling. “But it’s as good as it gets.” It’s awful, but I wasn’t going for greatness, I was going for done. That’s what you have to do if you want to get a lot written fast. You can fix it later.

2. There’s no such thing as writer’s block. If you’re going to meet an outrageous deadline, there can be no such thing as writer’s block. You’ve got to write every day, or as close to every day as your life obligations will allow. You’ve got to write when you don’t feel like writing and when you know you’re going to write garbage. Just keep writing. You can’t get locked up. You can sift out the good stuff later.

3. You have a lot of time on your hands. Okay, this isn’t a universal truth. If you’re a single parent, have a baby, work multiple jobs, care for an aging parent or have any number of other obligations, you may not have extra time. But think about the time you spend watching television or lounging around the house not writing. I work nights and usually have about five hours a day where I’m by myself. But I need November to remind me to use that time well. If I devote just half that time to writing, I can produce a great volume of words each month. Maybe you can take an hour a night away from reality TV or barter with a friend to watch the kids and get some quiet time to write.

4. Friends and family are good. Perhaps I should say supportive friends and family are good. If your family and friends think of your writing as a hobby that doesn’t deserve your time, then ignore them. But if you have friends who bug you incessantly, wondering when your novel will be finished and when they’ll get to read it, treasure them. If you have a spouse who doesn’t complain (too much) when you say you have to write, thank him or her. We need people in our lives to be supportive of what we do. If you have that, cherish it. If you don’t, maybe you can make friends with someone else who writes so you can support each other.

5. Community is good. It’s important to have a community of writers with which to share successes and frustrations. NaNoWriMo’s message boards provide a community of creative people with a common goal who will do everything possible to help each other. It’s possible to find groups for writers in communities around the world as well as on the Internet. Type “writing groups” and your genre into your favorite search engine to find a group that can help you. It’s great to hook up with people who have been where you are, but even a group of beginners can help keep your spirits and enthusiasm up.

6. The Internet is your friend. You can find almost anything you need to know on the Internet, and that’s invaluable when you’re trying to write fast. For my novel, I needed to know a lot about Japan (the novel is set in Kyoto and Tokyo), but I didn’t know anything when I started out. I found almost everything I needed to know to write my story on the Internet. It’s hard not to get sucked into the fun of browsing and remember that you need to be writing, but if you can control yourself, the Internet is a wonderful tool for writers.

7. Keep yourself healthy. This is something you can’t always control, but it’s important when you’re writing a lot to keep your body and brain feeling good. If you can take the time to exercise, that’s great. If not, at least be sure not to convert to the all-junk food diet, and drink lots of good fluids (water, tea, milk, etc.) to keep your brain hydrated (it sounds silly, but it really helps).

8 Get into the groove. If you’re trying to write a lot quickly, music can be a great help. I love dance music to get my fingers pumping, but anything with a good rhythm that makes you happy (but won’t slow you down because you’re singing along) can be a big boost to your word count.

9. Never fear. Big writing projects can be daunting, even if you don’t have an insane deadline like NaNoWriMo provides. But you should know that if you put your mind to it and set aside the time, you can do it. Be confident in your ability to put words on paper. Something like NaNoWriMo, or even writing a novel, screenplay or book-length nonfiction work can sound insane if you think about it too much. So don’t think about it. Just write. You can do it.

10 Reward yourself. When you finish a project, whether it’s the first draft of your novel, your sale of a poem or sending a submission to an agent, you should reward yourself. Rewards are a great motivator to get to the computer and get the words down. From nice chocolate to a new outfit, or whatever makes you happy, you need to do something nice for yourself when you meet your goals. But be sure you don’t rest on your laurels. Keep writing!

Sarah White is a copy editor and page designer at a newspaper in Arkansas. She also is a freelance writer and prolific novel-in-a-month writer. Contact her at saraheg13 (at) hotmail.com.

Read all about NaNoWriMo at https://nanowrimo.org/.