October 26, 2021
By Maggie Smith
Before 2020, I’d always scoffed at folks who diligently signed up every November to pound out a new novel. I mean, I was a writer. It wasn’t a hard job, not like piloting a plane or curing cancer. All it required was putting my butt in the chair, turning on my laptop, and letting the words spew out, right? I could do it any old month I wanted. Who needed all those writing sprints, those claps on the back, those BADGES?
But I had to face the truth. I was procrastinating. I had barely written anything on my second novel for months. I needed an intervention.
And there was NaNoWriMo with its arms spread wide, welcoming me in. So I signed up last year, like the good little student I’d been since first grade when I learned that if I did my homework Mrs. Ledbetter would smile and paste a star on my paper. I immediately began researching how to “win” the competition.
Wait, EVERYONE can win?
What kind of game is this anyway? And then I got it. I was playing against myself—against my tendency to fritter away hours on Canva and my love of interacting with fellow writers on Facebook. To win NaNo, all you have to do is write 50,000 new words on your manuscript in 30 days. It’s a stretch goal but it’s doable.
So if you’re making no progress on your WIP and want to sign up for this thing called NaNo, what’s my advice?
- Read blog posts about preparation. There’s a bunch of entries online (Google Search returned 39 million entries). Take what makes sense to you and reject the rest. My favorite nugget is to spend 15% of your time on your opening, 15% on the climax, and 70% on the muddy middle that we all avoid. That way, you don’t spend all your time perfecting the first 100 pages but instead produce a semblance of a complete (even if it’s shitty) first draft.
- Organize your writing area. Toss out odd notes that made no sense, tuck away notepads from craft classes, file pending query letters. Throw away half-empty water bottles, packages of stale crackers, and wizened apples that have taken up permanent residence in a corner of your workspace. Adjust your writing chair to its most comfortable position and consider buying an external keyboard for your laptop to avoid pesky carpal tunnel issues.
- Embrace a couple of rituals. I begin NaNo writing days by lighting a scented candle. Then I choose a background sound for the day—Wind Focus for faster-paced scenes or Japanese Garden for more pensive chapters (https://mynoise.net/noiseMachines.php). Finally, I pull up the timer app on my phone and work in hour-long sprints, then stretch and take a short break.
- Find a community. There is no end to the writing buddies you can find through the central NaNo site or through your Facebook communities. Since I know socializing can sometimes be my way to avoid the aforementioned butt in chair, I limit myself to one group and even then, watch that I don’t spend too much time in Zoom sessions, commiserating over missed goals and spouses who don’t understand.
- Print out two rules and paste them to the lid of your computer so you see them every morning before you start. No revising, only forward movement and...Nobody will see this draft but you.
If there’s time (or you’re anal), outline your novel and print a summary of each chapter onto note cards. That way, at the beginning of each writing session, you’ll know what you’re writing that day. Not that you can’t add details, or switch things around, but remembering the rule of only moving forward, don’t go back and change what occurred before, just plow on. And before leaving your desk for the day, review tomorrow’s card and let that scene percolate in your brain overnight. You might have a brilliant idea while you’re drifting off to sleep or taking a walk.
Ready to try it? Sign up at https://nanowrimo.org/
Until then, I’ll leave you with Stephen King’s remarks about first drafts: “It’s completely raw, it’s the story undressed, standing up in nothing but its socks and undershorts.” Since, like a lot of us these days, I write in my pajamas, this strikes me as pretty prescient. But then that’s Stephen King for you. That man always seems to know what he’s talking about.
Maggie Smith’s debut novel, Truth and Other Lies, will be published by Ten16Press in March 2022. She’s the host of the weekly podcast Hear Us Roar (available on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and Google) where she interviews debut women’s fiction authors about their novel and their path to publication. Her first-ever short story, The Devil You Know, appeared in the 2018 anthology False Faces and she’s also a regular monthly blogger for Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. A board member of the Chicago Writers Association, she serves as managing editor of the literary publication Write City Magazine. She makes her home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
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