Whether you’ve got a burning desire to write a novel or just want a good excuse to not do the housework, taking part in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) can help you achieve your goals. I found doing it has made me a better writer, not because my novel is any good, but because an extreme deadline and impossible goal taught me how to write. Here’s some of the things I learned.
Camp NaNoWriMo in a nutshell
Camp NaNoWriMo is “an idyllic writers’ retreat smack-dab in the middle of your crazy life”. Since 1999, novelists around the world have risen to the challenge of writing a 50,000 word novel in the 30 days of November. Camp is the summer version where you can set your own writing goal and word count – it just needs to be within the month. You get assigned to a cabin where you get to know your fellow campers. In my cabin there were eight campers and at the end two of us had ‘won’. I was one of them!
The joys of July
July has several advantages over November the main one being that there’s an extra day in the month. This reduces the daily quota from 1,667 words to 1,613 words. When every word counts, that makes a big difference. The other benefit is over six more hours of daylight. Basically, any month will do, all you need is a deadline as NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty says: “A deadline is, simply put, optimism in its most ass-kicking form.”
Setting – and adjusting – your goal
When you sign up to Camp NaNoWriMo you set your own goal. I desperately wanted to write the classic 50,000 word nano-novel in the month so this was my original goal. As I reached week 3, I knew I wouldn’t meet my goal. I had a weekend away and being more suited to the marathon than the sprint (otherwise known as a plodder) knew I couldn’t catch up. Camp NaNoWriMo lets you change your goal – the luxury! – it’s like getting a bonus pack of marshmallows to roast over the camp fire. The rule is you have to make any changes to a goal a full week before the deadline. I shaved 10% off my target and aimed for 45,000 words instead. I know that if I couldn’t change my goal I would have given up because the original goal was just too much to achieve. Phew, I was still in the game.
There’s moving the goal posts and there’s cheating
I contemplated cheating, I really did. One day I felt overwhelmed about reaching the target, so I worked out how to cheat. My idea for a novel came out of short story I’d written so I thought about copying and pasting that to boost my word count. It’s the same story isn’t it? I tested my noveling morals and am pleased to say I didn’t give in to temptation. But I must admit, thinking about cheating helped – knowing there was an escape route in case of emergency made it easier for me to forge ahead.
Don’t sweat the small stuff
The goal is to complete the novel, not get every detail right. No-one cares if the arrow is tipped with eagle feather or pigeon feathers – what’s important is that the arrow killed the baddie.* One of the great pleasures of writing at such a pace is that you just don’t have time to deal with plot or character problems – when I came across something I needed to research I just typed in capitals ‘CHECK THIS’; when I wasn’t sure how to link a couple of scenes, I just put ‘WRITE SOMETHING ELSE HERE’ and ran onto to the next bit. Chapter numbers were also a detail I was far too busy to deal with – scrolling up the document was not a good use of my time, so I just typed chapter X. After all, X is another word to add to the target.
Superficial, me? Why yes!
My writing was wonderfully superficial. There was no time to write subtext or explore deeper themes so my characters said exactly what they thought which would never happen in real life or, come to think of it, in good novels. When I go back to rewrite at my leisure I can explore what action or dialogue perfectly expresses that superficial thought and work out how to develop complex layers of motivation.
Inner critic, what inner critic?
My novel is utter tosh but I loved writing it and there wasn’t a second to waste on doubt. My inner critic was well and truly gagged, bound and stuffed in the boot of my car. I was writing my zero draft and as no-one’s ever going to read it, what’s to worry about?
Writing in motion
My bestest time for writing is first thing in the morning and I aimed to hit my word count before breakfast. On a good day I could make like Anthony Trollope and write 250 words every 15 minutes. But not every day is good, so I made use of any little opportunity in the day. Some of my best word counts were written in cars and on trains on my super portable IPad. This helped me top up my total and keep on track. I do have to apologise to my husband for my failure as a navigator – it was completely my fault we missed that turning off the motorway and got stuck in a traffic jam. Sorry honey!
Plot in advance
Many people embark on NaNoWriMo without more than an idea to guide them. Being a perfectionist type of person, I planned the novel out before. It was just a side and a half of key plot points using a basic screen writing structure starting with an inciting incident. Unfortunately, I didn’t plan my ending, but I knew I wouldn’t have to worry about that until the last couple of days.
Making a massacre of my ending
I started at chapter one and wrote all the way to the end. My ending is quite, quite dreadful, it’s inconsistent with the characters, completely lacking jeopardy and failed to tie up a few sub plots. Who cares? I can sort it out in the rewrite. When author Julia Crouch wrote her first nano-novel she had no idea what to do for her ending, so she killed all her characters. That certainly makes an ending.
Becoming a better writer
Doing Camp Nano has made me a better writer, not because my novel is any good (trust me, it’s awful), but because hothousing my writing taught me so much about my process. I now know how to hit a massive goal, manage distraction, murder my inner critic and stop sweating the details. These lessons will stay with me throughout my writing life, and if I ever need a reminder I’ll sign up for National Novel Writing Month and subject myself to the most intense and enjoyable writing experience ever.
If you want something doing ask a busy person. I’m busy, I have a full life. I wrote a novel and still worked a 10-hour day. There is no good time to write novel but there are plenty of excuses why not to write one. If you want some inspiration you have to read Chris Baty’s ‘No Plot? No Problem! – A low-stress, high-velocity guide to writing a novel in 30 days’ or check out the NaNoWriMo website. *Credit to writer and performer Rosie Garland for this anecdote, I think she was quoting someone famous, but I forgot to make a note.