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NaNoWriMo Survival Tips by Susan Nowak

November 10, 2011

When I first heard of NaNoWriMo, I laughed out loud.

Write a 50,000-word novel?! In one month?!?

Insane. To use one of my favorite British idioms, I thought someone had gone “round the twist.”

So I slipped the idea into some mental filing drawer to collect dust, and forgot about it.

Six years later, one day in early October, a friend posted on Facebook that she was
” . . . getting excited for NaNoWriMo.”

Hm, I thought. That sounds familiar. I found the website and reacquainted myself with the program. Within a day, I’d signed up — and begun to panic.

Because signing up is easy. But that’s where the easy ends.

A responsible first-time WriMo, I got a copy of Chris Baty’s No Plot? No Problem! (NPNP from now on) and geared up for a crazy month.

November 1 came. I opened up a new, clean Word document, poised my hands over the keyboard . . .

And, 6,000 words later, finally closed the darn thing and went to bed.

Yikes! I thought. Where did all that come from?!

As I entered my word count into the progress bar on my NaNo profile, excited to see the tremendous progress of Day 1, I knew that every day wouldn’t be nearly so productive. And indeed, though I wrote every spare moment of every day, none of the subsequent days came close.

But for someone who thrived on rhetorical analysis and had never imagined herself capable of writing fiction, Day 1 was like being let out of a cage. With my inner editor duly jailed “elsewhere” (see NPNP, chapter 5) and permission to write without any reality restraints or quality-control worries, for all I knew I was Steinbeck writing the next great American novel, or Kerouac turning literary culture (and society in general) on its head, or Rowling penning the work that would turn millions of children into avid readers.

Hey, it was my fantasy. And for 30 days, for all I knew it was true.

Each day I learned something new, about writing or about myself. On Day 1 I found out that I really did have the ability to make something up. By Day 5, I was beginning to understand that I wasn’t so much making it up as letting the characters speak for themselves—and they were quite chatty! By Week 2, by far the hardest week, it became clear that when I had nothing to say, the only thing I could do was keep writing. Writer’s block isn’t an option during NaNoWriMo.

Because here’s the thing: Your first draft, regardless of how hard you work, sucks. Period. (See NPNP, chapter 1.) And that’s okay. Your job, during the month of November, is to write. Not to edit, rewrite, pass judgment, or agonize. Let your characters speak (or make them), and let the story lead. Some of my favorite moments were when I learned something about a character or the plot that I had absolutely not anticipated, and then realized that it was right. Writing is fluid, dynamic, and ever changing; and a story, once you pick it up, has a mind of its own.

I sometimes feel that certain stories had to be. That they always existed somewhere in the misty, nebulous reaches of the atmosphere, just waiting to be written. This concept eased the writing process for me: if I saw myself as the conduit rather than the source, I could let the story tell itself. And that was freedom—and the key to getting through Week 2, when enthusiasm had waned, the story had gotten complicated, and I had started to forget minor characters’ names.

After Week 2, I was literally home free. The story just happened. All told, I finished my first NaNo novel in a hair-raising 17 days. And let me tell you, it was a mess. But it was my mess, and it was beautiful. Typing the words “THE END,” though cheesy, was a thrill. This 173-page document was a complete manuscript, and it was all mine. If you’ve dreamed of being a writer since young childhood, nothing can compare to that feeling.

My tips for surviving NaNoWriMo, and especially Week 2:

  • Be willing to change direction if the story wants to.
  • Believe that your story is worth being told, and that you are the best one to tell it.
  • Keep your plot a secret. Letting it out can burst the illusion of brilliance so important to finishing.
  • Never stop writing!
  • Above all, have fun. And eat plenty of chocolate.

Happy noveling!

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 11, 2011 7:13 am

    im amazed ! this is so great. im in nano, my 3rd restart and i love the help i got from you to get back in the writing ego. thank you ! xoxo ❤

  2. Janey permalink
    November 11, 2011 10:53 pm

    Thanks for these words – that is exactly as I found it in my first two years.
    It’s a shame the urge to edit does not arrive with as great enthusiasm. (And also that Christmas is so close to the end of November.)

    JaneyinNS (NaNo name)

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