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NaNoWriMo: to write or not to write?

While most people enjoy this time of year — the transition from Halloween to the festive season is an exciting one — authors everywhere suffer. Why? Because November is NaNoWriMo, otherwise known as National Novel Writing Month. Every November, writers take the plunge and challenge themselves to write a 50,000-word-novel in thirty days, which, if you’re able to write regularly, equates to around 1.6k words a day.

Let me start by being completely honest: I’ve never completed NaNo myself. Every year, I go in to plan an ambitious story, light my silly little candles, put on my silly little playlist, and write for a couple of days, maybe even a couple of weeks, before teetering off and letting the manuscript gather cobwebs. And that’s okay. What I love most about NaNo is the trying part. I love planning writing sprints with my best friend, and I love being part of the community. So, yes, NaNo is difficult, but if you’re considering giving it a go, this is your sign to participate.

Don’t get me wrong. It can be disappointing to enter into something with so much determination, only for it to ebb rather quickly. Everyone else seems to “win” by the end of the month while you’re stuck on something silly, like whether the wrong characters are kissing or what the plural of “cactus” is, and why doesn’t the word “glance” look like a word anymore? Have you used it so much that it has erased itself from the dictionary?

My biggest tip would be: don’t treat it like a competition. When you start forcing yourself to write despite not wanting to, your brain, and the manuscript, start to fight back. Is it worth it for an online certificate and bragging rights? Really, then, this article is for those who, like me, use NaNo as an opportunity to have fun with a new project and stretch those creative muscles. In short, it’s a bit of inspiration for when you’re having a block. That’s not to say that everybody uses NaNo this way. I know a lot of authors have ended up creating bestsellers from NaNo, and that’s wonderful.

But it doesn’t have to be that for you. It really, truly can just be fun.

If being harsh on yourself isn’t working, I — a failed NaNo-er, mind — have put together some tips that might help keep the inspiration flowing for NaNoWriMo:

1. Switch things up.

Usually when I write, I make sure to come up with detailed outlines and an idea of where the plot is going, so when it comes to NaNo, I like to do the opposite just so it doesn’t feel too much like my usual everyday work as a freelance and agented author. Similarly, I use NaNo to dabble in genres other than the ones I’m currently published in — I usually jump from romance to fantasy, which is a completely different experience. Novel-writing is supposed to be an adventure, and strict ideas don’t always work when you’re writing the first draft. You can always make edits after, but for now, let it be fun, new, and different.

2. Use playlists and mood boards.

My favourite thing about starting a new story is creating Pinterest mood boards and finding songs that fit my story. Last year, I worked on a historical fantasy, so I listened to a lot of spooky soundtracks such as The Haunting of Bly Manor score. If you don’t have time to create your own playlist, there are tonnes already on streaming apps like Spotify, and having the visual and audio inspiration can really help to throw you into your own story. Again, in my everyday work, I find it difficult to write with background music because I’m under deadlines and working quickly, but NaNo is my time to take a breath and enjoy the process, just as a little treat. Which leads me to…

3. Reward yourself for the little accomplishments!

You are under absolutely no obligation to join in NaNo — it’s extra work, and for most people, or me at least, an extra slog, especially at this time of year. It’s dark out by five p.m., there are so many other things to worry about, and the only reward you’ll get from completing your novel is an online certificate and a whole bunch of incoherent sentences to edit in December. So, instead of seeing it as a requirement to get in your 1.6k words each day, see it as a reward. “I get to write something fun today!” instead of “Ugh, I have to write now.” I also like to reward myself with something each day I write: a yummy snack, a cheeky purchase, a rest afterwards. Even when I sit down to write, I try to make the environment cosy and welcoming for myself and my characters. I usually write in bed as opposed to at a desk or, my usual office, the sofa, and always light my favourite autumnal candle for the vibes. While we love writing, it isn’t always fun — so find a way to make it so this time around. You deserve it!

4. Find some pals.

While I reached 17k words last year before bowing out of NaNo, the year before, I only wrote around 700 before giving up. A huge part of this improvement was having my best friend to sprint with. We’d set a time each day to do a ten- to twenty-minute writing sprint, or thirty at most, and see how many words we could get out in that time. Afterwards, we’d share our results and, if we still fancied it, would go again. If not, we had still written for half an hour that day, and that’s certainly better than nothing. Having somebody to lean on and talk to while writing always makes the process a lot more fun, so get yourself on the website forums or join in the sprints on Twitter — you’ll find so many authors and sprint hosts there to write and chat with.

5. Recognise when to take a break.

Again, you’re not obligated to do NaNo! This is an extra task for your already busy life! So if you’re exhausted, not feeling it, or blocked, don’t think too much about the words you’re missing out on or the daily count goal. You can catch up with the count — or not, and that’s fine too. I’m still learning that being an author is also knowing when to not write, but at the end of the day, your brain isn’t going to give you the right words if you’re not taking care of your body and mind. As someone who experiences chronic burnout on the reg, trust me: exhaustion does not a novel make. I know a lot of authors rely on self-discipline and have to really force themselves into the routine of writing, but in this house, we wrap ourselves in blankets, take long bubble baths, and binge-watch Netflix when we’re not feeling it. Wait until the spark returns. Especially for NaNo.

I’m sure a lot of these tips are basic or unproductive, and NaNo is all about productivity, but it’s important to recognise that everyone works differently. Accommodate your own needs, routine, health and mindset for NaNo, because being hard on yourself won’t make things easier.

Now, while I’ve never completed NaNoWriMo, I have completed Camp NaNoWriMo, which usually takes place twice a year and allows you to set your own word count rather than November’s fixed 50k total. My debut novel, Honeymoon for One, was once my Camp NaNo project, and I completed 40k words over the month of April. A couple of months later, I was agented and making that 40k into 80 before going on sub. I didn’t change any of my techniques for this, despite going into it with the intention — or back then, the pipedream — of being published. There is no way I could have written a joyful, festive story in late spring if I forced it out of me the way NaNo requires. I wrote when I wanted to and, yes, some days I had to try harder and write less, if at all. As long as you show up for yourself as both an author and a human being, you can absolutely find something wonderful in NaNo.

Make no mistake, though: you will not finish your 50k novel and start querying this December. I’ve already heard stories of editors receiving bookings from people who expect to have their manuscript completed by the 1st. While you may have finished the story, I promise you won’t be ready to submit it anywhere the following day. Rome wasn’t built in a day; novels can’t be written in a month, no matter the aim of NaNo. You’ll find yourself editing again and again, and then again just for good measure, and if you’re not doing that… it’s unlikely your book is ready. It’s the first draft, for starters. There have probably been around seven drafts of Honeymoon since the end of April to now, where it is about to sit on shelves as a 90k-word, traditionally published book. I bet even now, there are still things I’d want to edit if I went through it again, despite my publishers putting it out into the world. That’s just how art works. You can’t churn it out and expect it to be wonderful. You nurture art, and hopefully these tips will help you to nurture your skills and passion too this November.

So, whether you complete NaNo and end with a 50k novel or just barely get started, I hope you enjoy the process as much as I will. Light those candles, open that word document, and see what magic you can create this November!


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