Confession time: I’ve attempted to win National Novel Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo) four times, and I’ve only met the 50,000 word goal once.
The first year, I was still feeling NaNo out. About two weeks in, I got stuck on my project and decided not to finish it, or NaNo. The second year was the one that I won. The third year, I was busy with grad school and used it to get a little writing done on my memoir, but ultimately decided editing was where I needed to focus. This year, I’ve been derailed by getting sick and then having to help, deal, and cope with a death in my extended family.
What made the year I won different from the others? Two things: focus and a lack of distraction.
The year I won, I had a novel idea I gelled with from the start that didn’t give me too much trouble. I was also single at the time, on a hiatus from grad school, and was going through a freelance dry spell, so I had absolutely no distractions. I wrote every day. I went to tons of in-person write-ins and was active on the forums. It was a perfect NaNoWriMo.
Unfortunately, life isn’t usually distraction-free, and writing projects rarely go smoothly. We often hit road bumps and blocks in our lives and our creative work. While it’s nice to think that at least once a year, for just one month, we can power through and reach that finish line, things don’t always work out that way.
So how do we maintain a productive and distraction-proof writing routine no matter what happens, all year long? By applying the principals of NaNo in smaller, more manageable degrees:
1. Motivation. Having a daily goal, like writing 1,000 words every day, can help. But you need more than that. NaNoWriMo creates an external pressure through the contest. Most writers will tell you that setting self-imposed deadlines is necessary in getting themselves to write; otherwise, it’s so easy to put it off. Just make sure those goals and deadlines are realistic, and that you keep your end game in mind. What motivates me to write is knowing how important it is to me to get my ideas out into the world as soon as I can. I have specific projects I’m very passionate about. That drives me to push through and finish them, and inspires me to create deadlines and routines around them.
2. Community. Writing with others is great. Word wars (when everyone writes for a short period of time, usually around 30 minutes, to see who can do the most words in that time) are particularly helpful. My natural competitiveness kicks in, and I’m also forced to focus because everyone else around me is focusing. I wasn’t able to take advantage of the community and write-ins much this year because of external factors that couldn’t be helped. But the NaNo community isn’t only a once a year opportunity. There is a NaNoWriMo group near me that meets year round, and I’m thinking of starting up a local writing group again.
3. Distractions. I came up against some unexpected and difficult things this month that knocked me off course when I was already lagging behind. This can happen at any time, and sometimes you need to honor those distractions and take care of business. But it’s good to figure out when you’re ready to write again and be sure not to let your goals and routine slide for too long.
4. Determination. Ultimately, you need passion, drive, and long term goals to be a productive and successful writer year-round. Some people only write during NaNoWriMo, and that’s fine. However, as someone who wants to be a professional writer, I need to do some form of NaNoWriMo every month. I want to produce words and works regularly so I can meet the goals and dreams I’ve had for many years now. That determination helps me get back up after I falter, and keeps me writing even without a NaNo to push me. I do that by focusing on what I want, what I care about, and where I want to be.
Overall, I think NaNoWriMo is a wonderful thing, but it’s important to figure out how to establish a lower-key NaNoWriMo routine year round. The frenzy and stress that accompanies NaNo is good for a quick burst, but it’s too overwhelming to be sustainable. And sometimes, NaNo comes at an inconvenient, or impossible, time.
I’m going to continue attending writing groups whenever I can and create new deadlines for my writing so I can push past the fear and procrastination to produce work on a regular basis.
To all of those who won, or will win, NaNoWriMo this year, congratulations! Now go write some more.