It’s that time of year again, when the madness sets in. November sees the start of the craziness many writers start the month by calling ‘NaNoWriMo’ and end by calling ‘what the hell am I doing?’.
In case you’ve never heard of it, NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, is precisely what it says it is: thirty days in November, when writers set themselves the task of writing 50,000 words, traditionally of a novel, which equates to 1667 words a day. You can sign yourself up on the website, customise your dashboard with your author bio, your novel’s details, claim badges (I just claimed my ‘plotter’ badge, as opposed to the ‘pantser’ badge, because I’ve long since learned that, if I try making it up as I go along, all sort of weird stuff happens — mainly that I don’t finish!). It’s not strictly necessary to write a novel, though. You might be writing a set of short stories, or a couple of novellas, or even a whole set of blog posts if you like. The aim of the game is to get the 50,000 words down. Preferably ones that you don’t want to incinerate the second December comes around.
You may or may not know of my ludicrous adventures in NaNoWriMo land. The other year, for instance, I had the bright notion of writing three novels at once. My aim was to experiment with three different levels of planning, to see what worked best for me. I attacked one novel with gusto and a detailed plan, a second with a loose plan and more than a little trepidation, and the third with a shopping list of possible scenes and not a clue what I’d let loose onto the screen as i went along. I didn’t complete any of them, but I never expected to because they were all clearly going to be much bigger than 50,000 words in the end. But I did manage to get almost 60,000 words of the clearly planned story completed, just over 50,000 of the loose-fitting story, and the wild stab in the dark story came in at 37,000. What I discovered was this: I achieved more by way of words when I knew what I was writing; I had a lot more fun writing into the unknown and didn’t worry too much about the number of words I produced.
That’s all a long-winded way of saying that, if you’re planning to give NaNoWriMo a go, think about why you’re doing it. If you can’t write without a plan, then plan every detail down to the colour of the elastic in your male characters underwear. If you want to just write and see where it takes you, then do that. No-one’s going to stop you. If you want to prove to yourself that you can sit down and write every day for a month, regardless of the number of words, then do it, if it’s what works for you. There’s no one size fits all. There can’t be. We all write differently; we have our own preferred place of writing and equipment to write on or with; we have our own ways of gathering ideas and of motivating ourselves (and yes, I have used gold star stickers on a chart before! The little girl in me surfacing and stretching to reach the sticker space on the chart. I’m still convinced my son kept moving it higher up the wall every few days. I’m positive I was still having to stretch on week 4, even when the sticker spaces were lower down the chart!).
This year I’m participating because I have a book I want to give a kick up the backside to. It’s (for now, at least) sitting in the realms of tragic romantic fiction, and has a handwritten plan, the squiggles of which I may or may not be able to interpret as actual words and, more imortantly, ones that actually make sense. But I’ll give it a go because, for me, NaNoWriMo is all about the challenge. It’s all about me pushing myself every day to get blood out the stone that I never would otherwise manage to do, as the nights here in the UK draw in and my feet get cold as ice, and all I want to do is curl up with a blanket and a hot water bottle. I like watching the little graph go up on my dashboard as I add in my daily word count. I like the external and visual accountability. But NaNoWriMo isn’t for everyone. And that’s fine, too.
I’ve been reading all sorts of advice over the last couple of weeks as it’s popped up in my inbox. Everyone’s got advice on how to ‘do’ NaNoWriMo and what to do with your work afterwards. I’ve read everything from ‘this is your first draft. It’ll take you at least another year to polish it into something you can call literature’ to ‘you’ve finished so get it out there and move onto the next book’. And I’ve read the ‘if you write it right the first time, it should be pretty much a finished book by the end of November’. While I would definitely caution against finishing NaNoWriMo and just whacking your work up on Amazon within 24 hours, what happens after the thirty days are up is another case of one size can’t possibly fit all. It depends on how you write a first draft, for a start. Some people can pretty much put down what they want to say the first time around. Other, like me, frequently write the crappiest first drafts you could ever imagine (it doesn’t always get better on the second one, either!).
If you decide to take on the madness that is NaNoWriMo, only you know how you write, or what you want to do with the writing when it’s finished. Who’s to say you want to publish it at all? You know what it is you want to get out of the experience. No-one else can tell you that. Very soon, people’s word counts will be invading social media feeds like the Plague, and it’s great that they want to celebrate their successes, but it can make some writers very despondent, especially when the cat was sick, the washing machine broke, you realised there was no food and you had to stand in a queue for what felt like hours, just to fetch a ready-made curry and packet of biscuits, and all you’ve written is half a sentence before there was a power outage and you couldn’t even find a candle (or warm up your ready meal in the microwave). And so you use the light from your phone to stumble your way to the toilet, only to see a notification on the screen saying “Wrote 3000 words this evening. Feeling very accomplished”. Word of warning: DON’T PELT YOUR PHONE. IT’S THE ONLY LIGHT YOU’VE GOT TO GET YOU TO THAT TOILET!
All I would say is, don’t let anyone else’s word count successes or goal achievements diminish your own. Don’t compare yourself with others. This is one time when you can allow yourself to be a special snowflake. Do NaNoWriMo your way. Nothing dreadful will happen if you break the rules (in fact, the nice NaNoWriMo people have created a badge for ‘Rebels’ this year!). And, if you do join me for a month of utter mayhem, remember that it’s supposed to be fun. That’s what it was designed for.