1 Day to NaNoWriMo: Don’t Forget to Have Fun

The best books start here.

Category: Writer’s Toolbox

“When you’re making things, time goes fast.”

Vera B. Williams, Scooter

I’m serious here.

Once upon a time I taught composition and rhetoric, and one of the things I’d tell my students is this: If you’re bored while writing your papers, I guarantee you that I’ll be bored while reading them. But if you are interested in what you’re writing, or even having fun—why, that quality will come through in your prose.

It can sound counterintuitive—this idea that our best work comes when we’re playing and having fun—but I’ve always found that to be the case.

If marrying the words “play” and “fun” to “work” sparks scorn, think of it more as showing the sort of keen focus and deep involvement that children show when they are playing hard. In his swell little book Keep [more]

Going into NaNoWriMo, the temptation will be to write as much as you possibly can each day. It makes sense, right? You’re trying to write as many words as quickly as possible, so if you’ve got more fuel in the tank once you’ve hit your daily goal of 1,000 or 2,000 words, why not use it? Get down as many words and as much of the story so that you can meet your ultimate goal.

I am here to tell you not to do that. My advice—and the advice of many, many writers with more skill and wisdom than me—set a target number of words, write until you reach that goal, and then stop. Some stop mid-sentence (see Graham Greene, who stopped at 800 words exactly); others stop in the vicinity of their target, … [more]

Some of you may have written an outline of the novel you will be writing. Some will have sketched out only the barest minimum—starts here; something happens over there; this thing takes place; somehow it all wraps up. Many of you will have no outline at all, but only a premise, a sense of some characters, a handful of scenes, and—if you’re lucky—an insistent voice dictating the telling of a story.

Outliners start with some gas in the tank, but for those of you who write without a certain idea of where you are going, starting can be gulp-inducing. Happily, NaNoWriMo is almost tailor-made for seat-of-the-pants writers. Plunging ahead is a great way to blaze a trail through the dark of an unknown story. Your trail may ultimately turn out to have wrong turns and … [more]

[Repurposing an old post about writing 1,000 words each day. But calibrated for NaNoWriMo inflation.]

In my younger and more vulnerable years, I was given a piece of advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. (And no, it is not to shamelessly rip off The Great Gatsby‘s opening line; that I do all on my own.) The advice was this: During the month of NaNoWriMo, write two thousand words of your work-in-progress each day. No more, no less. Just a cool two grand.

Here’s the why of the advice:

  • Two thousand words is a fair bit, to be sure. But it’s not so much that you can’t see the end of your target when you sit down to begin. It’s not so much that you can get deeply lost. It’s
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You’ve heard this piece of wisdom a thousand times, from your toddler days right up to this present moment: Many baby steps add up to one giant leap. And you know this, know it down deep, where you don’t even really have to think about it anymore because, duh, it’s so obvious.

But it is precisely that quality of obviousness—that sense of this idea being shopworn and past its prime and thus in a way somehow beneath notice—that requires it be brought up now. Writing a book is all about baby steps. About putting one foot in front of the other again and again, tirelessly, ceaselessly, until thirty days from starting, you discover you’ve written an entire novel.

And that’s part of the genius of NaNoWriMo: It forces you to split the gargantuan task of … [more]

(Samuel Auster, 1940s; The Invention of Solitude by Paul Auster)

Believing that your voice and story matter can be difficult.

No more so than when you are facing an empty page, a blank screen, a yawning expectation that whatever you compose must justify everything: The time you’ve spent away from loved ones, from work, from sleep; the investment you’re asking readers to make in your world and your characters; the cash you’ve spent on your computer, your fountain pen, your bespoke composition costume, on your Word/Scrivener/Final App/what-have-you program, on classes and how-to books and on and on. To prove that you are not a monster of ego, but that you have something to say that the world may enjoy hearing. (The world may well need to hear what you have to say, but that’s … [more]

T-minus 7 days

“I can’t imagine anyone becoming a writer who wasn’t a voracious reader as an adolescent.”

—Paul Auster, The Paris Review Interviews, Vol. IV

Writers read.

I mean, of course. In order to write well, you need to read well, and in order to read well, you must read. A lot.

“You should read the entire canon of literature that precedes you, back to the Greeks, up to the current issue of The Paris Review,” William Kennedy said in The New York Times back in 1990. But that seems a pretty tall order while dashing out a first draft during a one-month marathon. Maybe we can just agree that you shouldn’t skimp on reading while you’re writing your novel.

Why? Because reading refills the well. It replenishes you. Reading primes your brain with words, sure—but … [more]

T-minus 7 days
T-minus 8 days until you catch lightning in a bottle.

“I write when the spirit moves me. And the spirit moves me every day.”

—William Faulkner

Mason Currey has assembled an invaluable little book called Daily Rituals, and it is required reading for process obsessives. The whole organizing conceit behind it is the one heading this blog post: namely, that ritualized work processes free us up to do our best work. Indeed, this idea is also one of the primary motivations behind NaNoWriMo itself—helping writers develop a habit of creating.

Devising and sticking to a routine is how we demarcate in our brain a sacred space devoted to creating. Set aside a time you will work every day. If possible, set aside a space. Follow such a routine for enough days and weeks, and … [more]

“I’ve had a sign over my typewriter for over 25 years now: Don’t think!”

—Ray Bradbury

The shared pressure cooker of NaNoWriMo accomplishes so many things. First is how it takes this task, drafting a novel—a task that is only and ever done alone, by a single person sitting with her thoughts and a blank page—and transforms it makes it into a group effort. Those thousands of other writers who are also drafting their novel may not be right next to you at your desk; they may not be shouting encouragement as word joins word, sentence joins sentence, and page joins page while you write; they may only be an amorphous sense of camaraderie as you labor over your work. But you know that they are out there, struggling as you struggle, and that … [more]

T-Minus Ten Days

In these final days of October, when NaNoWriMo is still just a vague itch, an aspirational notion, a secret should I?, it can be easy to dismiss your own ambitions. To treat the idea of drafting a novel as a fool’s errand, a lark, a waste of time. A self-indulgence, a self-delusion, a set-up for certain failure. To convince yourself you have nothing to say, that no one wants to read your story, that it is hubris to think that you can be a real writer.

Let me take this weight off your mind: 

You have permission.

This permission is a blank check. Write it for whatever amount you’re going to need to carry you through the month of November. Use this permission to justify whatever it is you need to … [more]