If you’re unfamiliar with it, National Novel Writing Month—or NaNoWriMo as it’s affectionately known—has a basic premise: On November 1st, create a new text file and type furiously into it until you finish, November ends, or you realize this novel writing thing is a hell of a lot harder than you imagined and give up.
Not going to soft-pedal this: It’s brutal. Umlaut-deserving brütäl.
So why on Earth would anybody subject themselves to this kind of stress? Obviously you need to want to write a novel (duh). But writing a novel is time consuming and unless you were blessed to be born with a trust fund, you have paying work to do, family, and other obligations that keep getting in the way of the dream of creating your work of art. Writing an entire novel is the kind of huge obligation it’s oh, so very easy to keep kicking down the road until the blessed day appears (i.e., never) that you’ll have the time to bring your masterpiece to the world.
National Novel Writing Month makes it possible, since it is after all only a month. You can give up watching TV, reading other people’s novels, and have a social life for that long.
The program is lovely, providing a a steady stream of support from published authors, most of whom it seems got their start in the program themselves, including pep talks and nags. For me, at least, that support was a life saver during the darker days.
The site also has forums and there are local groups around the country that hold meetups. If you’re a social butterfly and want other people around, that might be useful for you. For me, writing a novel is all about being alone, watching what my mind hallucinates and writing it down, so having other people around is counterproductive. But then I’m an introvert. Do what seems best for you. The meetups are out there if you want them.
Apart from the support structure and the hard time frame of one month, the brütäl pace is crucial in and of itself. 50,000 words in a month is way too much if you have a full-time job. Most of what you write will not be good. But you don’t have time to worry about that.
Trying to push out 1,667 words per day, you’ll write a paragraph or a conversation and think, “That was awful,” but you don’t have the time to go back and edit it. So you have to give up the idea of perfection and accept that you’re writing a rough first draft. That’s all it is. And it’s allowed to have great swathes of suck.
Now that my own novel Our Glorious Dead has passed the 50K mark, I’m going to let it rest for a few weeks, then come back and read it to find out how much is salvageable.
But that’s the genius of the exercise: You have to give yourself permission to write crap and plow on no matter what straws you have to grab.
And yes, you probably have to have some kind of brain malfunction to find this enjoyable enough to put your life on hold for a month, but clearly we are legion. Go writing nerds!
If you read up on National Novel Writing Month you’ll find references to Week Two. You will read Week Two (it deserves the capitals) is the darkest part of the experience, when you find yourself stuck with a novel that’s not going anywhere you wanted it to and a crushing sense of futility and ennui.
And that is true. Week Two really sucks. But if you’re prepared for it you can get through. Just don’t underestimate the soul-crushing aspect.
Because, man, typing the words THE END (hell yeah, in CAPITALS!) and copying your novel into the website word count validator and getting access to the winner’s area is pretty sweet, let me tell you.
Which is another nice aspect: You are a winner if you type more than 50,000 words. That’s it. No judgment. “Just” getting those words out.
Since I have these other people living in my house (family, I think they’re called) and those people make noise, headphones and music are crucial to hitting the zone. After some experimentation, I found soundtracks work best for me, so if you have Spotify, Rdio or some other streaming service, search around and see what tickles your fancy. Any music is good as long as it helps you put words to screen.
Or no music, if that’s your thing. We’re all special snowflakes.
I loathe using Word as a word processor, for much the same reasons sci-fi author Charles Stross enumerated in a scathing post all writers would do well to read.
Like most alpha nerds these days, I do all my writing in Markdown. Word is something I keep on my work computer so I can open the attachments people send me and paste them into a text editor, after which I quit the abomination. For Web work, that text editor is BBEdit, but for prose I will admit I like the hipster editors. You can scoff all you want about what kind of mental midget would need a distraction-free editor, but hear me now and believe me later: When you’re trying to pound out 1,667 words every day after a hard day of work, having the entire screen taken up with your text and all notifications off is huge.
Our Glorious Dead was written in a Markdown editor and distraction-free writing app called Byword (in the dark theme, as is de rigueur) on my MacBook Pro and iPad Air, with one document for the novel itself and one for metadata, like the names of characters and places and major plot points in which they were involved. Especially in fantasy where I’m making up nonsense names as I go along, you have to track them, and a simple text file does the job. (It’s almost like people wrote novels before we had computers, weird as that is.)
Plus I love Byword’s typewriter mode, where the app keeps your cursor vertically centered on the screen. Always having the cursor at the bottom of the screen is annoying. I don’t know why. The middle of the screen is nice.
But no matter how you are planning to put your words to page or screen, make sure you are comfortable with it before the month starts. You will be tempted to procrastinate by fiddling with your app, no matter which one it is. Resist that temptation. Have it all set to go then only use the tool to write your novel. No finding the perfect font, no fiddling with the margins.
Fiddling is the enemy of word count.
Here’s the PSA portion of this piece: For the love of all that is holy to you, back up your novel. I can’t even imagine how bummed I’d be if it got lost. Remember that Murphy’s Law is strong with computers and that the universe is out to get you. The more important a document is to you, the more likely it is to get eaten. So back it up. Then back it up again.
Personally, I kept my text file in Dropbox, so I wasn’t too worried, since Dropbox ensured it magically was in many places. But you don’t get to have your beard go grey without the computer gods screwing you over a few times, so I made copies with date stamps along the way and emailed them to my self.
(Yes, I thought of creating a Git repository for the novel, but at some point the nerditry has to be reined in.)
The entire goal of backups is to make it so that a ridiculous amount of things have to go wrong before you are screwed. As the U.S. Army says about critical equipment, “Two is one, and one is none.”
Please don’t end your National Novel Writing Month in tears because your computer ate your novel. Please.
If you have any kind of aspiration whatsoever to writing a novel, I can’t recommend National Novel Writing Month enough. There are other people out there just like you and they want to help you.
I went in with a rough mental outline of the first few chapters and an idea about the main characters, and found myself completely out of steam by Week Two. Next time I’ll have more of an outline set up. Even if the plot turns around on me, having a solid outline as a safety net will make this much easier. And if I find a better plot through the writing, so much the better.
So, I iz a winnar and I can’t wait to return to my fallen empire in a few weeks and find out what I actually wrote. Right now, it’s all a blur.
Note that this post is shorter than the daily word count of National Novel Writing Month. You’ll type a lot of words. Godspeed.
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