Do you know about National Novel Writing Month?
Put in its simplest terms, it’s a challenge to write a novel of at least 50,000 words in the 30 days of November. Every year, thousands of writers push aside as many pressures on their time as possible and set goals of setting down around 2,000 words — or more — each day as they try to make their dreams of becoming published authors come true with one big push. And many authors who have been published use the month to push forward on their newest projects.
The best part of NaNoWriMo, as its participants call it, is that you’re not doing it alone. Every year, through the website, NaNoWriMo participants find fellow writers in their communities. They meet, they commiserate, they encourage one another, they hold each other accountable. (In Kitsap, you can find each other here.)
In 2008, my friend Craig Lancaster and I decided to take the NaNoWriMo challenge together. A fellow newspaper editor, Craig, like me, had always wanted to break into the novel-writing biz but hadn’t quite pushed himself forward.
I faceplanted. After getting a great start on a nasty little noirish crime novel about an estranged father and son who bond over a rising body count, I wandered off track with my narrative and decided to hit the reset button on Nov. 15. Yep, I started all over. I pushed hard, and wrote more than 10,000 words on Nov. 30, but in the end I came up short at just under 43,000 words.
Craig, by contrast, drew a much more confident bead on his project and knocked out some 80,000 words in just 24 days. Wow! He spent the next several weeks polishing up his manuscript, and had it ready to release as a self-published book by March 2009. The novel, titled 600-Hours Of A Life, was a lean, light comedy-drama about a man with Asperger Syndrome trying to broaden his narrow comfort zone in life before he turned forty.
Thanks to Craig’s tireless efforts and business savvy, the book began to find an audience, and virtually everyone who read it loved it. His relatively strong sales and standout reviews, mostly in his home state of Montana, drew the notice of a Montana outfit called Riverbend Publishing. By fall of 2009, Riverbend had re-released the book as 600 Hours Of Edward, bolstered its distribution reach, got it into the hands of more literary tastemakers … and, aided again by Craig’s tireless promotional work, touched some pretty rarified air.
By the time Edward won the High Plains Book Award, Craig had long since completed his second novel, The Summer Son. After shopping it to Riverbend, Craig made a deal this summer with AmazonEncore, the new publishing arm of the online bookselling giant, to release that novel in paperbook and e-book form in January 2011.
That’s right: Barely two years after we took the NaNoWriMo plunge, Craig’s literary star is on the ascendant. Backed by the fearsome global power of the world’s biggest bookseller, there’s just no telling what heights he’ll hit.
But … wait a minute, I can almost hear you saying. Just how did he get through NaNoWriMo to achieve this awesome success? What about the self-doubt we all deal with? The lack of direction? The lack of discipline? The pull of the pressures of everyday life? The gnawing fear that we really suck at writing?
I’m glad you asked. Because I asked Craig to share his perspective and advice, and he answered the bell as he always does.
Here’s what he had to say.
Back in late October 2008, your kind blog host, Mr. Thomsen, asked me if I’d do National Novel Writing Month (aka, NaNoWriMo; aka, Couldn’t They Have Picked a Less Busy Month, Like, Say, March?) with him. After some hesitation, I agreed.
I’d been there before and had never finished the requisite 50,000 words in 30 days – had never really come close. I had no reason to expect that NaNoWriMo 2008 would be any different – especially since I hadn’t given it much thought and didn’t have a story idea.
As Jim’s already said, that November changed my life and gave some juice to my aspirations of being a novelist, a dream I’d long held but hadn’t done much work in realizing. Here, then, are five hints (plus one bonus observation) for making the most of NaNoWriMo, should you be just crazy enough to accept the challenge:
1. Publication? Perish the thought: If you’re dreaming of a book deal and wearing an ascot in your author photo, you’re way too far ahead of yourself. NaNoWriMo is about tossing a lump of wet clay onto the wheel and beginning to fashion something. Your only expectation should be that you’ll be a ways down the road come Nov. 30. Even if you go truly stratospheric, like I did, and write 80,000 or so words, your story will not be ready for agents or publishers. Bank on it.
2. Let inspiration carry you: When I started writing at midnight on Nov. 1, 2008, I had a basic story idea, a bare-bones outline intended to keep me focused and a lot of enthusiasm for the effort. That last bit mattered most. This is a 30-day festival of dumping the contents of your mind. Consider letting adrenaline, rather than richly detailed plot points, carry you. The ride is so much more interesting when the final destination isn’t known.
3. Don’t fall behind: You know that vicious cycle of destitution that occurs when you don’t pay your bills? There are late fees and reconnection fees, and you end up in an even more precarious place. Same thing with NaNoWriMo. To get 50,000 words in 30 days, you have to write 1,667 words, minimum, each day. If you write 750 on the first day, you have to write 2,584 on Day 2. It doesn’t take long for the deficit to become more than you can make up. By the same token …
4. Writing ahead is paying yourself: In 2008, I wrote 79,175 words by Nov. 25, my entire first draft of what became “600 Hours of Edward.” Here’s a day-by-day breakdown (in parentheses is each day’s progress):
Nov. 1, 2008: 5,763 (5,763)
Nov. 2, 2008: Off
Nov. 3, 2008: Off
Nov. 4, 2008: 11,183 (5,420)
Nov. 5, 2008: Off
Nov. 6, 2008: 13,721 (2,538)
Nov. 7, 2008: 16,963 (3,242)
Nov. 8, 2008: 20,439 (3,476)
Nov. 9, 2008: Off
Nov. 10, 2008: 23,085 (2,646)
Nov. 11, 2008: 27,293 (4,208)
Nov. 12, 2008: 30,744 (3,451)
Nov. 13, 2008: 34,558 (3,814)
Nov. 14, 2008: 39,886 (5,328)
Nov. 15, 2008: Off
Nov. 16, 2008: Off
Nov. 17, 2008: Off
Nov. 18, 2008: 43,846 (3,960)
Nov. 19, 2008: 51,811 (7,965)
Nov. 20, 2008: 54,816 (3,005)
Nov. 21, 2008: 60,837 (6,021)
Nov. 22, 2008: 63,957 (3,120)
Nov. 23, 2008: Off
Nov. 24, 2008: 73,208 (9,251)
Nov. 25, 2008: 79,175 (5,967)
Look at all those days off. I’m convinced, in retrospect, that the ample rest kept me sane, because on days I was writing, I clearly had time for little else.
5. Move forward, always: I disdain most mechanical writing advice, believing that no one can tell anybody else how to coax a story into existence. But NaNoWriMo is different; if you’re doing this thing, presumably you’re doing it because you relish the challenge of the word count. (If you don’t relish that challenge, why bother with a contest? Just write.) So here’s the key: no backtracking, no rewriting, no revising. Every word should move your story forward. You most assuredly will have to rewrite, probably extensively. That’s what December and beyond are for.
6. It’s OK to sit this one out: Having written one novel under the auspices of NaNoWriMo and one in a more traditional way (three-month first draft, followed by nine months of revisions), I have to tell you that I’ll probably never again do the NaNoWriMo thing. Word count is a pretty flimsy construct in the first place; when someone asks me how long a story should be, my answer is: As many words as it needs, and not one more. To then squeeze those 50,000 words out under intense pressure no doubt leads to some irretrievably poor writing. If it’s the challenge you want, that’s one thing. But if you’re aiming for a writing career, you should ask yourself some hard questions about what you want from a month’s work. It’s entirely possible that NaNoWriMo won’t offer what you’re seeking.
Thanks, Craig. Sage words indeed.
And that’s all I shall say, at the risk of writing a 50,000-word blog post.
Well, there is more more thing.