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A Kind of Madness: NaNoWriMo

November 6, 2012

It’s that time of year when a certain madness grips people. People stay up late at night, pounding at their keyboards in a fever, letting their imagination run wild, letting their fears get the best of them. No, I don’t mean election-year bloggers. I mean it’s NaNoWriMo again.

National Novel Writing Month, NaNoWriMo for short, happens every November, thanks to the efforts of founder Chris Baty and a small army of volunteers determined to help people stop talking about writing a book and actually do it. On the surface, it seems like a monumental challenge: 50,000 words in 30 days. Not a small undertaking, and if you’re a procrastinator by nature, seemingly impossible. But the event grows every year, and not just because people have a way of thinking “I could do that” after reading the latest mass-market thriller. As of the moment I write this, NaNoWriMo.org reports a collective word count of 733,640,151 by all participants, affectionately nicknamed Wrimos by the NaNo community. And it’s only day six. I did it in 2009, and actually made the finish line a day ahead of schedule. I didn’t produce anything publishable, but it taught me quite a lot about the process of writing and how surprisingly easy it is to shut off self-doubt when you have a discernable goal in mind.

So if this is your thing, as it is mine, then let me give you a few pieces of advice for surviving your NaNoWriMo experience with your sanity and most of your relationships intact.

RULE ONE: Keep Writing. This would seem to be obvious, but it bears repeating. Keep writing. No matter what else, write, even if what you produce is just word slurry. Perfection isn’t the goal, completion is. Write in the morning before you go to work. Write at lunch. Write on your fifteen-minute breaks at work. Whatever, whenever, just write.

RULE TWO: Don’t Talk About Your Project. More specifically, unless you know for a fact that the person you’re speaking to is also doing NaNo, don’t bug people with the details, especially if you’re the kind of person who really lets their demons out to play. I’ve got a good friend who, because he knew I was also participating, said to me on the first day, “I made my goal for today and I’ve almost hit tomorrow’s goal too on the first day, and I didn’t want to come to work because it was going so well.” Which is great, and something to be proud of. But then he proceeded to say, at work, in the middle of a busy early-evening shift, “I’m in the middle of a scene where a vampire is raping a human to death on top of a pile of zombie corpses.” Hmm. Wow. You don’t say.

This is why you don’t share with people not doing NaNo. When you unleash your creative side, weird things happen. Might be you like writing detailed, perverted sex scenes. Might be you like graphic violence. Might even be you secretly think orcs are the only thing that would make Atlas Shrugged better. Does any of this shock me? Not especially. But please, don’t spring it on people unprepared to face that side of you. If you let your inner sicko come out to play when you write, it’s best to do it behind closed doors and leave it there until you’re finished.

RULE THREE: Get Thyself a Buddy. Preferably several. This will help you avoid breaking rule two above. If you don’t know someone you can speak to at arm’s length, do it online. That’s what the website is for. Having friends doing the same thing is helpful, especially if you have a competitive streak. It’s fun to have people to brag to. But, having said that…

RULE FOUR: Do Not Complain About Falling Behind. So it’s day ten, and you don’t have ten thousand words yet. Fifty thousand seems unreachable. I know what this feels like, and I know what your first instinct tells you to do. Write? No. Find another Wrimo and whine.

“I just find it so hard to make the time.”

“I sit at my keyboard and nothing comes out.”

Or worst of all: “My idea was so good, but everything I actually write reads like crap.”

This is the equivalent of plopping a box of donuts on the table in front of your workout buddies and digging in while they watch. I’m a writer, and therefore, my ability to learn from my mistakes is questionable at best, but if I know anything, it’s that willpower breaks best when it has company. If you’re falling behind, write. And if you can’t write, don’t complain about not writing.

RULE FIVE: Do Not Ask Another Wrimo to Read Anything in November. This goes with number two above. Many writers, myself included, are compulsive over-sharers. We can hardly finish a paragraph without immediately emailing someone to ask what they think of it. As bad an idea as this is in ordinary time, it is positively unconscionable in November when you’re dealing with another Wrimo. For God’s sake, I’ve got fifty thousand words of my own to write. I don’t care if yours suck or not. Ask me December 1st.

RULE SIX: Do Not Ask Your Significant Other, Roommate, Parents or Co-Workers to Read Anything In November. They may not have fifty thousand words of their own to write, but they’ve got their hands full with your sudden mania already. Don’t push it.

RULE SEVEN: Do Not Count Your Money in November. You might be the sort of person who thinks that fifty thousand words later, you’ll have a manuscript you can hand to an agent on December 1st, especially if you’ve heard that things like The Night Circus and Water For Elephants, both of which made their authors a pretty significant amount of money, came from NaNoWriMo. Not going to happen to you, folks. Fifty thousand words isn’t even a full novel these days, so when you hit your goal you probably won’t have anything better than a framework on which to build. Do not think you can get yourself published right away, and especially don’t turn around and have your project self-published. In a year when Fifty Shades of Grey launches a million hot-and-bothered imitators, many of whom are writing right now, hoping to hit fifty thousand moist and sticky words by November 30, Wrimos would do well to remember that for every E.L. James – who did, in fact, self-publish first – there are thousands and thousands and thousands of people who are paying to have their very own unreadable doorstop printed and bound (or, if you go that route, for a little wasted file space on somebody’s Kindle. Amazon uses kittens’ souls to power those things, remember.) Do yourself a favor and recognize that even when you finish, you’re not finished. Edit. Rewrite. Remember what Anne Lamott says. And come back for NaNoEdMo in March. 

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