The Most Chaotic Time of the Year

It’s November. Again. And for the fifth year in a row, I am going to join that mad literary endeavor we call National Novel Writing Month. I maintain the opinion that November is a terrible month for a novel writing odyssey of epic proportions, given the obscene number of social obligations that always end up heaped on my plate with the encroaching holidays. I have, however, managed to hit more than my target word count three out of those five years. The lesson I have to take from this is that even if I have no time to write, I have time to write…if I make it.

On the years that I have failed to make my word count, it’s worth noting that my reason for failure was not actually lack of time. In 2011, I didn’t manage to finish the sequel to Autumn’s Daughter for a very simple reason: I hadn’t finished editing the first book and I was fighting against gaping plot holes and badly defined character motivation. Having pneumonia didn’t help, but my primary problem was lack of a story. It was still a worthwhile effort, because those struggles with the sequel gave me the questions that I needed in order to finish pulling the first book together into something that was workable and helped set the stage for the next book.

In 2012, I failed again with The End of the World Survival Society. Once again, the primary problem wasn’t time. I mean, it was a little bit–John and I had just bought our house, which was trying to kill us in subtle and horrifying ways, but the real issue was that I didn’t have an outline or a clear motivation for my character. In the years since, I have figured out that I can muddle through with poor idea of plot or poor idea of characters, but if I’m lacking both and have only a somewhat tired sci-fi scenario to fall back on, the story will die for lack of oxygen. And even that year was a useful learning experience–I learned a lot about the value (i.e., time-sucking necessity) of research in writing sci-fi and the challenge of juggling a large ensemble of main characters.

Comparing my failing years with my winning years, I have a few thoughts on things that are useful for getting through NaNoWriMo:

Write an outline.

It doesn’t have to be detailed. It doesn’t have to be pretty. It can be a sloppy plot arch scratched onto the back of a napkin with a restaurant crayon, but it should give you a clear sense of the story’s primary problem, how the main characters relate to each other around that problem, and what the outcome should be. You don’t need to stick to this outline, and you can trust yourself to fill in the details as you flesh out the world, but trust me: something like an outline or plot arch will make it easier to get started.

Write down what your main characters want.

What do your heroes want? What’s making it hard for them to get it? What do your villains want? How far are they willing to go to get it? Why are their wants are odds with one another? You don’t have to answer all of these questions or stick to your answers, but having at least a peripheral grasp on what makes the people you’re writing put their feet on the floor every morning will help you find their voices and give them skin and bones and believability with less of a mental hernia.

Plan for research time.

How much do you know about what you’re writing about? If you’re a psychologist who works with troubled teens writing about a character with an eating disorder, you probably have a good chunk of the knowledge base you need in order to put together a life-like and rich scenario with minimal research. If, however, you’re a copywriter who wants to tackle quantum mechanics, you should assume that research could take as much time as putting words on the page. Possibly more.

Be a little selfish.

I’m not saying you should let your kids go hungry or put your family finances in peril by not showing up to work for a month. But making the time to put down 1,667 words on a page every single day  does mean communicating your intentions to people who don’t have mandatory claims on your energy and making firm choices for yourself. You can tell yourself you’re just going to cut the Netflix bingeing, but word to the wise: don’t. Part of writing is mental compiling, and that happens better during whatever counts as lazy time for you. Of course, I’m an introvert and refill my energy tank from being alone. That’s not true for everyone, so I don’t have a universal step-by-step plan for keeping your brain fresh. Just be self-aware about what gives you energy vs. what saps it and cut back on what saps it. The writing will take everything you can give it.

Find a nemesis. (Or team. Whatever.)

My last and final tip is a little selfish: I like working with other writers, so I like finding more to rope into my circle. Thanks to the kindness of the Topsham Public Library, central Maine folks have a chance to do the same starting this Tuesday (Nov. 3) at 6 p.m. I’ll be there, doing something vaguely like leading the show, but mostly, I want to help writers find other writers who can motivate and support their writing. The why isn’t critical: competition and encouragement are two sides of the same coin with writers, but whatever the internal reason, other writers are great at helping one another find problems and solutions with their work. Also, and especially during NaNo, it’s nice to have a whining circle. There’s nothing quite so refreshingly cathartic as a mutual whinge-fest.

So there it is, my top five tips for making it to winner’s circle for NaNoWriMo. Bonus tip: If you’re blogging (or reading blogs), you’re probably procrastinating. Let’s both knock it off and get back to work, shall we?

p.s. Don’t forget to save your work regularly and back it up (to the cloud or a secondary hard drive) daily. Online file management services like Box, Dropbox, and Google Drive have tools for managing version control, so you can just upload a new copy of your backup every day without having a glut of files overtake your email.

p.p.s Also, remember that failing is still winning, because at the end of the month, you’ll have more words than if you didn’t try and you’ll have learned your own set of lessons about what slows you down. Certainty of failure is a crappy excuse to not try.

Okay, seriously this time: Let’s write.

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