A NaNoWriMo Article
I wanted to take this time to talk about marathon writing sessions and the need to pace yourself. Character details and plot points and spiffy dialogue are all well and good, but everything comes from you - the writer - and the purpose of this editorial is to make sure you're properly taking care of the one asset you need most for NaNoWriMo... your mind.
In my experiences with NaNo, I discovered the following keys to success:
BREAK IT DOWN
Writing 50,000 words in a month's time is a pretty intimidating goal to set for oneself. Just staring at that five-figure number sends chills up my spine! One of the things that I find most helpful is to break down that 50,000 words into smaller, more manageable goals, which makes it a little less intimidating. If you divide it up equally among the days of the month, that's a 1,667 word-per-day objective. That's considerably less intimidating that thinking in terms of all 50,000 at once, isn't it? Heck, even Stephen King recommends that serious writers should write at least 2,000 words per day, so you're right up there with Steve!
But let's say that unlike Stephen King, you don't write full-time. Maybe you have a busy full-time job, family responsibilities, health issues... something that prevents you from writing that much every single day of the month. You might also consider giving yourself an overall weekly goal, with the understanding that some days you'll be writing more than others. From my Story Structure editorial, I mentioned that Act 1 is about 25% of your work, Act 2 is about 50% of your work, and Act 3 is about 25% of your work. Break up Act 2 with your midpoint twist, and you've got four big chunks of writing. Four chunks, four weeks... I think you see where this is going.
Just as easily as setting yourself a daily limit that will get you there in 30 days, you can set yourself a weekly limit that will get you there in four weeks. Week 1 would be Act 1. Week 2 would be Act 2 up to the midpoint twist. Week 3 would be the second half of Act 2. And Week 4 would be Act 3. Divide it up, and you're looking at 12,500 words per week. You don't get to write any fewer words this way, unfortunately; but you can at least arrange your weekly writing schedule around your other obligations and set aside a big block of time to catch up. I used this method for one of the weeks last year, when it was particularly busy at work. I only wrote about 750 words a day during the week, then caught up by writing 4,000 words a day during my two weekend days.
Whatever way works for you, and however you want to do it, break your writing goals down into more manageable chunks that you can accomplish on a regular schedule. Trust me, all of these milestones will help you keep up your confidence, especially when it starts to get really tough around the third week.
DON'T GET BEHIND, STAY AHEAD
Confidence is the key to finishing NaNoWriMo. When you start to fall behind, you start to get discouraged. And when you're discouraged, you write less, criticize more... and ultimately risk a downward spiral that will lead to failure. You need to keep your confidence and your enthusiasm up so you can stay motivated to finish. After all, when you're competing with someone, aren't you fresher and more energetic when you're out in front rather than trailing behind? The same applies here.
I would really strongly recommend not letting yourself fall far behind the 12,500 word weekly word count. Why? Because you don't want to put yourself in a position where you have to dig yourself out of a hole just to break even. You especially don't want to be a few days away from the deadline and realize that you have to churn out 6,000 words a day for the next three days just to hit your 50K. If you find yourself falling behind, set aside time during the month (like weekends or days off) where you can commit to catching yourself up. As a general rule, I wouldn't let yourself get more than a day and a half behind the word count you're capable of churning out. Meaning that if you can write 2,000 words per day comfortably... I wouldn't recommend getting more than 3,000 words behind schedule (either weekly or daily). You want to be able to motivate yourself to say, "Okay, I've got one day. I'm really going to focus and get caught up." ... and actually be capable of doing it. It doesn't do any good to motivate yourself and say that if you struggle to write 3,000 words a day and you're 5,000 in the hole. Imagine it's the last day of the month and it's crunch time. Don't put yourself in a position where you can't dig yourself out at the last minute if you really buckle down.
Along these lines, I'd recommend staying ahead of pace. Commit yourself to being particularly prolific one day and get out ahead of your word goal. If you're on the daily plan, try to write 2,000 words a day for the first week, instead of 1,667. If you're on the weekly plan, try to have 15,000 words done instead of 12,500. Believe me, that buffer will help keep you in the right mindset so that, even if some unforeseen delay does manage to sidetrack you, you've got a buffer that can absorb some of the lost productivity. Think of it like running a race... you're a lot less stressed and more confident when you're ahead of the pack than you are when you're running with them or lagging behind. Give yourself the confidence boost you need by sprinting for a little ways and putting yourself out ahead of your goal so you've got some room to maneuver when things get tougher.
WRITE EVERY DAY
I don't care if it's only 500 or even 250 words. Write something every day. You need to keep the story fresh in your mind and your momentum going. If you take a day off, your brain cools off and there's a chance that you could start to detach from the story. Keep the rhythm and the energy going by committing to write something for it every day. You don't have to be particularly prolific during the days that you're busy with other things, but afford yourself the opportunity to work on it for at least a little bit of time, to keep things fresh in your mind and to keep the story moving forward. If everything's constantly moving forward, you can avoid the pitfalls of stalling or letting your interest wane.
500 WORDS IN THE REAR VIEW
Don't re-read your work; it will kill your productivity. You can look back on what you've read at the end of November, when you've crossed the finish line. But if you look back during the writing process, you're going to start to think about editing and revising. Let's face it... you're writing a lot of words in a condensed span of time. Some of the prose isn't going to be pretty, and you don't have the time to go back and spruce it up. Keep on driving and don't look at the carnage in your wake until you've crossed that border and reached safety.
The only exception I allow myself is a 500-word refresher. I allow myself to go back 500 words or so and read the last thing I wrote, so I can remember where I was headed. Why 500? Because let's face it; editing is inevitable when you re-read your work. You just have to tweak something. But I have to balance that with the fact that I need to re-read what I've written to recapture the flow, tone, plot thread, etc. ... and I have to move forward. I allow myself 500 words because it only takes me a few minutes to read through and tweak those 500 words. After maybe 10-15 minutes, I'm satisfied that I've spruced it up, I remember where I was going, and I'm off and writing again.
Your rear view mirror might be longer or shorter than mine, depending on the speed and efficiency with which you review and tweak your own work. Maybe you can only read 100 words, or maybe you can read 1,000. The point is, don't re-read everything or you'll get lost in rewriting and lose your forward momentum. At the same time, don't re-read nothing, or you might have trouble getting into your story every day. Give yourself just enough to re-motivate yourself without getting distracted by all the work that needs to be done.
LEAVE THINGS UNFINISHED
One of the hardest things for me to overcome is picking up again each day, especially since I haven't had an outline or any idea where I was going in the past. I was writing completely off-the-cuff (and that's fine), but I also had a tendency, as most people do, to finish my writing for the day at a good stopping point. Like at the end of a chapter.
Unfortunately, that meant I would sit down at the computer the next day and re-read the end of that chapter and then suddenly wonder, "Okay, so where am I going next?" And I'll freely admit that I would sometimes spend half my writing time each day just figuring out where to go next, because I had been inspired to write and conclude my session from the day before.
What I would suggest (especially if you're writing off-the-cuff) is to end your writing for the day in the middle of a scene, sequence, or exciting moment. Why? Because when you come back the next day and re-read your work, the next thing you're going to be thinking about writing isn't, "What do I want to happen in this chapter", but rather, "My last line was 'She raised the candelabra above her head and prepared to bring it down on her husband's unsuspecting head.' Now what?"
This technique is basically like providing yourself with a little mini-prompt every day. Rather than expecting yourself to write cold on a new chapter, a new focus, a new segment... you're prompting yourself to finish the one that you left off with the day before. For those of you who prefer prompted writing (like myself), you might find this is a way to avoid the dreaded, "What am I going to write about?" feeling.
Make the time to alleviate your stress and clear your head. NaNoWriMo is really tough, and extremely taxing. You need to prepare for those times when exhaustion sets in, or better, figure out how to avoid them entirely. Reward yourself for reaching a milestone. Don't work too hard on any given day. Give yourself regular breaks. Just don't drown yourself in NaNo.
It's easy to lose track of oneself when doing so much writing in such a short period of time, which is why it's important to make time for other things; the things that you enjoy and help you relax. Physical exercise is a great stress reliever; maybe go for a short jog or a walk or a bike ride every couple of days to give yourself a break from the computer. Or you could go out to dinner with the significant other and/or family. Or you could just veg out on the couch and watch TV. However it is you cope with stress, make sure you make the time for it in November. If you burn out, you're not going to finish NaNoWriMo anyway, so instead of writing 1,667 words every single day, why not commit to 2,250 words per day on Friday, give yourself an easy 500-word day on Saturday, and balance it out with another 2,250 words on Sunday? You could spend that extra time on Saturday doing something fun and getting outside or at least away from your computer for a little while.
This is also where staying ahead of your goal can help you. If you commit to writing, say, 2,000 words a day instead of 1,667, that means that you could give yourself every 6th day off and stay on schedule. If you follow my advice to write something every day, you could do a light 500-word day on those days and you'd end up with 42,000 words by the 24th. Which would means you could be done on the 28th on that same schedule, or you could reduce your word output after the 24th to 1,333 for the rest of the month. (I think that math is right... ) Any way you dice it, the message here is that you should avoid burnout so you can stay fresh and motivated... and if you've build up a buffer earlier in the month, you can avoid burnout by cashing in on that buffer when you need to, particularly at the end of the month when Thanksgiving obligations have a tendency to get in the way.
DEVELOP A SUPPORT NETWORK
While writing a NaNo novel is largely an individual process, but that doesn't mean you're going at it alone. There are thousands of other writers attempting NaNoWriMo, and that means they're going through the same excitement, stress, hard work, and exhaustion that you are. Take the time to develop a support network among the other writers attempting NaNo, especially those on WdC. If you need to take a quick break from your novel, consider reading a short item from a fellow NaNo'er. The experience of doing something different (reading and reviewing, rather than writing) will give you a break from the writing process and hopefully renew your energy a little bit.
Not to mention the fact that if you read and review an item from another NaNo'er, they might just return the favor. If you can work with enough other NaNo'ers and get a system going, you might just find some reviews of your items sitting in your inbox, to read when you need a break from your novel.
Even if you don't want to worry about reviewing items while you're writing your novel, it's important to develop a connection with other writers who are going through the same thing. Maybe you use the "The WDC NanoLounge" or another group or message board on WdC. Maybe you want to send individual e-mails to fellow writers (like your teammates in my "NaNoWriMo Write-A-Thon" activity... ). However you do it, make that connection so you'll have people available that you can talk to during the process. There will be times that you struggle during this undertaking, and it's invaluable to have fellow writers who can identify with and support you during the down times.
Finishing NaNoWriMo isn't easy. It's hard work, at times grueling, and can be a very lonely endeavor. You need to give yourself every opportunity to succeed, which means taking care of yourself and surrounding yourself with tools that can help get you through it. Hopefully some of these tips and suggestions will help give you the motivation you need to succeed.