Nov 3, 2016

NaNoWriMo Tips from Someone Who Won and Lost

November is upon us once again, and that means another year of NaNoWriMo is underway. As someone who both won and lost the write-a novel-in-just-a-month challenge, I feel entitled to share some words of wisdom. Mainly, ones that came out of anything but wisdom—technically words inspired by a long chain of trials and errors. So, here I'm sharing the top five things I've painstakingly discovered along the way so you don't have to:

1. Know the Kind of Writer You Are

It took me years, and two NaNoWriMo challenges, to finally figure out how I write—or rather, how I write well. Think of NaNoWriMo as a science writing experiment. There's lots of hypothesising. Lots of testing and observing results. Lots of time needed to form conclusions. And NaNoWriMo is the perfect opportunity to do all of it. Example: are you a planner or a pantser? You can figure it out by putting both to the test. 

Now, I'm not a planner—far from it since I procrastinate my way through life. But I'm beginning to discover that I'm a "writer who plans.I would have never known this had I not forced myself to actually plan this year's story. After five straight hours of story developing and facing my plot issues, I finally came up with an outline that was more than a few sentences and some margin doodles. It may not sound like a big deal, but this outline (I'm hoping) would help me sculpt my story into something formidable. So that next time, when someone says they would love to read the novel they just found out I wrote, I wouldn't have to reply with a panicked "Um, no. You really don't."

Also, don't be afraid to try out new things. You might discover that writing in third person works best for you (or the story) instead of your preferred first person. You might change tenses before settling on what you decide you're comfortable with. You might even find a better hidden story within the one you're currently writing. Whatever it is, NaNoWriMo gives you the chance to discover your style—all you have to do is track your changes for future revision. 

2. Do Some Recon Work

It sounds like military tactics, but doing some reconnaissance definitely helps in writing, too. Read what others write and listen to what those around you have to say. Be open to new ideas, and actively seek them out. Inspiration is like an urban legend—don't fall into believing it happens to everyone all the time (like I did). Instead of waiting for it, go lurk around enemy search engines and start researching. Your findings will ultimately count as necessary intel as soon as you start your writing mission. They will help you establish the right atmosphere for your characters and even for yourself.

My first NaNo story was a 100% pantser-creation. I went in blind, barely knowing how my setting worked and how my characters behaved. I figured it would all come together on the page. It didn't, and I had to improvise a lot of eyebrow-raising scenes. But since I reached the desired 50K, I didn't mind much. It gave me the confidence I needed as a "successful" novelist. And so, I recycled my methods for my second NaNo story... which did not work out so well for me. That was when I realised why soldiers do recon work—and a lot of it. In November, you're not just a writer. You're also a soldier (of wordwars instead of the actual kind). 

3. Do Not Lose Momentum

This one sounds simple, but is probably the hardest step of all. NaNoWriMo is a writer's marathon, and a writer who takes a day off is akin to a runner who stops running. It can get hard to continue running in top shape after a long break leaves muscles inactive. Same with writing. That is why warming up your "Writing Muscles" before NaNoWriMo really helps with getting a head start and an early practice. Runners do these warm-ups to avoid pulling a muscle—which, for writers, is equivalent to the dreaded Writer's Block.

But that doesn't mean that writing should take over your life in November. Set a habit or a system that works for you—a daily word limit, a magic hour, or simply just coffee. My personal one is aiming for 2000 words a day. It might sound like a lot, but I would push for at least 500 words in really tough times. I try not to skip a day because even if I could afford the word gap, it will live to mock me the next morning. Like chess pawns that reach the opposite end, these 500 words are game changers for me. They give me the strength to sort of "honor" the effort I made by making up for the resulting gap with renewed drive. Even if it sounds stressful, trust me, it's so much better than skipping a day of writing. At least you wouldn't also lose your momentum. 

My second NaNo story was a failure because I turned into a backslider. My word count kept decreasing, and I kept getting demotivated until I eventually stopped writing. I realised I was going no where, and just gave up because I lost that push to get something done. One good way to avoid becoming a cautionary tale like me is to "always end a writing session only when you know what's next" (—S.B. Roberts in an article by Jessica Strawser). I'm following that advice this year, and it's been working so far. 

4. Foster Support

Because science and the questionable food industry managed to trap energy into drinkable cans, it no longer becomes an issue of great concern. Besides, there's always coffee as extra fuel. But motivation isn't as simply cured. Having a network of equally frustrated yet inspiring writers though, makes a big difference. People are great motivators, and fostering that sense of community goes a long way towards a sustainable writing future. Even if you're not joining the traditional NaNo challenge, take advantage of the productive atmosphere. Drink up the November spirit—it only comes once a year. Why not even use it for your own personal projects?

If you can't find a community, then make one. Help writers gather together and bounce ideas or, better yet, writing anecdotes. Join write-ins or chat rooms, and interact with both budding and veteran writers—they both offer something new to learn from. Who knows, you might even make lifelong friendships. At first, my NaNoWriMo experience was daunting, but getting to know the writers in my region and arranging for meetings and write-ins literally became the highlight of my NaNo lifestyle. Remember that even though November ends, writing doesn't. 

So take this chance to build something long-lasting. 

5. Have Fun 

For many of us, writing is a hobby. For others, it's an occupation. Whatever it may be, writing is something we choose to do because we (most likely) enjoy it. NaNoWriMo shouldn't be an overwhelming challenge, but a fun experience. Don't get too caught up in tracking word counts, but remember the reason you started in the first place. It's easy to get caught up on the "what," but it's more worthwhile to remember the "why." 

If, as the creator, you can't get excited over your own story... then chances are that prospective readers wouldn't either. Don't try to enjoy writing, but actually do. Listen to music and jam out mid-writing session. Carve out intervals between long writing periods for a fun activity of your choice. Or come up with something entirely different and refreshing. If for some reason you still can't enjoy writing, then that's an early sign for you to tweak some concepts or test out a new story altogether. 

When I was writing my second NaNo novel, every chapter felt like a life sentence where time behind bars somehow evolved into words on a page. I loved my idea and I adored my characters—but it wasn't enough. Writing their story just didn't "click" for me. I realize now that I was too overwhelmed and, more frighteningly, falling out of love with writing. After some much-needed time off and a revived need to write (that I doubt ever went away), I'm making my comeback. 


Do what you want to do. You can listen to these tips or choose to ignore them—maybe even make your own. Whatever the case, do what feels right for you. And always: Happy Writing!