In case you think I’m nuts, remember that this is exactly what many thousands of people do in North America (and elsewhere in the world), every November. They participate in the month-long writing exercise known as NaNoWriMo (short for National Novel Writing Month). For some wild and and crazy reason, they — oh all right, and sometimes I — decide to add 1,667 words of writing into each day, all for the purpose of being issued a little “Winner” icon from the official NaNoWriMo website, after we’ve uploaded our masterpieces and had the number of words scanned.
You may question our sanity and wonder just why we think it’s a good idea. As well as being a fun challenge, it can actually help an aspiring writer learn to think on their feet. If you tend to write and rewrite and edit and rewrite — taking days to work over a single paragraph — this is a chance to learn just to wing it and let fly, and edit the dang thing later. You simply don’t have time to edit.
However. You also don’t want to rush at it like you’re nuts either. So here are a few tips I’ve learned along the way, that might help you get your novel (novella, really) finished, without exhausting yourself. Too much.
- Simple plot. Do not try to write War and Peace. Have a fairly simple, almost linear plotline if you can manage it, and barely more than one subplot. It’s not just that you need to get from A to B in a big hurry, though. A simple plot will allow you to toss extra things in as the mood takes you, for the sake of adding words and interest. Come up with a plot where you know more or less where you start, where you plan to end, and sort-of how you’ll get there. And then throw stuff in with wild abandon, and the plot will absorb it. Alison Wells, in How to do NaNoWrimo when you don’t have the time, sums up this approach as having a general “scaffolding” for your story. She does something I also do — she knows a few specific incidents that are going to happen in the story, and writes down code words for them, to keep them in mind. This will come in handy for Step 4, below.
- No ongoing research. If you’ve already heavily researched for the plot and have all the historical/scientific/magical/etc data at your fingertips, then by all means write a story that needs research. But if you want to write a story that requires a bunch of research first, and you haven’t started researching or plan to do it during November — forget it. You won’t have time. Write that story in 2011 instead, and do that research from December 1st until October 31st next year.
- Multiply words. The point of this exercise is not to create a brilliant masterpiece at the first go. The point is to cram 50,000 words into November, period. You need to average 1,667 words per day to do that. So unlearn everything you’ve ever learned about the “best” way to write a novel. Throw every extra word in there that you can. Instead of saying “now,” how about saying “at the present time”? Four words instead of one, and now you’ve only got 1,663 to go!
- Set milestones for each week. If you have even a general idea where the plot is going to go, or at least have a few key incidents you need to reach, plan when you need to reach them. If a problem is going to develop for your characters, have it introduced and noticed by the end of the first week. If they need to figure out how they’re going to solve this big problem, have them chew it over and come up with their solutions by mid-month. Have them trying out the solutions and running into the inevitable complications during the third week. And then have the grand finale and wind-down in the second week. Keep an eye on this schedule, and as you see a milestone getting closer, start directing your text to where it has to be by that date.
- Have a few key characters decided. If possible at least have two or three of your main characters planned out ahead of time, so you know more or less what they look like, where they fit, and what their basic personalities are. For one of my stories, which I described as “writing a story as though it’s an anime series,” I had lists of Japanese names waiting for me, for when I discovered a new minor (or major) character and needed to name them, fast.
- Write within your time gaps. You probably don’t have a big gap in your day in which you can sit down and write 1,667 words. But you may have five minutes here and there to flip to another window on your computer, or bend over your desk as you pass by, and toss off another sentence or two. Believe me, every new sentence or paragraph you can sneak in will add up.
- Don’t stop, if you’re inspired! If the words just seem to be flying out of you and you’re in the middle of a great scene and you’re just winging along — for goodness’ sake, don’t stop just because you’ve reached 1,667 words already! There will be days where you feel like you’ve written doggedly for five hours and you discover you’ve barely managed to grind out 800 words. If you can pile up the words on a good day — especially early in the month — pile them up!
These are just a few ideas that might help, if you’ve decided to embark on this crazy writing adventure. Few people who do the NaNo end up with a novel they can ever use in any way. Some people do write the seed of something good, that they then go on to polish, expand, and edit to death, until it’s a publishable novel.
The point, though, is not ending up with a publishable novel. The point is to challenge yourself to this writing adventure, and see if you can ride the waves of enthusiasm and actually get to the goal. It’s senseless and often useless — and it is absolutely wonderful fun. And you will probably surprise yourself, in the end, by having developed a lot of writing skills too, that will stand you in very good stead later.
Have a good time!