Things I Learned from #NaNoWriMo2015

I consider myself a writer not because I love writing.  After all, writing some things can be just about as pleasurable as hitting your head against a brick wall.  I consider myself a writer because, for me, it is the form of communication and expression that flows most naturally.

Which is why for the last half of the year, it has been frustrating not to be able to write a lot of personal work, even if only blog posts. There hasn’t been a lot of art either. And for those of you who understand, you know this is very unhealthy for passion, patience and imagination.

So in November, I challenged myself to take on National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo. NaNoWriMo is a yearly challenge to write a 50,000 word novel.

I did not win (i.e. reach 50k) this year, either, but I did manage to write a complete story. Which I think is OK considering it’s a Holmes-inspired mystery story and Holmes stories aren’t that long to begin with. (I even wrote parts of the prequel and the sequel to pad up the novel.) Here’s what I learned:

  1. Work in sprints. Word sprints were challenges in which you set your timer to a set number of minutes (could be as short as five, or as much as thirty). And then you type like crazy, your word speed sometimes exceeding your thought speed sometimes with comical results. Had I gone on word sprints every day, I would have gone past 50k words. (But unfortunately, a few out-of-town activities kind-of ruined that.) The value in sprints is that it forces you to think on the paper (or computer screen). Thoughts are nice. Thoughts are good. But they will remain thoughts forever until you make them tangible. Once they are concrete words in front of you, then you become free to revise, to correct, to expound, to explain, to rephrase, to rearrange. But at the very beginning of any creative process, the most important thing is to simply let it all flow.* Sprints are something that I want to apply to my everyday life.
  2. I am a planner. As opposed to the pantsers, who just wing it all through November. (I tried pantsing on my first NaNo and… my novel just became confused.) Which is probably why I’m chronically cranky at things that are poorly planned. (This has something to do with hospital training where, even if someone suddenly and unexpectedly drops dead in front of you, everything you do and the location of everything you need has been preordained.) It’s always handy to know your own working style. That’s not to say that you’re going to be entirely inflexible, though. It’s just that your working style is the one that will usually require the least effort, and is less likely to make you tired and give up in the middle of it.
  3. Always carry a notebook (or at least something to write on). My best ideas usually come at inopportune moments. In the bathroom. On public transportation. When I’ve woken up at three in the morning. In the middle of a meeting. There never has to be an excuse not to jot that idea down, even if it’s only a quick note in my phone or a doodle on a piece of paper. Granted, I don’t use every single idea I come up with. But writing it down also makes it concrete enough for me to determine its usefulness. As opposed to agonizing over forgetting a fantastic idea that in reality wasn’t going to make it in the novel anyway.
  4. Lots of self-care. Get enough sleep. Eat healthy and eat delicious. Drink lots of water. Freshen up with a bath. Brush your teeth. Floss. Take a walk. Phone a friend. Drink lots of coffee. Although this may also require a bit of self awareness. Personally, I can do anything on an empty stomach but if I’ve lost just an hour of sleep my concentration goes down the drain. (Admittedly, one of the reasons why I didn’t do any more sprints by the third week was that I had lost a lot of sleep to the aforementioned out-of-town trips.)
  5. “Problems of output are problems of input.” I posted a link to this post by Austin Kleon on my facebook during NaNo. It’s a short read, but very enlightening. Basically: “In other words: all writers are readers first. When I stall out, it’s time to start taking things in again: read more, re-read, watch movies, listen to music, go to art museums, travel, take people to lunch, etc. Just being open and alert and on the lookout for That Thing that will get me going again. Getting out the jumper cables and hunting down a battery.” So guess what? Being busy with NaNo wasn’t an excuse not to curl up to a good old mystery novel after all.

* Although for goodness’ sake, this does not mean that you are allowed to submit this first draft to your editor just because it’s “something”. As someone who edits, I cannot express the amount of energy it takes not to strangle everyone who submits me their incoherent first draft and expect ME to make it work.

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