Doing NaNoWriMo Differently: Some Thoughts

Most people who write for pleasure have at least heard of it: NaNoWriMo. The premise couldn’t be simpler: the initiative departs from the idea that November is an ideal month to get your novel written. After all, it’s dark and dreary and Christmas is still a long way away. If you write every day for a month, the website claims, you will end up with a 50,000 word manuscript. While it will not be ready for publication, it gives you something to edit and build upon. A kick start, so to speak. As others will be doing the same it is also a great opportunity for networking, especially if you keep track of your progress on the official website.

I’ve participated once, in 2012, and it works. By the end of the month I had written a novel-length manuscript. I use this description, and not “novel”, because the finished product was by no means ready to be shared with the rest of the world. It’s been a while since I last looked at it but I suspect this is still the case. I was fun, exciting and exhausting, but also a bit rubbish. In short, NaNoWriMo is an amazing way to up your writing game if you’re stuck in a rut. It’s not necessarily the best way to produce publishable work in a short amount of time, nor does it claim to be.

This year, after finishing Tim Clare’s free writing crash course, I was keen to maintain a daily writing habit. November was just around the corner but I felt ill-prepared to write an entire novel. While not short of ideas, I didn’t feel I could commit to writing 50,000 words in a month. Do the math: it amounts to 1666.67 words per day. I’m awaiting the publication of my first academic book. Working full-time. I’m knackered. Give me a break.

But I had an idea in mind I wanted to explore. A work of fiction set in the town I grew up in. A project inspired by a bout of homesickness. I wasn’t ready to write about it in novel form – I did not have a plot as such, or characters, or any other form of plan. But I figured I would be able to write for ten minutes a day, as I’d done during Tim Clare’s course, and see where I ended up.

November is almost over and I’ve succeeded (I think it’s safe to say that I’ll be able to stick with it for a few more days). On some days it was hard to grab my pen and start writing, on other days I easily clocked in thirty uninterrupted minutes. My approach was quite different from the one I used for previous fiction projects. Rather than writing a story from beginning to end I would start at whatever point took my fancy that day, write a scene, and perhaps continue the next day, or start somewhere else. It was liberating. Some pieces I wrote were crap, some were okay, some were quite good. The result feels messy and disjointed, and nowhere near finished, but I had a lot of fun creating it. And I’ve got an almost-full notebook to show for it. Mission accomplished.

I still think NaNoWriMo is a cool idea. Everyone can participate. All you need to do is get yourself some pen and paper, or any other writing device, and commit to doing a set number of words every day. But in some circumstances the pressure the 50,000 word limit creates may do more harm than good. It’s also not helpful for people who prefer other forms of writing: poetry, graphic novel, flash fiction. Yes, I know the initiative is called National Novel Writing Month, but I’m a fan of inclusivity. Writing that is not a novel is just as valid and deserves to be celebrated too.

And of course any month can be Writing Month. Any day can be – and should be – a writing day. I for me intend to keep going, not necessarily to get the novel finished and published and become a world-famous author, but because I enjoy writing it. It’s so easy to stop doing enjoyable things because you’re tired, pressed for time, or just not feeling like it. Or because they don’t feel worth doing because they’re not making you money or gaining you professional status. But if you do stick to the habit it will become a natural part of your life, like brushing your teeth, and your day won’t feel complete if you don’t spend ten minutes on your chosen frivolity.

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