In principle, I like the idea of NaNoWriMo – the National Novel Writing Month, where aspiring writers are encouraged to spend the entire month of November writing a 50,000-word novel. The achievement you feel when you complete a novel is a wondrous thing, and anything that helps people achieve this goal can’t really be praised enough.
I’ve tried it two or three times, but for a variety of reasons I’ve never managed to get much off the ground. Since giving up on NaNoWriMo and trying to find my own way, I’ve completed three novels and have started my fourth. So with everyone and his dog beavering away on their NaNoWriMo novels, I’ve been thinking about what makes my own process work for me where NaNoWriMo doesn’t.
I think the key element is the pace. To write 50,000 words in 30 days, you have to average 1,667 words a day – and that’s a lot, especially if you have a job that takes up 50 hours a week including the commute. Write a thousand words on your first day, and you’re 667 behind the pace. Miss a day, and you’re another 1,667 behind the pace. Spend a weekend with your family, and suddenly the mountain you’ve got to climb looks impossible.
My normal writing pace is 1,000 words a session. Monday to Thursday I’ll manage one session in the evening, while at weekends I can often manage two sessions a day. Fridays, however, I take a break from writing, just to recharge my batteries, and try to write a blog post instead. My thousand-word sessions sometimes turn into 1,500-word sessions, and I always feel a warm glow of achievement if I hit that 1,500-word mark. That’s still 167 words short of NaNoWriMo pace, though. If I’m writing 1,500 words when my target was 1,000 (and I set that as my target in Scrivener) I’m exceeding my goals and it’s like an extra boost of encouragement – if I write 1,500 words when I’m supposed to be doing NaNoWriMo, I’m failing and falling behind, which is very discouraging. I think that’s why I gave up on NaNoWriMo in previous years – I missed a day, or fell short a couple of times, and it was looking like a long, hard slog to catch up.
Interruptions are another reason. I know they say you have to be selfish to be a writer, and to be honest I’m pretty good at being selfish, but there’s a limit, and sometimes the demands of family get in the way of hitting the artificial NaNoWriMo word-count. I’ve failed some years because of trips or outings we had planned – trips and outings I really didn’t want to miss. If you’re setting your own schedule, these aren’t a problem – but if you’re trying to hit 50,000 words by 30th November, spending a weekend in London in the middle of the month just cost you several thousand words that realistically you’re never going to catch up.
Sometimes you need to take a break from the writing to plan out exactly what’s going to happen next. In each of my three novels, I’ve taken breaks (sometimes as short as a day, sometimes longer) to work around problems I’d written myself into. It’s hard enough coming up with solutions without the tick-tick-tick of the NaNoWriMo deadline approaching to stress you out even further.
Then there’s the length. They chose 50,000 words for a reason – it’s long enough to be classed as a novel, while short enough to be just about achievable in 30 days if you really work at it. But very few novels are 50,000 words long. My first two novels were over 70,000 words each, as that was what was needed to tell the stories I wanted to tell, but my third novel was kept to under 40,000 words to make sure it conformed to the standard for Middle Grade children’s books. I’m extremely proud of Tales of the Ancient Rabbits, but even if I’d written it in 30 days (I didn’t – it took about 40 days in all) it wouldn’t have counted as “winning” NaNoWriMo – it fell about 13,000 words short.
I still think NaNoWriMo is an excellent initiative. But it’s just not for me – and I’m glad I’ve found a process that does work for me.