Do You NaNoWriMo? Ideas for When the Real World Intrudes on Your Word Count

By Laura Oles

It’s that time, people.

Writing communities are abuzz with NaNoWriMo preps, countdowns and first week updates. By my calculations, you should have 11.669 words down. How’s it going so far? Are you crushing your goals or is the weight of the word count catching up to you? Each year I struggle to decide if I’m going to try NaNoWriMo again for a new project. The organizer part of me wants to dive in with a plan, a schedule, and a competitive desire to write 50,000 words in 30 days. It’s a fun way to jump start a new project or to get into the habit of writing without worrying too much about arranging the right words in the right order, putting your inner editor on pause where she belongs.

It also doesn’t usually work for me. At least, not in the traditional structure.

In the past, I told myself that if I were more organized/committed/talented/all the things, I’d crush the 50k with extra words in my back pocket. Now at this stage in my writing career, I understand that not only is it okay for me not to put this kind of pressure on myself for a small block of time, it can actually backfire.

Also, Thanksgiving. Trying to stack an extra several hundred words daily to cover those days when I’m cooking and spending time with family just adds additional pressure during a time when 1) several things need to get done in addition to my current work and personal commitments and 2) I want to focus on the people around me and not the fact that I’m 432 words short for the day. 

Don’t get me wrong. If this is your jam and you find that the traditional NaNo structure of 50k in 30 days is for you, by all means, set that keyboard ablaze with your fast fingers and quick fire ideas. I’m here rooting for you. But for those of us who’d like to enjoy some of the energy created by the challenge while being flexible with our own goals and daily lives, I’d like to offer a few suggestions that may work as alternative challenges.

A Page a Day:  This is one of my favorite go-to strategies when my schedule has blown up shortly after getting out of bed. The best laid plans and all that. If I can just get one page a day down, it often leads to two, three or four pages. It’s usually the IDEA that I only need to write one page that helps push me out of that mental space of hitting a thousand or fifteen hundred words. Some days I write slowly and others I can hit two thousand. Some days I don’t write anything more than a grocery list. But, once I started shooting for a page a day, I find that I usually hit a higher count and I also write more consistently.  

Get Up Early (or Stay Up a Little Later):  I’m a morning person. I don’t mean that I jump out of bed with a smile on my face ready to take on the day. It’s more like I stumble out of bed and promise myself that a cup of coffee fixes all things (it fixes most things, right?). For those times when I have a deadline and a busy schedule, getting up early and going straight to my desk (yes to coffee but no to email and news) allows me to get a jump on the day and claim time before other responsibilities take over. A friend swears that after ten o’clock in the evening is the perfect time for her to write. She has always been a night owl and has structured her schedule to make this work for her. There is no right answer, only what works for you. 

Outline or Brainstorm Ideas: “You don’t have writer’s block, you have preparation deficiency.” This quote from Adam Sternbergh rings true for me. If I’m struggling with a scene or a particular plot point, it’s often because I haven’t done the necessary work to get the words on the page. This is a signal to step back and ask deeper questions, to better understand what is unfolding in the story—and why. The words usually follow once I have the puzzle pieces in the right places.

Give It a Shot Anyway: One of the benefits of trying NaNoWriMo is that it often allows us to draft what the incredible Anne Lamott calls “shitty first drafts.”  In Bird by Bird, she writes, “The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later.” I keep Bird by Bird on my desk because I need to be reminded that, with every book or short story I write, it’s okay to start with a messy draft. Just get the words down. They don’t have to be perfect. Most likely they won’t be. Mine rarely are. But there will be something to work with, a draft to edit and polish, and that’s a fantastic start. Words on the page. The number doesn’t matter as much as the fact that the words exist.

I also realize that our ability to tackle NaNoWriMo can change from year to year, depending on our circumstances, our commitments, our goals and countless other factors. Some years it feels like a great idea and other years I’d rather have a full day of dental work.

What about you? Do you participate in NaNoWriMo or use it to launch or expand a writing project? Why or why not?

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