I don’t do National Novel Writing Month. For some reason, every November I find myself mostly editing stories instead of writing them, and this year is no different. But I do have respect to those who take up the challenge, and even more for those who succeed.
One of my closest writer colleagues is Steven Hildreth Jr. He’s completed NaNo five times, and is well on course for a sixth. That puts him in the elite of all NaNo winners, easily in the top ten percent or even one percent of all participants. I reached out to him to pen a guest post for this blog about how to succeed at NaNo, and he graciously obliged.
Without further ado, here are his thoughts.
(Yes, there is rough language; no, I’m not editing it out. This is how he speaks and I’m not going to alter his voice.)
If you’ve tried it before, or if you run in writer’s circles, you see that acronym and know exactly what I’m talking about.
If you’re not a writer, or if you’re new to writing, you may be looking at me as if I have a horn growing out of my forehead.
NAtional NOvel WRIting MOnth was founded in 1999 with the goal of teaching writers not to try and be perfectionists on their first draft. The goal was just to WRITE, and write as fast and as furiously as one could. 1,667 words per day for a total of 50,010 words. It originally was set in July, but was shifted to November.
Thirty days of non-stop writing.
NaNo is a dedication to art. In 2009, 167,150 people started NaNo, and only 32,178 completed it. That makes for a roughly 81% attrition rate. If NaNo were a special operations selection course, it would be on par with BUD/S (Navy SEALs), and tougher than RASP (75th Ranger Regiment) and INDOC (Marine Force Reconnaissance).
NaNo is not easy.
Good. Because now we can move forward and build your confidence up a bit.
It’s daunting…but it IS doable. My first time doing NaNo was in 2010. I won my first time. I then completed it another four times. I know what it’s like to win. For a while, I got cocky. I took it for granted. I even looked at people who couldn’t complete it, shrugged, and went, “Well, it’s not for everybody,” without sympathy.
I needed to be knocked down a few pegs and taught a lesson in humility…and that is exactly what happened in 2014 and 2015. I failed TWICE in a row.
The first year, I was taking college courses and working nearly full time. I simply did not have the energy or time management skills to keep up. I washed out around the 22,000 word mark.
The second year, I was in the same scenario. Didn’t even make it to 20,000 words that year.
I was crushed. I questioned if I should even be writing novels, even though I had published two by the 2015 NaNo.
This year, I’m two days ahead of schedule. I’m 5,000 words away from the halfway point. I’ve got a strong plot and I am confident that I can complete it this year for a shot at redemption (I say that with a bit of apprehension, as I do not like counting my chickens before they’ve hatched).
So, what does it take to complete NaNoWriMo?
Here are a few pointers:
1) KNOW YOUR STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES. Some people can just pull a complete novel out of their ass with very little planning (pantsers, in NaNoLingo). Others need a very meticulous outline before they get started (planners). And some, like me, need a rigid direction to take the novel, but need a little room for spontaneity (plantsers).
The years I failed, I had no rigid plot outline. I hadn’t done the requisite research necessary to start a novel. I set myself up for failure.
I know this now, and I started NaNo 2016 with a strong plotline. I started writing it before November 1st (but don’t worry, I’m only counting the words I’ve written after November 1st as nobody likes a cheater) and had my momentum going into it. If that’s what it takes, do it!
But, you have to know your strengths and your weaknesses. If you go into it blind, you’ll learn real quick. If that means you fail, then come back next year, equipped with the knowledge from the previous year, and put boots to asses.
2) WRITE. You have to carve out time to write. You have to sit down and actually put the words to paper, digital or real. If you don’t carve that time out, you’re not going to get there. Pretty self-explanatory.
3) DON’T EDIT A DAMN THING. This is the hardest for most. I know this is hard for me. I break this rule every so often, but I won’t do any in-depth edits. The only thing I edit for is continuity. The less you edit, the better. Don’t worry about grammatical mistakes. Don’t worry about rephrasing things. Just get the thing on paper. It’s easier to smooth out a rough, completed manuscript than it is to write the perfect first draft (news flash: there is no such thing as a perfect first draft).
4) IF YOU FAIL, IT IS NOT THE END OF THE WORLD. It doesn’t mean you’re a horrible writer who should quit. People have lives. They have school. They have jobs. They have families. They have issues with which to deal. Writing is often a constant battle against life, and sometimes, life is going to win out. Accept it. It is better to write something than nothing at all.
Set a smaller goal for yourself if you find yourself in that situation and build up from there. Can’t make 50,000 in a month? Write 25,000. Write 10,000. Just write.
One of my closest friends and colleagues, Stephen England, throws a jamboree if he hits 1,000 words in a day. In comparison, I’ve cranked out 10,000 words in a single day to complete a novel.
England’s got four full-length novels and seven short stories available on Amazon. I’m still working on my third novel.
Maybe the NaNo speed isn’t for you, and that’s fine, too. As long as you are writing, and as long as you are completing, then you’re accomplishing the overall goal of NaNoWriMo, even if you can’t complete 50,000 words in 30 days. Remember, coffee’s for closers, only.
NaNo taught me how to complete a novel. Without NaNo, I would not be the writer, the published author, that I am today. I definitely would encourage all aspiring writers to give it a shot. Even if you’re not declared a “winner,” you will learn valuable things about yourself as a writer, lessons that you can apply to your craft and enhance your writing.
Now, stop listening to me ramble and put pen to paper/fingers to keyboard already, goddamn it.
Steven Hildreth’s stories can be found here. They are action-packed thrillers in the vein of Robert Ludlum, Tom Clancy, Andy McNab and Mark Greaney. Likewise, Stephen England’s thrillers have been extremely well-received, and the full list can be found here.