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Surviving NaNoWriMo

National Novel Writing Month is almost upon us. It is a glorious thing to be celebrated, but it can also be gruelling. The nominal goal of 50,000 words is eminently doable but takes a significant investment of time and energy. This investment only increases if you are aiming for loftier heights: 100,000 words in the month takes three hours of fast writing every day.

You can do it, but you have to commit to it.

How do you make it through, though? How do you both succeed at NaNoWriMo and come out the other side with more than the merest shreds of your former life still intact?

Follow The Rules

I don’t mean the ground rules of the National Novel Writing Month challenge (ie no existing work, 50,000 word minimum, and ideally going in blind). Those are more in the way of guidelines, and there is a whole community of NaNoWriMo rebels who choose to flout them1.

The Rules I mean here are the ones I follow and come down to these points:

  1. never look back – don’t read anything until you’re done. Looking at yesterday’s work is a source of self-doubt and second-guessery. It also can trigger premature editing. If you must re-read, at least only do so after your word count quota is done for the day.
  2. don’t delete anything – you type it, you count it. If there are words that no longer please you then mark them as unwanted: use strike through formatting, or enclose in [square brackets].
  3. turn off the Internet – cat videos can wait, as can Wikipedia rat holes. If there is something that needs to be looked up than [enclose your question in square brackets]. That way you can both remember to check that detail later, and count the research note words!

The unofficial fourth rule is to back up your novel. You will be sad if you do not and it is lost. Trust me on this. Back up your files multiple times a day, preferably in multiple places.

Accept the Commitment

One of the best pieces of advice from the mother ship is to tell your friends and family that you are doing NaNoWriMo. This firstly tells your family why you are disappearing off at strange times to be by yourself for hours on end, but secondly it holds you accountable.

You also need to accept that this is what you are doing — set aside time to write, and then turn up at those times and make words. Even if the words come slowly, turn up.

Your typing speed isn’t that important2, as long as you’re not thinking about the typing so much as the story you are communicating. It only takes a typing speed of 17 words per minute to reach a pace of a thousand words in an hour, so touch typing is not essential3. But assuming that you can write at that speed then you will need to spend 90-120 minutes a day on average in front of the keyboard.

In other words, you will need to make time to do this. Set aside another hobby, or cut down on your TV. Take the bus rather than driving.

Your best path to victory is to write every day, but an occasional day off won’t hurt as long as you have built up a buffer (ie you are ahead of the pace you have set yourself). Buffers also help deal with unexpected events like a sudden change in employment status4 or illness.

Look After Yourself

The thing I would not cut is exercise5. If that is a routine you have then you already know the benefits of consistent exercise. If you are spending a couple of hours a day sitting down at the keyboard, then a daily burst of activity will be doubly beneficial. if you have access to a treadmill desk then that is a very good tool to mix the two.

Eating well helps your brain work. Try to eat sustaining meals with proteins and other long-chain polymers in them rather than sugar and fat. Too much caffeine may make your brain bounce around inside your skull but it won’t help you focus on the story.

Finally, get some sleep. Writing is tiring work, particularly if you’re not used to it. It is tempting to write instead of sleeping, but that is not a sustainable thing to do.

Help Keep the Event Going

If you are doing NaNoWriMo and you can afford to do so, donate to the organisation; web sites don’t host themselves. Buy a T shirt or some other merch; give them a cash donation.

Settle In For The Long Haul

I’ve billed this as how to survive NaNoWriMo, but truly this is all good advice on how to transition into a longer term writing commitment:

  1. set aside regular time to write, and turn up to do the work
  2. talk to people about your writing to hold yourself accountable
  3. keep yourself healthy
  4. help others

Good luck in your new writing lifestyle!

[1] this community of rebels is one I have been a part of several times in my NaNoWriMo career.

[2] I focus on typing because this is generally the most efficient way to capture words. I deeply admire those who hand-write their novels; it is not something I could do for a month.

[3] I have not formally learned touch typing. Most of my early keyboard time was for code which doesn’t submit easily to touch typing techniques because it consists of (to quote the Pointy-Haired Boss) bad spelling and too much punctuation.

[4] this has happened to me twice during November, once when I suddenly had a job and once when I suddenly did not. It is stressful either way.

[5] this is as much a reminder to myself as advice to others. Having November be no-exercise month has been a consistent issue for me.

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