I still haven’t “won” NaNoWriMo, but every time I do it, I get a little bit closer. And even though I never win, I learn a lot, which is what allows me to get even closer on the next try.
That said, let me share my “tips” such as they are, which in this case are intended mostly to encourage fellow writers who might be perennial “losers” like me.
For me, it’s NeWriMoMo
It’s a subtle difference. I am sure there are plenty of NaNoWriMo purists out there. “You must start at the beginning of a novel and write 50,000 words of that novel.” Sure, that’s cool. If you don’t write during the rest of the year and you haven’t developed a more customized, personalized approach. For me, NaNoWriMo is just a time when I put aside pretty much everything else and just focus on writing. NeWriMoMo: “Ne”ls “wri”tes “mo”re than he does in other “mo”nths. If you can crank out a book in November, then go on to revise and publish it and have a one book per year output, more power to you. There’s no way I can do that. First off, I’ve only ever gotten 35,000 words in a single month, which is barely half of a short novel. Second, I’ve found that I like to bounce around between books when I get stuck. I know that this is anathema to a lot of writers, and most especially to writers who like to give advice. They want to write a book straight through and finish and have it published, and I understand that. But this is about me writing more than I usually do. It’s about trying to get 50,000 words. I don’t expect anything from NeWriMoMo to be even close to publishable (after revision, sure, but not in any relatively short time frame).
Think about the mathematics of it (because that’s what I do). Say I write 10,000 to 20,000 words across 2 books in an average month (20,000 being on the very high side). If, in November, I write 10,000 words across 5 different books, then it’s still 10,000 more words than I would have had on 2-3 of those books and about what I would have done on the other 2-3, so it’s still a net positive. I’m not hurting myself compared to my normal output.
Perhaps it’s a poor analogy, but it’s kind of like when people talk about the “Fat Burning Zone.” I’ve seen advice that people should run slower when working out to keep their heart rate in the “fat burning zone.” That’s great for people who are just getting started running because it allows them to actually get into it and do it. But for people who have been running a while and want to really burn the fat, running faster will burn more calories. Even if that means you’re burning more calories which are stored in carbohydrates and protein, you’re burning more calories overall, so you typically end up burning more fat calories as well. (Of course, then it also helps if you eat a higher proportion of carbs and protein so that you don’t just get back all the fat calories you worked so hard to burn, but still, like my writing, it’s a net positive)
And besides: I prefer Christine Carter’s approach of “The Easiest Thing” (from her book The Sweet Spot). The idea is: in order to get yourself to start doing a new habit, start with whatever is the easiest possible thing. I believe one of her examples was, if you want to start running, put on your running clothes and go outside. If you don’t feel like running, you’re already in your clothes and outside, so maybe you’ll just go for a walk? Or maybe you’ll just go back inside. (I may be totally mangling that example, but it’s the idea I’m going for) Same thing with my writing. What’s the easiest thing in writing? Sit down at my computer and look at Scrivener (I leave the app open so I don’t even have to click to open it because that would make the easiest thing a little bit harder). Once I’ve gotten that far, I know the next easiest thing is to write a sentence. And once I write a sentence, the next sentences start to come. And sometimes they don’t. If that happens, I’ve got other projects to look at. I’ll flip through open projects until one of them strikes me.
Okay. Yes. I know this is not the best way. But it’s only during NaNoWriMo that I allow myself more than 2 (or 3) projects. During my normal writing I’ve usually got 2 fiction projects (usually similar in genre so I don’t have to context switch as much), and 1 sort of non-fiction. During NaNoWriMo, I’ll usually add another fiction project from a previous NaNoWriMo that I only work on during NaNoWriMo, and another fiction project which is brand new so I’ve got plenty of open road ahead of me.
I know this works for me. It’s not just a whim. It’s a defined method/process I’ve created to increase my output in a systematic way. So besides allowing yourself to just break the rules of NaNoWriMo by working on a novel that’s already in progress and/or working on several different novels, my advice is to be aware of how you work and don’t restrict yourself to working one way just because you think that’s how writers are supposed to do it. Writers are artists, but at the same time, they have to produce something if they want to sell it. So the ability to create that balance between the creative and logical sides of your brain is important to develop.
Don’t be afraid to experiment with ideas, your process, and your life. When I first started drinking protein shakes, I tried making them by – as the name suggests – shaking them. It didn’t work. They came out all clumpy and borderline undrinkable. So I switched to using a blender and they turned out much better. “Great story Nels,” I can hear you saying, but that’s not the end. Not much later, I found a better tasting and even healthier protein powder. But I continued using the blender and didn’t even think to go back and try the shake method with the new powder until my wife final got
lazy smart enough to just be like “I’m just going to shake one and see if it works.” Lo and behold! It worked like a charm bracelet on the horn of a unicorn. Now, imagine that your books are different kinds of protein power and your writing process is shaking them up. The process that makes an unreadable word soup out of one book might make something smooth and delicious for your reader’s brains with that same process. But you won’t know unless you try.
A Writer’s Season Never Ends
At the end of NaNoWriMo, I’m still trying to write 800+ words/day to reach my goal for the year. Part of that is because I spent a lot of time earlier in the year revising Weathering The Past (Book 2 of The Valkyrie Project series), and part of it is because I was tired after all the revising and let myself off the hook a little too much.
But a Writer’s Season Never Ends. As much as I’d like the revision of a book to be the playoffs and the publication to be winning the championship, I don’t yet have the rhythm to make that analogy work. And while it might actually be a decent analogy if you stretch it a bit, writers don’t really have a regular season either. The off-season and the regular season are pretty much the same. You don’t get to take a break. I read an article in Chicago Magazine about Jimmy Butler’s off-season and his schedule of waking up at 5am every day and practicing three times a day sounds a lot like my writing schedule. I’m writing this post at 5am, and I write on the train or at lunch and – especially during NaNoWriMo – I force myself to write more after work even when my brain is dead and my words/hour rate slows to about 100. There’s no part where you show off in front of an audience (certainly not while traveling the country). If that sounds like a book tour, then it means the regular season comes after the playoffs and the championship and so the analogy is fundamentally broken. In which case, I’ll repeat it again: A Writer’s Season Never Ends.
But don’t worry too much. Because if you attempted NaNoWriMo – even if you didn’t win – it will be much easier to keep writing now. After reaching for 1,667 words per day, trying for 800 seems almost pedestrian. It’s like playing ball against Jimmy Butler for a month and then going back to play at your local gym.
Get Hulu Unlimited. During November, I had to try to keep up with Blindspot and Agents of SHIELD (pretty much the only two shows I watch anymore). With Hulu Unlimited (aka No Commercials), I was able to crank out an episode in less than 45 minutes while I did elliptical; multi-tasking which allowed me to get back to writing that much faster. Before the no commercials option, I would be there for at least 50 minutes, which is a long time on the elliptical, believe me. Or I’d have a show with 5 more minutes that I needed to watch. (I had to watch them in November because even with Unlimited, the episodes still expire so you have to keep up within the last 5 episodes). Outside of working out, it’s totally worth the $4/month for the time savings on watching shows with my wife. I haven’t actually calculated the ROI in terms of amount paid for time saved, but at about 13 cents a day, it doesn’t take much. And no, I don’t work for Hulu or any TV networks or anything else affiliated with Hulu. I just happen to like TV as well as being efficient.
This is probably more appropriate for a simple “Ask the Twitterverse”, but this way I can make it more than 140 characters since there’s some follow-up…
Writers: What numbers do you track with regard to your writing?
I listen to podcasts where they interview writers and a lot of them mention at least something related to word count goals. I also read 2k to 10k: Writing Better, Writing Faster, and Writing More of What You Love, and Rachel Aaron talks about how she tracked her time and writing output fairly meticulously (at least for a period of several months).
I also get more obsessed with numbers during NaNoWriMo and also when it gets toward the end of the year and I have a lot of numbers to work with.
Anyway… Here are the raw and/or calculated numbers that I try to track on a year-to-year basis:
- Total words for the year
- Average words per day
- Average words per week
- Highest word count day (and date) during the year
- Highest word count week (and date) during the year (as kind of a back-of-the-napkin analysis of productive times)
- Words per individual project (since I’m usually working on 2-3 things during the year)
- Total words in November (for NaNoWriMo, obviously – to compare to previous years)
- Word count by week (I forgot to do this for 2013, but it seems like a good way to identify productivity patterns and use that to enhance my scheduling)
Besides tracking numbers to be able to do retrospective analysis, I also use them during the year (along with some basic spreadsheet functions) to calculate things like:
- Words needed per day to hit goals (~111,000 words this year)
- Words needed per day to match last year’s total
- Words remaining until 1,000,000 written total (since March 2011)
- Current average per day and current average per week
It’s always fun at the beginning of the year when a big day of writing pushes my average to numbers that are totally unattainable on a year-long basis… or at the end of the year when a similar day cuts down the number of words needed to hit my goals like a Hammer of Dawn tearing through a Berserker. (Can you tell I haven’t played video games recently? I should have a GTA or Destiny related metaphor here…)
Is there anything else I’m missing that other people keep track of?
So I did some prep work (and some prep fun) for NaNoWriMo this year. And good thing, too. Because I had my best “November” of writing since I’ve been keeping track. I didn’t “win”, not by any stretch of anyone’s writerly imagination. But I did get 32,578 words written during my own somewhat modified NaNoWriMo.
“Now, I don’t want to get off on a rant here…,” but there’s a reason I’m writing my NaNoWriMo recap in the middle of December. You see, in addition to Thanksgiving, which most NaNoWriMoers have to deal with, November this year also happened to be the start of Open Enrollment for the Affordable Care Act. This matters because the company I work for is heavily involved in selling health insurance. I had been working a lot since, oh, August, but for the first 10 days of November, I actually managed to go over 1,667 words five times. 50% success. That would get me to 25,000 words by itself, but I was managing 500-900 even on the non-#winning days. But things got turned up (not turnt up unfortunately). Over the next 12 days, I only had the time and energy to get 3,771 words. Total. I would get up, go through code reviews in the morning, go to work, do work, come home at 8 or 9 each night with a brain so fried you could eat it.
So, instead of tossing in the towel, I decided to give myself an extra 10 days (((12 x 1,667) – 3,771) / 1,667 =~ 10). And in that following 18 days, I got another 15,000 words. Obviously not the 30,000 it should have been, but I was still working fairly long hours, and there was Thanksgiving (which was really just one day, because on the Friday, Saturday, and Sunday after Thanksgiving, I buckled down and came close to 3 days in a row of 1,667).
One nice thing is that the government is pushing back the start of Open Enrollment to October 1st next year, so hopefully things will be under control by the time November starts and I’ll be ready to set a new PR in NaNoWriMo.
For reference: last year I had 26,847 … So if I maintain that rate of improvement, I’ll be up to 50,000 in a mere 3 years! If only someone would start a MayNoWriMo… I know there’s JulyNoWriMo, but according to the site it is no longer actively maintained, and there were only 90 people who participated in 2014 compared to 148 in 2013. Not a positive trend. MayNoWriMo would be 6 months after (and also before) NaNoWriMo, and it also seems like it would still be the kind of weather where you don’t feel back that you have to stay inside and write all day since you’ve still got three months of summer ahead (though I suppose it’s basically the same as November in the Southern hemisphere). Also, in the US, you get Memorial Day off, which I think would be better than Thanksgiving since it’s a lot easier to say “Hey family, I’m not going to fly out to see you for Memorial Day” than it is if you try that with Thanksgiving. Maybe not a good time for college students who have Finals, but when I was in college, I wouldn’t have had time for NaNoWriMo anyway. (And I feel like college students probably travel at a higher rate than the average American over Thanksgiving, while during Finals, you basically lock yourself in your room or the library and don’t let anyone talk to you… Which sounds an awful lot like NaNoWriMo!)
I know I could do MayNoWriMo by myself, and that there are a lot of writers who probably crank out close to 50,000 words in any given month anyway. But I am not one of them. I like having the excuse that it’s a Nationally (Internationally) recognized thing that I’m taking part in, even though I’ve never really actually told anyone besides my wife that I’m doing it.
So anyway, there’s my recap/rant. If you participating in NaNoWriMo (or want to help me get MayNoWriMo off the ground), feel free to leave a comment!
Oh, and here’s a quick chart of my word count by day…
Last year I didn’t have a set playlist for writing during NaNoWriMo. This year, I’m trying to change that. Starting with the list I began last year, I’ve been adding to the Code Warriors playlist with songs that I hear that seem to fit the theme. Just as a warning, if you hate this playlist (which I can understand), I don’t think that means you’ll hate the book (whenever it ends up getting finished). The music is quite obviously and unabashedly heavy on EDM, Dubstep, and movie soundtracks. But it combines the two main things that I want to start off with which are: Technical/Electronic feel and Upbeat/Light-hearted/Energetic. (Okay, yes, that’s five if you split on the slashes, but it’s two general ideas)
It’s only a small part of the entire list, but this one spells it out pretty well… Play Hard.
Last year I did a pretty crappy job of prepping for NaNoWriMo. I was working on a couple different pieces, but basically started totally from scratch for NaNoWriMo without any prep on an idea that I’d been sort thinking about for a while. Obviously, I hadn’t thought about it enough… I got about 25,000 words written but halfway through I figured out that the first quarter of the book I was trying to write should actually be a book by itself. I was trying to jump in way too fast and accelerate to an arbitrary story point that I wanted to write about. In doing so, I uncovered a whole new story that could (and like I said, should) be told before I get to the other part.
My problem then became (and still is): I need to do some prep work. Why is that a problem? Because in my mind, Prep Work is not Writing. My logical mind is aware that I need to do more prep before my writing (the Valkyrie Project mostly congealed in my mind when I worked out the whole outline over a period of several hours while handing out candy to Trick-or-Treaters). But my goal-oriented mind says: You’re not going to hit your word count goal if you keep writing about this character or outlining more of the story! (To which my logical mind wants to respond: I haven’t hit my word count goal on a consistent basis in about three months, so maybe Mr. Goal-Oriented needs to STFU)
Nevertheless, this argument rages on in my mind even as I go through Sean and Johnny’s Planning and Outlining Novels using Scrivener course in the hopes that with 11 days left before November, I can have a wholly fleshed out plan for adding 50,000 more words to the start that I got last year (before going back with my tail between my legs to the other stuff I was working on before the month of insanity started).
If any other novelists are reading this, how do you account for planning time in terms of meeting goals? My possible solutions include…
- Go to a time count system for my goals instead of a word count. (The problem then being that I’d have to buckle down and make sure that I actually focus during the time I say I’m going to be working on writing. Also, sometimes I can come up with 500 words in 30 minutes, which might get me to my daily goal, but for planning I might get barely anything done in that same 30 minutes)
- Maybe go to a hybrid system of words/time where if I get to my word count goal quickly, then cool, I’m done. Otherwise, if I’m focused in front of the computer for a certain amount of time, then whatever I write is good enough. I feel like I’m self-aware and disciplined enough to make that work, but I’m also self-aware enough to know that I would probably try to use that soft measure as a way to slack off.
- Count words that I write as planning towards my word count goal. I like this idea, but it seems overly generous since writing about a character, or even a rough story outline, is a lot easier and can include a lot more superfluous/extraneous, stream-of-conscious type words than writing actual words for a manuscript.
- Write blog posts about my stupidly inane writing problems and count those words toward my word count goal. (Note: I actually do this already because I do count my blog posts as part of my word count. I justify this because: a) I am actually writing and editing the posts before I put them up, so it does at least require some of the same skill, and b) it’s part of marketing and trying to get my name out there a bit, so maybe someone will read a post I write and then be like “Who is this guy?” and see that I have a book [or soon multiple books] and decide to read something I’ve written besides a blog post).
- Just ignore word count goals when I’m doing Planning and accept that I can feel good about writing outlines and character synopses even though it doesn’t add any words to my manuscript word count.
Any other options?