Quantity, Not Quality:
National Novel Writing Month

Absolute Blank

By Erin L. Nappe (Billiard)

It’s the middle of November, and for many of us, that means desperately trying to keep up (or catch up) with our goals for National Novel Writing Month.

For anyone who hasn’t already heard about it, NaNoWriMo is a month-long challenge to write an entire 50,000 word (175 page) novel by midnight, November 30. The emphasis is on quantity, not quality, encouraging writers to ignore their inner editors and just get the words out.

In the words of NaNo’s creators, “You will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create.”

I talked to some previous NaNo winners, asking them to share their wisdom for reaching the finish line with those of us participating for the first time.

Background Image: June Marie/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)

Debbie Ridpath Ohi, a Toronto-based freelance writer who was a NaNo winner in 2002, said keeping focused on the goal and looking for support from friends and other writers was vital.

“Whenever I started falling behind my daily wordcount goal, there was always a temptation to give up,” she said. “But one of my reasons for publicly announcing my participation in Nanowrimo was to give myself that extra motivation. Peer pressure is a wonderful thing in a situation like this.”

Ohi also stressed the importance of turning off the critic within. “One of the goals of the whole Nanowrimo experience is to allow yourself to write without self-censoring, to get over those pesky writing blocks. Editing can come later, if that’s what you want,” she said.

S. Jennifer Stewart-Boyd is the municipal liason for Rhode Island, with 75-100 writers participating in her area this year. She was a NaNo winner in 2002 and 2003. She said she tells the writers in her area not to give up in the second week, when most participants are feeling the most fear, doubt and despair.

“If you can make it to thirty thousand words, it gets so much easier. Since I completed it the last two years, I have a lot more confidence now in my ability to see it through, even if I’m behind,” she said.

Stewart-Boyd herself was behind in the middle of the second week, but determined not to give up. “I’m still certain I’ll make it,” she said. “Just before it started this year, I looked over my two previous works, which I’d printed out and put in binders. It felt like a real book, and I thought, ‘You did this, and it’s a great accomplishment. You can do it again.'”

Most important, most of the writers agreed, was to keep going and see it through to the finish.

“Even if you only write a hundred words a day, keep at it, and see it through,” Stewart-Boyd said. “Whatever you do, don’t give up. It helps a lot to talk to others who are going through it, and that’s why we have write-ins, so that the writers will encourage each other, just by being there and going through the same thing.”

In order to motivate herself, Stewart-Boyd said she rewards herself every thousand words or so. “I get a break, to do whatever I want. I play videogames, take myself out, whatever is fun and feels special. I buy this hard-to-find stuff, Republic of Tea’s Writer’s Chai, and I allow myself a glass about every finished page or so. When I haven’t met my goal, I deny myself fun and special things, even make myself eat cold cereal instead of hot food. Every five thousand words, I get ice cream, which is one of my favourite things.

Sebastian Raaphorst, a software developer from Mississauga, Ontario, is in his fourth year as a NaNo participant. He said the key to finishing is to resist going back to delete what you’ve written.

“If you do that, you’ll almost certainly give in to temptation again and again, and you’ll fall far behind. Save the refinement for December 1st, or even better, January 1st when you’ve finished apologizing to your friends and family for ignoring them for a month.

Even worse, Raaphorst said, is resisting the urge to completely scrap your novel and start over.

“It was particularly bad this year, and by day six, my novel very nearly found its way into my PowerBook’s trash can; however, I forced my way through it, and cranked out a huge wordcount on days seven and eight, and everything fell into place: the plot, the characters, the dialogue, etc… Perseverance is the key!”

Rich Thomas, a Customer Support Engineer from San Jose, California, said the hardest part is writing every day. His advice is that it’s important to know when to be hard on yourself, and when to loosen up.

“Sometimes you need to keep going even if it is not going well. Sometimes it’s just a matter of sticking it out,” he said.

Thomas’s final piece of advice: “done is beautiful.”

“Every once in a while you will need to just write something. No matter how bad it is right now, if you keep on going, you will write something good later. That’s what your goal really is.

Megan Hoffman, a student at the University of Delaware, is a first-time participant. She said that for her, the biggest challenge is staying close to the computer.

“I go home maybe twice a month to do laundry. I visit my friends for the weekend in other states. It’s so easy just to forget about the novel for a few days, and I really have to work hard to get back into writing regularly,” she said.

She uses the peer pressure/competition method to keep herself motivated. She also carries around paper to jot down notes for herself during the day.

“You have to budget time and have things plotted out in advance. It makes a world of a difference,” Hoffman said.

Stewart-Boyd said that reaching the halfway point without giving up was an important factor in finishing.

“In 2002, I was afraid to tell anyone what I was doing, even my closest friends — even the person I was dating — because I didn’t know if I was up to the challenge,” she said. “But by halfway through the month, I knew I could do it, and I told everyone. After that, I knew I had to finish, because people I knew were pulling for me to do it.”

Some final words of encouragement from Ohi:

  • One challenge is the temptation to let Real Work interfere with one’s dedication to Nanowrimo. Fortunately I got over that pretty quickly.
  • Don’t do housework. Amazing how much extra writing time you can get that way.
  • The microwave is your friend.
  • Keep records of your daily wordcount and cumulative wordcount.

For Ohi, the best motivation was to “think ahead about how wonderful it will be to have actually Finished A Book.”

“It’s incredibly easy to start writing a book, much more difficult to finish one,” she said. “So what if it’s not the best quality? At least you’ve got one under your belt; you can now start editing, or move on to your next project.”

Final Poll Results

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