I’m going to open this post my admitting that I have never officially completed NaNoWriMo; the one time I registered, some years ago, I fell considerably short. However, most of the books I have written were completed in less than four weeks; I tend to work quickly. I state this merely to cite my credentials, as for once this is a topic I feel comfortable claiming some expertise in. Over the course of the next half-dozen posts, I intend to go through my work pattern, my preparation, and the best way to get that book completed; the first book is always the hardest. (Actually, that isn’t true. The second book is usually harder than the first, after which it does get a little less daunting - once you know you have done something twice, the mental block starts to get easier to dislodge.) This time, I will take part, and will record my progress on the blog. Alamo 16 won’t write itself, after all.
Here we are, at the start of October, with four weeks left to go before November 1st. Sounds like a long time, but it really isn’t. The preparation has to begin immediately, and we’ll start with the really mundane stuff, the non-writing stuff. All of us have regular commitments of one sort or another, things that we can’t get out of, but there are also those chores that you can really get out of the way now, so that you aren’t worrying about them in November. Get a head-start on that Christmas shopping, make sure to make that doctor’s appointment rather than putting it off, get those shelves put up now rather than waiting until you are in the middle of a chapter. I’m terrible at this as a rule, but in between books I like to schedule a few days simply to hit all these jobs as hard as I can.
Then comes the writing space. You need one. Somewhere out of the workflow of the house, somewhere where you can write for an extended period without being distracted. Where you can sit and type comfortably, which means a desk and a chair, most likely. Stake out your spot ahead of time, and get it ready - and if that means buying a new computer chair to replace the one with the alarming lean, or getting a new keyboard that actually has a ‘y’ key, so be it. This doesn’t have to be in your house, of course. Libraries can work just as well, as can coffee shops, but make sure that you can work undisturbed in such places - and the best thing to do is to have a little dry run in advance. (Don’t start the novel, of course, but write a long blog post or poke at a short story, something like that. Just make sure that you can work there for an extended period without anyone stopping you for any reason - and that you will be comfortable. You’ve got a lot of work ahead.
You’re going to want a set time each day to write. Now, that doesn’t mean that you can be inflexible. If you unexpectedly get a couple of hours when you aren’t doing anything else, by all means use it, but you’ll also want to have a time that is your own. Early morning, late evening, whenever. Make sure that it is long enough; two hours is probably about right, with a short break in the middle. (We’ll get to that in a minute.) It generally takes at least a quarter of an hour for me to get started, for the creative juices to come to the boil, and from what I have read, that’s pretty common. Make sure everyone around you knows about this, knows that you are ‘out’ during that time except for emergencies. Which will crop up, make no mistake about it.
One piece of advice here that I don’t hear very often, but I think is important. Plan for rest breaks. Working for two hours in one long stretch is decidedly not a good idea; remember that office workers are recommended to take five minutes break every hour, to reduce on eye strain if nothing else. In the middle of your writing period, plan on making yourself a cup of coffee, sticking your head out of the window for a few minutes, something like that. Don’t do anything to distract yourself, though - no Youtube videos, no picking up that book you are reading. It’s fine for you to get a short break from writing if you are still keeping your mind on your work.
And on that note, don’t plan on working every day. I know that goes against a lot of established advice, but thirty days is a surprisingly long time. There are two schools of thought on this one, some advocating that you set yourself some days off to look forward to, and to plan things for, others suggesting that you treat it more ad hoc. I would lean towards the latter course; the last thing you want is to wake up energized to power through a couple of chapters, only to realize you’ve committed yourself to going out. On the other hand, if you sit down at your desk and you really aren’t in the mood for whatever reason, you won’t do well.
As ever, planning is key. I work on the average of two thousand words in an hour, writing an average of five thousand words a day, but those are extremely rough figures. Hopefully this isn’t the first time you have written anything, so you will have some idea what sort of speed you can manage. Let’s be conservative and say a thousand words an hour; at two hours a day, that’s sixty thousand words, comfortably over your target. Which means five days off over the course of the month, five days when you can happily say ‘to hell with it’ and goof off. Or can accept the fact that the flu isn’t going away. Whatever.
If you haven’t read it yet, stop reading this right now and go look at Michael Moorcock’s ‘How to Write a Book in Three Days’. Now, that suggests speed that is frankly borderline insane. I occasionally get moments when I think about trying that, but fortunately sanity rears its head before I commit to it. Nevertheless, there are a lot of valuable lessons in that article, not least breaking down the structure of your book. I’ve read a lot of books that presumed to give guidelines on ‘how to write your book to this template’, and by and large I’ve found them all restrictive as hell. With that in mind, I’m going to recommend a template for you to work to.
Twenty-five chapters, each at least two thousand words long.
There are good and simple reasons for that, not least being the sense of achievement you will get out of it. Yes, watching the word counter tick up over the course of a month is a good thing in itself, but I always feel better knowing that I’ve finished another chapter. Further, it’s a lot easier - at least in my experience - to pick up a manuscript at a chapter break rather than in the middle of a piece. Little story here. On a couple of occasions, I’ve managed to write five figures in a day; my ‘record’ is a little over eleven thousand. Once it was simply an accident - everything was flowing really well, and I looked up at dinnertime to realize that I’d passed ten thousand words. The other was planned, the battle sequence in ‘Sacred Honor’. I knew going in that it was going to be a long one, five chapters long, each told from a different point-of-view to show the whole battle opening up. It was going to be hard enough to keep it all in my head as it was, so I decided to sit down and do the whole thing in a day, keeping myself in the moment of the piece. I just about pulled it off, wrote the final chapter of the book the next day, then crashed out for four days afterward. The point I am laboring to make here is that the flow of a book is a precious thing that must be cultivated, and that you want to make it as seamless as you can. Don’t break unless you have to, and stick to the natural stopping points of your book - the chapter breaks.
We haven’t yet got around to what you are going to write about. Nor will we in this post, but whatever your planned project is, the odds are that it is going to require some research. Even the wildest fantasy can benefit from something, so that that done right now. Hit the books, make your notes, watch the documentaries, go to the museum. Pick a couple of reference books that you can have with you at your desk, ones that you can just flick through when needed. If you must, use the internet as well. bookmarking any sites that you might need. A random name generator is a good idea in any case, and there are several good ones out there. A trick here is to prepare lists of names in advance and print them out - then if you need one, just take the next one down the row.
What, you say? But I’ve planned my book down to the finest detail, and know everyone in it? Trust me, this is a great timesaver whatever happens. You will find that there is a character you have forgotten about, or you’ll hate ‘Hortense Honeypenny’ after writing it a dozen times and want a replacement. (Speaking purely personally, I hate her already.) Maps, anything else like that. Get a dossier, a folder, a collection of notes together, and this is just as important whether you are pantsing or plotting. There is a key rule here, though, and that is to keep it sensible. When you are writing to a deadline - and at the heart of it, that’s what NaNoWriMo is all about - you don’t need to waste half an hour rifling through your notes. Prepare cheat sheets, lists of names, places, rough story outlines, but try and keep it to only three or four sheets of paper. (Yes, paper. You can do it referencing from the screen, flicking back and forth between files, but it’s still easier just to glance down at a sheet of paper instead. Unless you have some sort of dual-screen set-up, I suppose…)
You’ll notice that almost none of this has been advice about how to actually sit down and write a novel, I presume. Don’t worry, we’ll get to that. The core of this post is to illustrate that being prepared is the most important thing. Get everything dealt with ahead of time that you can, in order to give yourself the smoothest possible ride while you are writing. If you like to write to music, take the time to sort out a pile of CDs or to get a playlist set-up. Get that new pair of glasses now, rather than putting it off. Anything that you can do to make your life easier in November, needs to be done in October. Even that minor five-minute job you can get out of the way will save you those minutes of writing time later on.
So, you’ve got your workspace ready, you’ve done the November chores early - or at least, set things up so they can comfortably postpone them until December - you’ve got your music ready, sorted out your notes into a nice plastic folder, and warned the family that between 2100 and 2300, you don’t exist as far as they are concerned. Now you can start to actually think about writing the damn book, and I’ll deal with that in my next post.
Oh, one more piece of advice. Arrange to take a couple of days off. Not in November. December 1st and 2nd, if you can swing it. Trust me, by then you are going to need them.