Surviving NaNoWriMo, the Tough Mudder of Writing Challenges

That chill felt by writers at the sound of the words “National Novel Writing Month” is more than just a brisk fall wind.

For seventeen years running, November has become a time of year associated with procrastination, scrawled notecards, and word-counts in the glorious tens of thousands — the literary equivalent of a Tough Mudder challenge.

But no need for you to toil alone, or unaided. Those who return for NaNoWriMo year after year end up exchanging tips as well as battlefield stories. For example, New York City actor and producer Amy Lee Pearsall, whose participation hasn’t necessarily been continuous (“I’ve finished four times,” she told us. “I’ve begun more times than I can count”) but has become an essential part of her evolution as a writer, and so has the community that’s sprung up around the event.

For 2016’s crop of aspirants, further help is on the way. We’re proud to introduce your new Ultimate Guide to Writing Advice, a downloadable booklet which great writers like Una LaMarche and Charles Baxter have stuffed with years’ worth of experience, condensed into a few practical lessons that will benefit anyone preparing to hurl themselves into the creative wilderness, facing what Andy Weir refers to here as “The Tyranny of the Blank Page.”

In the remaining weeks, there’s still time to give your writerly sensibilities more thorough overhaul — Anne Lamott’s remarkably candid Bird by Bird, for example, is a non-judgmental tour through the spasmodic and naturally disorganized mind of a writer. Cartoonist and writing instructor Lynda Barry’s What It Is similarly plumbs the murky depths of your stifled genius, revealing not just the how of writing but also the why. For those who who aren’t easily intimidated by others’ success, Stephen King basically slayed this genre with On Writing, proving himself to be a thoroughly unpretentious expert on the subject of slapping down words on the page.

But as the hour of your first marathon session grows near, it’s the nervous company of your fellow NaNoWriMo aspirants from which you’ll draw the most comfort. Below, Pearsall elaborates on her experience in the trenches; between her observations and our Guide’s cadre of writing instructors, you should be able to register for the event with total confidence.

What did you end up writing for your very first one?

It was a story loosely based on something that had happened in my own life. It was terrible. And first drafts are always terrible, but this was really bad. I’m not sure I would have ever done anything with it. My participating in NaNoWriMo that first time was more an exercise in proving to myself that I could crank out 50,000 words toward a novel in a month. The good and bad news was the draft was destroyed when my hard drive crashed. So — yeah. I lost my first novel to technology.

Now that it’s become something you do regularly, do you find yourself thinking or pre-writing in advance about subjects you want to write about?

I keep a log of story ideas now. Historically, I’ve been what you would call a “pantser,” or someone who writes by the seat of their pants. I might have had a general idea of what I was going to write, but other than that, whatever landed on the page that day was what happened. More recently, I’m finding that I prefer to roll with a rough outline on index cards. It’s still kind of “whatever happens,” but jotting things down on cards seems to help me focus the story. An added plus: if I don’t feel up to writing a given scene on a certain day, I can flip through the cards and write another scene. It’s out of order, but I can keep up with my word count. (Everything gets fixed in post, right?)

What is it about the experience that has drawn you back in, time after time?

Writing is a solitary pursuit. There’s power in the knowledge that there are people all over the world tearing their hair out over the creative process at the very same time that you are. There’s also something about setting a goal with a deadline and making both public that adds an element of accountability.

If you could go back and coach yourself as a first-timer, what advice would you give?

I finished my first time out, so I’m not sure what else I would say to myself other than “back up your stuff.” To anyone else trying it for the first time, I would say the goal is just to write 50,000 words toward a shitty first draft (in NaNoWriMo parlance, a SFD). You’re not going to write War and Peace. No, you’re really not. Just write the story you have to tell. Get the words down. No editing on the first pass, no second guessing, just get the hell out of your own way.

Are you involved in the NaNoWriMo community, or have friends that you bond with over this pastime?

For NaNoWriMo 2009, I hosted a weekly write-in at a local restaurant in northern Manhattan, and I publicized it on the NaNoWriMo community boards. There were four of us who showed up every week, and we all crossed the finish line. I loved having that in-person camaraderie, even if most of the time we were silently tapping away. It was not without its challenges, though. The manager of the restaurant didn’t want us taking up a big table with laptops, in spite of the fact I had the support of the owner. It might have been a pursuit better suited to a coffee shop, but there were none in the neighborhood at the time. Even then, I wanted to do it over a brunch cocktail and a bowl of chili. I don’t think I was asking for too much.

Are there any tricks you use to make sure you hit your regular word count, or keep yourself committed through the whole month?

It has helped me personally to make the commitment to write an hour a day. Once I get started, I will very often write for longer than that. If I start out thinking, “I’m going to write 50,000 words,” I’m dead in the water. Overwhelm kicks in, and it’s just the worst. If I can maintain a daily target of 1667 words, which is about three pages, I’m doing just fine. I’m not going to lie — sometimes that doesn’t happen. There’s always one or two days where I’m madly trying to make up 5000 words, because life gets in the way. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just part of the process, and that’s what coffee is for.

How do you feel you’ve grown as a writer because of this experience? How do you feel about the body of work you’ve produced because of NaNoWriMo?

I think that the fact that I can say that I have a body of work and that it’s a direct result of participating in NaNoWriMo speaks for itself. Now, whether or not anyone will ever see that body of work — that’s another issue entirely.


This article originally appeared on Signature.

Tom Blunt has been a producer and host of numerous entertainments in New York City, including a film-inspired variety show called “Meet The Lady” for the 92nd Street Y. He has written for sites such as The Awl and New York Magazine; his crackpot cinematic theories have been cited in The Guardian and IFC News.

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