NaNoWriMo’s Limits Are What Sets Us Free

NaNoWriMo doesn’t require us to force writing on ourselves, it does require us to figure out a plan.

Oct 20, 2020 · 7 min read

I’ve taken part in NaNoWriMo for 13 years, and every year, the same two arguments against NaNoWriMo spring up:

Writers who never consider taking part in NaNoWriMo often give me the same reason why they wouldn’t: I can’t force myself to write.

This is a common misconception with NaNoWriMo: if we want to achieve the 50k word in one month, we’ll have to force ourselves to write even on days we don’t feel like it because those days happen.

And I agree. Days we don’t feel like writing happen, sometimes frequently. But I wonder: if we want to make writing more than a hobby, will we still rely on the elusive inspiration to go on?

Writers who tell me they can’t force themselves to write seem to think that inspiration is key to the writing process. And that’s perfectly fine if you want your writing to be just a hobby to pursue when you feel like it. But if we want to make it something more, even something we may rely on for our income, we need to find a strategy that will allow us to write every day — or most of the days — whether we feel like it or not.

Inspiration will still be a great part of the process, but we’ll have to organise the rest to function most of the time.

And this is where NaNoWriMo can be an excellent organising tool.

If we want to reach the 50k goal in 30 days, we need to write at least 1667 words a day. For me, that means about one hour and a half. Nothing undoable, if you think about it.

There are days we breeze through it because we are in the right headspace. Other days we slog through it, for whatever reasons.

First of all, NaNoWriMo shows us that writing isn’t always a fun activity. Sometimes writing is hard work, but we still have to do it if we want to achieve something.

Reaching 50k words in 30 days doesn’t allow any rest (well, for most of us, at least). We need to go on whether inspiration strikes or not.

I want to say now that I’m a firm believer that if we don’t feel like writing, it is perfectly useless to force us. If I do it, I’ll just waste two days: the one I’ll force myself to write, and the one when I’ll rewrite the entire thing.

But you know what? NaNoWriMo isn’t about forcing. At all. It is about organisation.

Discipline and plans

In all my years of NaNoing I’ve seldom missed a day.

And here’s where the value of this experience resides. If we want to be consistent at writing, inspiration won’t be enough. We’ll also need a plan.

1. Creating a routine is vital

The best chance of writing every day is creating a routine. This is the main lessons I’ve learned from NaNoWriMo. If we set aside aa dedicated amount of time in the day to write and we stick to it, our mind will learn to activate at that time.

Every other thing will lay on the side, and we’ll dedicate ourselves to writing.

It may be an hour (that’s what I prefer), it may be 10 minutes (I do know writers who do that successfully), but whatever amount of time it is, if we do it at the same time or in the same circumstances, our mind will know to prepare.

Some writers suggest creating a ritual so to set ourselves in.

I used to have a kind of ritual, a very simple one, and I can say that it does help. Once again, it’s signalling to our mind that it’s time to get down to business. Focusing will become easier.

2. Strategy makes the difference

When I speak about strategy, I don’t necessarily mean ‘planning’ — though that’s what made all the different form me when I started taking part in NaNoWriMo.

By strategy, I mean knowing where we are going. Very often, we take for inspiration what is actually plan.

Inspiration occurs in very short bursts, quite infrequently, but that burst of inspiration may fuel our writing indefinitely.

When we don’t have a strategy, we take the inspiration, and we start to write. It may happen that we don’t go very far because after we’re exhausted the sparkle of inspiration, we start to grope in the dark.

But if we grab that sparkle and instead of starting to write, we plan the entire idea, even if scantily, we’ll likely know what to write every time we sit down at our keyboard.

By planning, I simply mean knowing where the story starts, knowing what will happen in the climax and having an idea of how it will end.

We don’t need more than that.

Some of us like to plan it a lot more in details. Pin down the overall story structure, maybe write the characters’ sheets and synopsis, exploring different reasons and conflicts — all of this before writing the first line of the story.

Other writers like to just think to one scene or chapter at a time, brainstorming ideas before settling in of the day’s writing session.

It doesn’t matter how we go about it, the important part is having a direction. Even if we brainstorm every chapter just before we write it, if we have a direction, brainstorming will be a lot easier and more cohesive.

3. Choices will be our pals

When we create a routine, and especially when we challenge ourselves as in the case of NaNoWRiMo, we’ll have to also create priorities and make choices based on them. All the time.

If we want to write, we’ll have to let go of other things.

It may be going out with friends. It may be postponing reading a book. It may be preparing a quick dinner rather than a proper one. During one NaNoWriMo years ago, I decided to get up earlier to write before I went to work because in the nights it would have been impossible for me.

If we don’t take that time to write by making choices, and often by renouncing to something else, we certainly won’t reach our writing goal, whatever it is.

4. Playing outside our box becomes more appealing

Every writer has their comfort zone. This is only natural. There are themes we love to write about, types of characters we’re comfortable using, plot twists we know how to manage skillfully. We often use them, and that’s part of our style. It’s how readers recognise our stories in among so many others.

It’s a good thing, mostly.

But sometimes this becomes a limit. When we start to fall back to it every time we find ourselves in the same narrative situation, it may become repetitive.

It may be counterintuitive, but I’ve found that being limited by time, often pushes us off our normal paths rather than rely on it. When we a pressed to find a solution because we can’t stop writing (forcing ourselves?), we may decide to write a scene quickly, with the first idea that comes to mind, whether it is one of ours or not.

Sometimes it is a terrible idea, and we’ll rewrite it entirely during revision, but some other times, the idea is great even if it isn’t one we would normally use. And you know what? Even a terrible idea still opens up new possibilities. It helps us see the story in a way that is not the way we look at it normally. Having to move quickly allows our subconscious to work more freely and so to find solutions that we normally wouldn’t consider.

Whether we’ll keep those ideas or not, they inject fresh air into our writing, ideas that are ‘unlike us’ in a way, and precisely for this reason, allow us to try something different and new.

NaNoWriMo pushes our boundaries

We may consider all of this as ‘forcing ourselves’. In a way, it is. NaNoWriMo seldom allows us to work in our normal, ‘relaxed’ way. That’s why it is a challenge.

But precisely for this, it may allow us to experiment, to explore, to understand. It isn’t comfortable, but that’s why it is so valuable. It takes us out of our comfort zone, where we can find new, exciting ways to write.

Sarah Zama wrote her first story when she was nine. Fourteen years ago, when she started her job in a bookshop, she discovered books that address the structure of a story and she became addicted to them. Today, she’s a dieselpunk author who writes fantasy stories historically set in the 1920s. Her life-long interest in Tolkien has turned quite nerdy recently.
She writes about all her passions on her blog

The Cogs and Gears Storyteller

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Written by

Author of historical fantasy novels set in the 1920s | Dieselpunk | 1920s social history blogger | Hopeless Tolkien nerd

The Cogs and Gears Storyteller

Storytelling as an experience for writers and readers. How stories work their way into our lives


Written by

Author of historical fantasy novels set in the 1920s | Dieselpunk | 1920s social history blogger | Hopeless Tolkien nerd

The Cogs and Gears Storyteller

Storytelling as an experience for writers and readers. How stories work their way into our lives

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