Getting the Most out of NaNoWriMo for Non-Participants

I don’t participate in NaNoWriMo. I’ve tried in the past, and found the pressure of writing a set amount daily intimidating. Even though you were allowed to have “makeup days” and nothing mattered as long as you met the end goal: 50 K in 30 days, that constant questioning as to whether or not I’d made my daily word count was so unnerving, it sent me into a tailspin of paralysis on the very first day from which I never recovered. And it left me with a lasting case of writer’s block it took me months to get over. Even now, watching the vast proportion of my social media interactions center around this fact can make me hyperventilate a bit.

Then there’s the fact that the NaNo guidelines are the antithesis of how I normally write. Not that I could find any specific guidelines when I searched this morning. So perhaps it’s my own understanding of NaNo that is flawed. For the most part, it seems people planning to participate may or may not make a sketchy outline in September, then sign up and begin tracking their word counts while they bang out their story in 30 days. No editing. No going back and changing things. Just write.

While this appeals to the pantser in me, I’m a big fan of going back and re-reading my WIP, editing as I go. Yes, on some levels this slows me down (and I’ve been known to bog down polishing the same scene over and over again) but this process works for me. Typically when I do this, I can see underlying themes I want to expand upon and weave into future scenes–something that’s far easier for me to do the first time than to go back and add later.

There’s also the fact that I don’t really need the act of completing NaNo to validate my ability to write a complete story in 30 days. When I was heavily invested in fandom, I wrote the equivalent of a novella every month. For four years straight. No, the mechanics of NaNo aren’t beyond me.

I suspect that one of the reasons I find NaNo so stressful is that when I was a child, we used to have timed multiplication tests in school. The teacher would put a recording on, and a flat voice would drone, “Eight times four is—beep!” A tone would sound, and the speaker would move on to the next problem. I’d begin hyperventilating at the sound of the incessant, relentless beeping, and the fact the test was progressing on without me being able to keep up.

NaNo feels a bit like that to me.

So why am I writing this post, then?

Because there is still a lot to be gained from unofficially participating in NaNo. 

For starters, there is the accountability factor. Though you may not be trying to get to that daily word count, perhaps you have other goals. The plethora of articles on writing, on making the best use of your time, and the number of groups outside of NaNo itself, can all be used to your advantage during the month of November. On any given day, you can Google “NaNo” or some variation of such, and come up with a wealth of useful information. Not to mention the Twitter hashtags and chats–some fun, some inspiring, most supportive.

The fact so many people out there are buckling down to their keyboards and making a hard push to complete a novel (or at least a novella) in 30 days means there’s a lot of support out there. Can’t find a group that welcomes non-participants? Start your own! There’s a wealth of collective creative energy out there. Don’t cut yourself off from it.

Maybe you aren’t officially participating–but there’s no reason you can’t set your own goals. Challenge yourself to read a set number of articles on marketing, or take a course on improving your craft. The principles are the same: if you tell yourself you don’t have the time, you’ll never make the time.

My plans for NaNo are to finish a stalled WIP. It was going like gangbusters until my mother died last year, and it has been languishing ever since. I want to push through to the end now–and a NaNo-style approach seems to be the best way to break through this block. I’m hoping to get it into a semi-decent form for a December submission.

Which means, I need to go get cracking on it. What are you doing for November?

My Non-NaNo Month

Back when I first began writing, I found out about NaNoWriMo and thought what a cool idea! There was so much I loved about the concept: committing to writing a novel in 30 days, the community, the support of fellow writers. The concept that everyone has crazy-busy lives and the only way to become a writer is to park your butt in the chair and write–no matter what–really resonated with me. So many people I knew talked about how they wrote their first book with NaNo, or their NaNo book went on to become a bestseller.

I signed myself up. At the time, I was already writing the equivalent of a novella a month in fanfiction. Stretching my output to 40 or 50 K would be a snap.

What I wasn’t prepared for was the crushing pressure putting a set number of words to paper each day would entail. I ended up with my first (and worst) case of writer’s block as I stared at the calendar on the wall and realized I hadn’t made my word count for the day. By the time several days had passed, I would hyperventilate every time I thought about sitting down to the keyboard. I gave up after only a week.

It took me a while to find my groove again after that. At first, it wasn’t clear to me why NaNo proved to be such an unexpected stumbling block. I was already a productive writer. So what was the problem?

Well, for one thing, NaNo asks that you simply sit down and pound out the words–no going back and editing. No correcting. You’d think as a die-hard pantser, this would be right up my alley. I could understand why someone who is meticulous about plotting might find NaNo challenging (unless they spent October plotting out their NaNo book). But a pantser? Piece of cake, right?

No. See, part of my technique is I re-read what I’ve written over and over again, massaging and tweaking as I go. This helps me recognize underlying themes and plot points only my subconscious noted before. Then I can expand on those themes, fleshing them out or seeding hints along the way. I love doing this. It’s one of my favorite parts of the writing process, as cumbersome and slow as it may be. I’m sure if I was more of a plotter, I could speed my productivity up. The problem is too much outlining is a sure-fire story killer for me. If I do more than jot down a few notes or story ideas, I feel as though I’ve already written the story.

So the ‘rules’ of NaNo inherently go against the way I write. Back then, I didn’t realize this was the issue, nor that I didn’t have to stick that tightly to the rules as long as I made my word count. I just floundered and failed, and it took me so long to recover from it, I decided never again. NaNo wasn’t for me.

Which is okay. Really. Sure, everyone else you know is doing it, and when you see all your social media friends talking about it, you want to play along as well. But if it is not for you, THAT IS OKAY.

This year, I’ve got a story I’d like to get finished, so I decided to use the NaNo momentum to help me write. Only this year has been a very sucky year for me personally (and it’s not over yet, more bad news on the way). Seriously, I’ve had so many losses this past year if I put them all in one story readers would claim it was unrealistic. So I reasoned that I didn’t need any additional stress right now. No NaNo for me.

But a kind of Non-NaNo I could do. 

What I needed more than anything was a commitment to parking my butt in my chair and writing every day, no matter what. Neil Gaiman has some great quotes along these lines. I was looking for the one in particular about butts and chairs and didn’t find it, but found this one instead:

“Just write. Many writers have a vague hope elves will come in the night and finish any stories for you. They won’t.”

So I decided November would be my Non-NaNo month. I made a very modest goal: 200 words per day. I figured I could commit to that without too much stress and that most days I’d exceed that goal. So far it’s working. I’ve been averaging about a thousand words a day, which is awesome.

Only my story is a hot mess. I’m sitting at around 34 K and my characters are snowed in together, learning about each other. From that standpoint, it’s kind of cool. Only they’re being too nice to each other and I have to figure out what’s going to happen when the snow melts, and how I transition from a blow-by-blow account of a snowy weekend to the progression of six months that I had originally planned for the story to take place. ARGH. I have a strong feeling most of this draft is going to end up on the cutting room floor.

They won’t be wasted. I’m learning about these characters as I go. But I’m also learning that even this Non-NaNo method might not be ideal for me. Still, the important thing is that I’m writing. As Nora Roberts says:

“You can fix anything but a blank page.”

Which is why I am still writing every day this month. Cheers to NaNo and Non-NaNo participants alike! Go us. 🙂