National Novel Writing Month

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Surviving 30 days of noveling

Setting out to write a novel is a daunting task: you have to come up with characters, plots, settings, themes. And then there’s the ultimate obstacle of actually sitting down and writing it. Yet for the last several years, come every November 1st, thousands of people have not only given it a shot, they've tried to do it in a single month.

That’s National Novel Writing Month in a crazy-sounding nutshell. The premise is simple enough: write 50,000 words of a novel between November 1st and November 30th. It doesn't have to be finished. It doesn't have to be good. It just has to be 50,000 words. If writing a novel under normal circumstances is a marathon, then NaNoWriMo is more like a sprint that just happens to go on for 26.2 miles.

While you may not be able to produce The Great American Novel, Part II in just thirty days, that’s not really the point of NaNoWriMo. It’s an excuse, a reason to actually sit down and translate that story you've always wanted to tell from thoughts and half-cooked ideas into actual words and, at the risk of getting ahead of ourselves, sentences.

As November 1st draws closer, I thought I’d offer some of the hard-earned knowledge my experience as a NaNoWriMo’er—three times a winner (which in NaNoWriMo-land nets you a snazzy PDF certificate you can print out)—has brought me.

Make a schedule and stick with it. I can’t stress this point enough. Writing isn't just like exercise, it is exercise for your brain. There are days when the idea of sitting down in front of that computer will make you long for watching paint dry, but the more you stick to it, the easier it will get. Write every day that you can and set yourself modest, realistic goals. If you can pull off writing daily for the whole month, you just need to produce about 1,666 words a day, which you can probably do in an hour or two. Miss a day and that goes up to 1,724; three days, and you're up to 1,851; and so on. So, at the risk of veering into tautology, the more you write, the less you have to write. It’s also always good to have a buffer, so if you get into a groove, blow past that goal and get a few more words down. Just remember to leave some for tomorrow.

Find your place. Some people need to work in absolute quiet. Somewhat counterintuitively, I tend to focus better when I’m surrounded by people: it actually forces me to concentrate on what I’m doing. But everybody’s different, so you need to figure out what works for you, whether it be the quiet of the local library, the buzz of the coffee shop down the street, or your own desk and chair at home. Last year I started going to the local NaNoWriMo meetups in my area, which are a great way to connect with other participants and remind you that you’re not writing in a vacuum. If there isn't a meetup in your area, you can always hang out with other folks virtually on NaNoWriMo’s forums too.

Music, maestro? Just like locations, listening to music varies. Some people work better with music, others find it distracting. I often like to fire up some tunes while I'm working, though I prefer music without words; trying to listen to words and write words at the same time usually results in me failing to do either effectively. However, if I do end up listening to songs with words, I stick with music that I’ve heard so often that I don’t need to actively listen to it. In other words, this probably isn’t the time to start appreciating the subtle nuances of the latest Bob Dylan album.

Keep it simple. We’re a tech magazine, so obviously we’re not Luddites, but I’ll let you in on a dirty little secret: you don’t need any special software to be a writer. Some people like all the bells and whistles offered by Microsoft Word or all-in-one solutions like Scrivener; if those help you then, by all means, go nuts. But don’t get bogged down in the trappings. At the end of the day, all you really need for writing is some place you can put words. My mother’s participated in NaNoWriMo for a couple of years now and she’s written all of her stories in TextEdit. I’ve written at least two complete novels in AppleWorks. Take a page from my recent profile of artist Bob Staake, who does all his work in Photoshop 3.0, and find some place you can enter words and (most importantly) save them. Everything else is icing.

There’s no voodoo to it. If there's one idea to hold onto when you sit down to write your novel, it's this. You don’t need special powers or some sort of license. Yes, it's a grueling task that requires dedication, but at its most basic level it’s about writing one word after another. This isn’t the time for editing, or worrying about finding the perfect turn of phrase. There’s always time to edit, tweak, and improve later. Turn on the spigot of your creativity and keep it running until the well is dry. Keep putting one word after the other and you’re guaranteed to hit 50,000. It’s unquestionably a challenge, but that just increases the sense of accomplishment when you do hit that goal.

Hopefully, by now I haven’t totally scared you off the idea of writing your own novel. My experiences with NaNoWriMo have been great both personally and professionally—honestly, I don't think I'd be writing for a living today without having participated in my first one back in 2005. If you're still feeling game, then head over to the NaNoWriMo site and sign up for a free account. And if you hit up my profile page, you can follow my progress towards 50,000 or, if you’re a fellow NaNoWriMo’er, add me as a writing buddy. Best of luck and may the words be with you.

Unleash your creative spirit! Join several Macworld writers and editors as they take the 2008 National Novel Writing Month challenge. For more information, visit the Macworld Forums.

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