Lessons Learned from NaNoWriMo

Dec 8, 2018

November is National Novel Writing Month, affectionately referred to as NaNoWriMo, (https://nanowrimo.org/) and, though I’m not writing a novel, I’m game for a writing challenge.

Writers tailor the writing challenge to meet their needs, and mine was always one blog post per day for thirty days. I know quite a few people who do this.

I had been doing NaNoWriMo for several years now, and had established a pretty solid routine. I’d start the month with with visions of literary glory, and end it all by about the 7th, at least comforted by my pattern recognition skills, my humbleness in accepting defeat.

Clearly my failure was my reward.

So 2018, another November, another writer’s group, another vow to write every day. Another opportunity to get a week into the process, another gracious bail-out.

Sequential failure wasn’t enough for me this year. I needed a grander fall. Instead of writing a blog post a day, (which had typically deteriorated into a captioned photo of a cow by the end of the first week), I vaguely committed to writing 50000 words for the month of November – 1666 words per day – enough for a novel.

My ambivalent commitment in one of my many on-line writer’s groups (what’s failure without an audience?) came in the form of something affirming and up-lifting and inspirational, like “What a great idea!”

Yeah, right, honey. Imma gonna join your little group, and Imma gonna just do 1000 words a day, Imma gonna go for a week, Imma gonna add another commemorative failure notch to my failure belt.

But in order to fail, you have to at least start, and I’m at least good at that part.

I spent the first day  – 1666 words – doing a bit of an analysis of what hadn’t worked before, and how I was at least going to be a little bit more diligent in my effort in 2018. And I was going to lay out my topics for the entire 30 days. None of this sitting down staring at the screen, trying to figure out what to write. I was going to have it all laid out. And I was going to start at 4:30, which would give me an hour to write before anybody else got up. 

In order to be writing at 4:30, I had to set my alarm for 4:20, and I set the coffee pot timer for 4:20 as well. I’d have just enough time to get up, go to the bathroom, get a cup of coffee, and be at the keyboard by 4:30.

I needed to give myself a reasonable amount of time. I’d have an hour of writing time before the first round of distractions.

I normally write every morning (eventually) with 750words.com, mostly venting and laying out my day. My 50K was to be completely separate from that. I’d use penzu.com for my literary writing (delusional much?).

My normal routine includes drifting through the living room and kitchen, picking up the stuff that had accumulated over-night. No picking up this time. The easiest way to avoid noticing the mess was to not turn on the lights. Between my cell phone, the kitchen appliances, and a few night-lights, I could safely navigate the path from bed to computer with few distractions.

I have a lighted keyboard on my computer, and between that and the light from the monitor, I could easily write without seeing all the mail, receipts and permission slips that spontaneously generate on my desk.

At some point I started lighting a candle, because there’s something sort of quaint about typing by candlelight.

I had put a fair amount of thought into my topics, and I gave myself the first day to define my goals, so to speak, and lay out some personal ground rules. My topics were a combination of things I had been asked about specifically, or things that had just popped up in my head. I dug out an old planner and put all my topics in this separate planner, so that there was nothing else on the page. I went through my notebooks, sticky notes, and EverNote pages to come up with  topics I would write about. (This would probably be a good place for any blogger to start. If you can’t come up with 28 specific topics to write about, it’s time to rethink your subject, or your audience.).

So day one was a bit of a warm-up, goal definition, process development, that sort of stuff.

Day 30 was going to be a postmortem, a de-briefing. What worked, what didn’t work, what needed to change. I used the https://trackmaven.com/blog/national-days-calendar to help me narrow things down to a list of 28 topics for the remaining 28 days.

I started getting to the computer at 4:25. In the afternoons, I would check out my topic for the next morning, and sort of just let it float around in my head. I didn’t dwell on it, I was just vaguely aware of it. By the time I sat down the following morning to write on the topic, there were at least a few sentences and phrases patiently waiting to be written.

The interruptions started bothering me less. I was actually better able to go from writing, to other stuff, and then back to writing. I was basically able to change lanes more effectively.  I could spend a few minutes with Scott as he was heading out the door, and not be distracted by the idea floating around in my head.

Some days it would take me an hour to write 1666. Some days I struggled for two hours. Thanksgiving was in there. We spent two days with friends in Williamsburg. I had those days marked on my calendar up front, and managed to get a couple of days ahead on my word count. I had races on two days, and got my 1666 done before I headed out for the races.

My first few days were a lot a lists, which eventually, over the course of the month, yielded to full sentences, and even to paragraphs.

My 1666 words had a long way to go before they were actual posts, but within each of those 1666-word pages, there’s a solid framework for probably three posts. In those 50K words, there are enough rough drafts for me to write two posts a week for a year. I probably won’t need all of them, but it’s good to know that they’re there.

Also in there are ideas for several printables, like “What is Extension?” and “Maintaining Your Dam” (Bet y’all are excited about those!)

And as I got towards the end of the month, another thought started to creep in. It looked like I was actually going to hit my 50K words, but was I learning anything with this exercise? Where was I going with all this? How was this going to translate into actually getting consistent, topical, readable posts boxed up and shipped? 

I had a few new tools, but I still wasn’t exactly sure what I was going to do with them. Was thirty days of thematic free-writing really going to translate into more ideas conveyed? I was somehow certain I was missing a critical piece, and wasn’t sure what Monday morning was going to look like, when I had to actually implement the practices and habits I had acquired over that last thirty days.

I stumbled on the answer came in a webinar, pared down into one simple concept.  Quit focusing on being productive, and focus on being creative. That phrase sort of codified the tenets and habits I’d been developing over the past month. Not quite the Rosetta Stone, but close enough for my purposes.

Quite simply, I needed to be less task oriented with my writing.

And on Monday morning, I sat down at the computer, dug out a couple of paragraphs from one of my pages, dressed ’em up and polished ’em up, and within an hour or so, had a finished post. The relative ease was almost disarming, like I had missed something, and maybe I have, and am just too clueless to notice – some sort of misery-withdrawal.

But I’m three days into my new habit, this, my second post. I’d like to think my writing has gotten easier, and quicker and better – clearly that’s sort of pushing it. I’m still intimidated by “Publish”, but really, that’s just my way of kicking my angst down the road. The log-jam of ideas is still there, along with the proverbial squirrels, and the very real cat, adding to the cloud and the pull.

But maybe, just maybe, I’m finally on to something.

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