Writing and Finishing a Novel: Getting through NaNoWriMo (or any big project)


Someone asked me recently about my novel and then asked how I actually finished it. “I just kept working at it,” I said. It sounds glib but, yes, it’s as simple as that. “Bird by bird,” Anne Lamott says. Like anything else that you want to get done, you’ve just got to keep doing it.

I love the idea of National Novel-Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), though I have not actually done it. I have, however, completed drafts of three novels on my own, one of which has been revised extensively. The one time I attempted to participate in NaNoWriMo I stopped, mostly because I realized I needed to do a lot more research for the historical novel I was preparing to write and wasn’t really ready to sit down and write out a draft of it. I had happened upon the concept by chance too late in the game; it is something that at least in this case, needed some pre-planning.

I do like the idea of giving focused, concentrated energy and attention to a project. I think to some extent, it’s what one needs to do, and there’s good reason why one of the guidelines of NaNoWriMo is to use this time to write an initial draft of the novel. Many writers report that their first drafts are written quickly, in passion and heat. The best way to keep going is to not let yourself get tripped up by your own internal editor (see my previous post on this) or stop and give in to misgivings and doubts. Just put all that aside. Dedicating a certain amount of time every day for a month can be very productive…and can also be the good foundation for a habit of writing, which for a long-term project, is a necessity.

Here’s some advice for getting through this month.

  1. Give yourself permission. Claim your time and space to write, even if it’s just 20 minutes a day.
  2. Make that time a priority, but also find a time where there won’t be other claims on your time. This is why so many writers who have other obligations (family, teaching, etc) write first thing in the morning or late at night.
  3. Don’t censor or edit yourself. Just keep going. If you get stuck, use freewriting, or perhaps do some research. Even if you have misgivings about where the writing is taking you, it might illuminate something for you about your story, characters, or themes. At the very least, it’s practice. You also might read something that somehow feeds your mind in your non-writing time to be helpful.
  4. The great thing about NaNoWriMo is the opportunity for accountability—sharing how many words you’ve written and your struggles. The idea is not to be a struggle but to have motivation. Knowing you have to share what you’ve done can, for many people, be a powerful motivating force.
  5. Turn off the noise. Don’t get too wrapped up in conversations, discussions, news, gossip, etc. Don’t open social media. Personally, I find music that isn’t too distracting (usually classical) is a way of shutting out the rest of the world and putting me into the mindset for *working.*
  6. Keep a writing journal. This can be just a way to note down what you did (how many words or pages), where you stopped, and any ideas you have about what you need to do in your next writing session. For example, I might note down an idea I have for a conversation or event, something I want to remember to research, or something I want to go back over again. That way, when you sit down to write, you’ll have something to do. This can be another way to impose accountability when a more public process isn’t available or if that isn’t attractive to you. There is something satisfying about writing down what you accomplished.
  7. Live in the moment. Writers enjoy the process of writing. It puts us in touch with those things that are most precious to us, helps us to explore our minds and indulge in the creative. For many—like myself—writing is as necessary as regular exercise, healthy meals, or a good night’s sleep. It is nourishment; it is getting in touch with our child-self; it is expressing hope and engaging in the creative process of bringing something new to life. Enjoy it.

For more information about NaNoWriMo, including “pep talks,” forums, and inspirational tweets, check out nanowrimo.org.


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