Challenges, Missed Deadlines, & National Novel Writing Month
Last week I took a breather and missed my deadline. I post on Thursdays around here. This deadline, one post each week, on Thursday, has helped me to stay on track, consistent, accountable. Before, when I was writing and posting whenever the feeling struck me, it was easy to get thrown off course, to find more important things to do than write, edit, and format. My self-imposed deadline, that I’ve been following religiously since April, has changed that. This lengthy intro is just to address the elephant in the proverbial room—that I did not publish anything last week.
Red handed, you got me.
It is doubtful that anyone reading this right now has noticed the elephant I’m speaking of. But if you did, then that means you are reading regularly the things I’ve written here. And that means you’re my people. (Swoon!) And so I owe you an explanation.
I had some unexpected—and unwelcome, if I’m being honest—family stuff come up. The kind that makes you want to take a week off of social media and off from writing. Off from filming and off from regular communication with friends. The kind that makes you want to sit in front of the TV and zone out. That makes speaking feel laborious. That makes you want to be still, if we’re putting the positive spin, or to lay in bed all day, if we’re not.
No, no, it’s not that dire, nobody is dead. But we are all going through a period of change, and change can be painful.
That’s as much detail as I’ll get into here. For one thing it’s not the time or place. And as much as I love being honest, I also love my privacy. I just wanted to explain quickly why I left you hanging—to whomever of you might actually be expecting to find a new post here each Thursday.
Because of my silence last week, I felt some extra pressure to meet my imaginary deadline this time around. Two weeks of missed deadlines would be quite the slippery slope. It would be trickier and trickier to get back on track. And while I believe taking a pause for quiet and self-care when you need it is healthy, I also believe abandoning your goals is not self-care.
Today is Sunday, the start of a new week. And I figured it might be a good day to quit eating ice cream and start writing again.
But what to write?
I considered dusting off an old topic, tweaking something I’ve mostly written already. A travel post about visiting Las Grutas Tolantongo in Mexico, or about hiking another volcano. (What is this life that I have TWO volcano hiking stories to share? ::Insert moment of gratitude here::)
But the funny thing is, with all this thinking about missed deadlines and topics to write about, what I kept coming back to was…writing.
Yeah, dude, I’m about to write about writing.
But not just any writing. Your writing.
It’s almost November, making it the perfect time to introduce you to one of my favorite annual traditions: NaNoWriMo.
National Novel Writing Month
Did you know November is National Novel Writing Month?
I have no idea if this was ever an official holiday, or if a group of creatives simply made it such. But either way, National Novel Writing Month—NaNoWriMo, for short—is one of the happiest, most hectic, deliciously maddening times of year for hundreds of thousands of writers around the world. At it’s core, NaNoWriMo is a writing challenge, with some pretty simple stipulations. Write a novel in 30 days. I know, right?
The brains at NaNoWriMo have determined that 50,000 words of fiction is the minimum for what shall constitute a “novel,” and wannabe authors work away in genres from fantasy to romance to young adult fiction and everything between.
If it sounds like a lot of words in a short amount of time, then you have caught the point. I always say the hardest part of writing is sitting down and writing. Pen to page, fingers to keys, ideas out of your head and into physical, lyrical form.
The smarties who started NaNoWriMo had this very thing in mind. In order for a story to become great, it first must exist. Even a bad first draft is better than an idea without words. And while joining in on this challenge won’t grant you any big winnings—there are no cash prizes, only street cred—it will provide something that so many writers long for.
What started in 1999 as a grueling but straightforward writing challenge has become much more than that: A world-wide community of writers. Nothing fancy schmancy here, no accolades required, when I say “writers” I mean people who write. Like you, maybe.
Signing up for NaNoWriMo gives you access to people all around the world, and maybe right in your hometown, who are driven to put words to paper the same way you are. Story tellers who love the same weirdo genre that you love. Other amateur writers who don’t feel quite confident in their abilities but are trying anyway. And because there is not one “winner” and “loser”, because everyone who completes their word count wins, the only competition is truly with yourself. Writers of every age and skill level and style support one another.
If you have stories within you, if you’re a secret writer, or if you just want to try writing, signing up for this beautiful challenge is like unlocking a door and finding your people.
Throughout the course of the month there are write-ins held at libraries, cafes, book shoppes, and breweries. Participants can tip-tap on their keyboards in solidarity, commiserate over lattes, bask in the community—Look at all these weirdos like me! You can also tune into virtual events, which will be more common in 2020.
You can check out the endless pages of forums dedicated to whatever your wandering, should-be-writing-mind could want. Plot holes, character flaws, scientific research (no, seriously), tips for action scenes. Test out a metaphor to see if it works or falls flat. Anything, the support is endless.
You can find pep talks from authors of varying degrees of fame in your NaNo inbox. These are inspiring and often amazing. You can follow NaNoWriMo on Twitter for prompts that are GREAT for getting unstuck.
Abandoning your goals is not self care.
I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo six times before and finished successfully three of those times. Well, technically successfully. The challenge, to write 50,000 words of fiction in 30 days, is what I’ve completed. I celebrate at that feat, but I’ve never finished the novel. Any of them.
Each time I have successfully completed NaNoWriMo, after 30 days of NON-STOP writing, I’ve given myself a much-needed break. (Weren’t we just talking about this?) And each time, like someone who learned nothing over those 30 days of discipline, I neglect to pick up where I left off. Three novels 50,000 words in and not nearly finished. Three others, from the years I was not successful, just nuggets of interesting ideas that never made it to my screen.
Last November I was in Mexico. I was taking Spanish classes and business classes. I was writing blog posts and I was working full time. I didn’t dare start something I felt in my bones was doomed to be unfinished. Better to save my seeds for later, when I have time to water them and light to shine there. I sat NaNoWriMo out. But this year, I’m feeling a strong pull to try.
Despite being busy with this blog, these self-imposed deadlines of mine. Despite still working full-time. Despite the fact that I’ll be house-hunting, and with any luck moving, next month. Despite the newer YouTube project dedicated to becoming a better activist that I started. More self-imposed deadlines. Despite family, the holidays, all the little things that add up to make us very busy people. With all of it on my plate, I’m still wanting to add this one special thing.
Give it a go, and you’ll understand in December.
NaNoWriMo is daunting. It takes up so much of my time. All month long I’m consumed in my story, in my characters, in how the hell I’m going to make this thing happen or extricate them from some situation. I spend nearly every free moment working on my novel. And while it can be so difficult, so frustrating, so MUCH, I can honestly say I never feel more like myself than when I’m participating in this challenge. Elbow deep in a plot hole of my own making. Finding the time, against all odds, to make it work.
If you have ever thought of writing a novel, sign up now to participate in NaNoWriMo 2020. If you have ideas for days but lack consistency, try this. If you want to find a community of like-minded creative, bookish, often-but-not-always nerdy people, sign up. If you just love books—have never even thought of writing one—DO this! It’s free, and there’s nothing to lose.
The beauty is this challenge can be whatever you want it to be. Just for fun, a way to work on the art of discipline, a way to finally get that story idea that has been eating you alive out of your imagination and onto the page. Many a NaNoWriMo winner have gone on to publish their NaNo pieces. Well-known books like Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants or Hugh Howey’s WOOL, are just two examples. So it is not ridiculous to start this challenge fully intending on seeing your story through to worldwide sales and celebrity reading lists.
Just. Get. Started.
Remember, we don’t owe it to ourselves to produce gold in a first draft, but we do owe it to ourselves to tell our story.
Image courtesy of NaNoWriMo
1. Do not Edit. Do not edit. Do not edit.
You’re here to tell a beautiful, horrifying, electrically creative, never-been-done before story. Commas and caps and more perfect words are January’s problem. Save that shit for the new year.
2. Don’t skip more than two days.
Always with the deadlines, this one! 50,000 words means an average daily word count of 1,667, so two days off can be tough to come back from. I like to have a kick-ass high word count day or two in the first week so that I feel like I am ahead of the game. Peace out anxiety—not on my watch!
3. GO to write-ins.
As I’m typing this, I’m remembering this little big thing that changed the world in 2020… So I guess, go to virtual write-ins. This meetup part—wholly optional, by the way, so if you hate people do not feel forced—will be a reason for you to sign up for your second NaNoWriMo in 2021. (You know, if the world doesn’t end.)
4. Try Some Resources.
Write or Die is my favorite. It’s a web app by Dr. Wicked that basically encourages you to keep writing by punishing you when you stop. You set the number of minutes you’ll write, the word count you’re shooting for, select the consequences, and click “Try” or “Start” depending on which version you’re using. You know that thing that happens when you’re writing but then you stop to consider the next word or sentence, and then ten minutes later you are just looking around the living room thinking about bills, dishes, work? This is where Dr. Wicked steps in. After just a couple seconds of stopped typing, the screen will turn red. This lets you know you’ve stopped writing. Keep ignoring it, and you might get a sound. If you’re in Kamikaze mode, the app will actually begin deleting what you’ve written if you don’t start back up again. I don’t do that level of intensity, but I really like using this app to keep myself on track. This way my “1 hour of writing” is actually spent writing and not daydreaming, nail-filing, or staring out the window.
Try Version 2 HERE
Or Version 3 HERE
I also recommend checking out NaNoWriMo’s Twitter page for writing prompts and wordy fun!
5. Do Not Give Up.
I’m not even being inspirational here. Just keep writing. Some days are going to suck. Your writing will suck. You will have the vocabulary of a four-year-old. Your transitions will be shit. Your descriptions will be tacky. You’ll stare at the screen. You’ll be stuck. You’ll want to give up. But don’t. Take 5, make some tea, eat a snack, and come back. The best, most prolific writers are not brilliant every day. But guess what? They keep writing. Get the words out of your head, put them into existence. On December 1 you might just have the shittiest novel ever written in your possession. But that means you did it. You’ve got something to edit and clean up and change and rework until it is as shiny and beautiful as when it was just an idea in your mind. Even more so, because of the great labor poured in.
Plus, you can totally do it.
The hardest part of writing is sitting down
If I haven’t convinced you here to get on board and try NaNoWriMo, then I don’t know what would. Leave a comment to let me know if you decide to participate, if you’ve done it in the past, and what you’re writing about if it’s not top-secret. I’d love to hear from you writers!
I started this post thinking about deadlines. The missed ones and the pressure that follows. And I’m ending it thinking about deadlines, too. But now with the spark of excitement over a new beginning. New characters to play with, new worlds to build. New sentences to piece together, each one completely unique. New challenges ahead, and with any luck, new celebrations too.
Best of luck in all your challenges, creative and otherwise.
Until next time <3