Last year about this time, I was planning to attempt my first National Novel Writing Month. Having never tackled long-form fiction and not being a particularly fast writer, it seemed like a recipe for disaster. How would I possibly write a novel in a month?
But I gathered together a group of writers, did a little planning so I had some idea what I’d be writing about, and then jumped in on November 1.
The goal of NaNoWriMo, as it’s called, is to write a 50,000 word first draft of a novel in 30 days. If you do the math, that means writing about 1,700 words a day. On the one hand, that sounds doable. Only 1,700 words a day? But to do only 1,700 words a day means writing every day for 30 days. If you want to take a day off each week, that means writing close to 2,000 words a day on the six remaining days. And since you’re working on one long work — not 30 short ones — that means developing characters, following a plot, and creating a setting that you will build over the 50,000 words. That’s a lot of work … a lot of fast work.
Somewhere around November 20, I had fallen behind with little hope for catching up. Since I was leading a group of other writers, I kept up a good show and put on my game face. But really, I didn’t think I was going to make it. Then, a second wind of inspiration struck, along with a few extra hours here and there, and by November 30, I logged my 50,000th word, and even a little beyond. According to the rules of NaNoWriMo, that made me a winner!
For a number of reasons, I may not be participating in NaNoWriMo this year. If I don’t, I certainly hope to again in the future. But the experience was so positive for me, that I often recommend it to others. Even if you don’t participate in the official NaNoWriMo in November, here are three reasons I think you should consider occasionally setting a large short-term goal of fast writing for yourself.
- Fast writing forces you to set aside your internal editor and critic. You can try to labor over every word and continually reread and revise like you normally do. But not if you’re going to hit your goal. Fast writing means setting aside the urge to spend too much time on any one sentence and paragraph.
- This, in turn, allows you to tap into a treasure trove of ideas you might never have stumbled on otherwise. NaNoWriMo Executive Director Grant Faulkner described his first NaNo experience this way in an article for Poets and Writers: “It was fun, if nothing else. It made the trudging of my former process seem stiff and stodgy. But what struck me most when I returned to the clutter of my novel to revise was how many more ideas there were to work with. Not all of them were good, of course, but many held promise, and I’d certainly explored terrain I wouldn’t have normally.”
- Finally, the sense of accomplishment is exhilarating. After my NaNoWriMo experience, I looked at those 50,000 words with admiration. It was the longest written work I had ever produced. Other projects have keep me away from revising that novel yet, but I look forward to digging back into it to see where it will go next. I also feel more confidence in my ability to tackle any large work. I’ve done it once. I know I can write that way again.
So, how should you go about planning your fast writing project?
First, choose a goal. What is the elusive project you’ve always wanted to tackle but never seem to have the time? Is it a novel? A collection of short stories? A blog series? A collection of poems? Don’t make the project too unwieldy, especially if this is your first time tackling something this big. But be a little audacious with your goal, make it feel at least a little impossible. This isn’t the kind of goal you should be able to sustain over the course of several months or a year. That’s your normal workload. For this project, you should plan something much bigger than usual because you’ll be working at this level for just a short time.
Second, choose a timeline. This is key. Because you are really pushing yourself, you should limit your time frame to no more than a month. Try to work at this intensity for too long, and you’ll begin to burn out. The folks at NaNoWriMo have been doing this a while, so consider using their program of 30 days as a model, even if you aren’t officially participating. Does it have to be November? Certainly not. Choose a time when you know you will be most successful.
But third, consider trying an already established program if you don’t otherwise have a good feel for how this will work. NaNoWriMo is a good place to start because the program is so organized, and there are lots of supporting resources and events. Alternately, you could participate in the Write Nonfiction in November Challenge (WNFIN) — one nonfiction writer’s response to NaNoWriMo.
Fourth, plan ahead. Don’t decide today to begin tomorrow unless you’ve already done the planning work. Remember, this isn’t a pace of writing most of us can sustain for long. That means during your fast writing stint, you’ll probably need to say no to some of your normal obligations. Maybe you say yes to paper plates for the month so there are fewer dishes to wash. Maybe you hire a babysitter more often. Or possibly increase your coffee budget if you’ll be leaving the house and writing at your local cafe. Don’t forget to plan ahead for your writing, too. Do some preliminary plotting work for your novel or memoir, outline your nonfiction book, brainstorm topics and titles for those 30 blog posts, or whatever work you are engaging in. A little prep work goes a long way.
Fifth, adapt don’t drop out. Somewhere along the way of your fast writing adventure, you’ll fall behind and be tempted to drop out. I urge you not to. The sense of accomplishment you’ll feel when you finish is worth adapting those daily word counts to try to make up the time. Keep adapting until the end of your sprint, and whatever you end up with then, realize how much further you’ve come in the days since you began.
Of course we all know that fast writing alone won’t produce the greatness we’re striving for. In a couple of weeks, I’ll talk about the stupendous assets of slow writing, which is the other side of the coin and really the next part of the process after a fast writing sprint. But that’s coming later. For now, on your marks, get set, go! You’ve got a lot of words to write.