NaNoWriMo – a month of lovely obsession

(Note from Kate Flora: This is a revision of a post that has run before, with tweaks and links, etc.) But with NaNoWriMo coming fast upon us, we wanted to run it again in case you missed it and want to start gearing up for this November)

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OBSESSION: Compulsive preoccupation with a fixed idea or an unwanted feeling or emotion, often accompanied by symptoms of anxiety. (American Heritage Dictionary)

One of the lovely dark sides of the writing life is obsession. This November, many writers will nurture (or yield to) this obsession. November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, ( a period during which writers all over the world sign up and commit to trying to write a 50,000 word novel during the month. Some get together in weekly support groups, or go to weekly “write-ins.” Some are supported throughout the month by a series of rallying e-mails from their local organizers. Some toil quietly in the stillness of their homes or the commotion of their local coffee shops.The project began in 2000 with 140 participants, 26 of whom met the goal.

In 2014:

325,142 participants, including 81,311 students and educators in the Young Writers Program, started the month as auto mechanics, out-of-work actors, and middle school English teachers. They walked away novelists.
803 volunteer Municipal Liaisons guided 615 regions on six continents.
849 libraries, bookstores, and community centers opened their doors to novelists through the Come Write In program.
55,774 Campers tackled a writing project—novel or not—at Camp NaNoWriMo.

Over 250 NaNoWriMo novels have been traditionally published. They include Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, Hugh Howey’s Wool, Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, Jason Hough’s The Darwin Elevator, and Marissa Meyer’s Cinder. See a full list of our published authors.

The thing has gotten big enough that it has prompted a lot of discussion, including a column by Salon’s Laura Miller titled: Better yet, DON’T write that novel, in which she opined that the world doesn’t really need more writers, especially writers who are writing so intensely they’re “writing a lot of crap” and ignoring the need for revision. Instead it should celebrate readers. That, in turn, prompted Carolyn Kellogg, at the LA Times, to counter with: 12 Reasons to ignore the naysayers: Do NaNoWriMo.

Happily obsessive or in need of a tin foil hat?

Maybe others will think I should be wearing a tin foil hat, but I’m with Carolyn Kellogg. However a writer chooses to approach NaNoWriMo, there’s an incredible energy in the air that can be captured and channeled. It’s exciting to be part of a “movement” where more than 200,000 people are setting aside the complex demands of their lives and giving themselves over to a long held-dream, or a voice that won’t take “no” for answer. And the result, for some of us, is obsession, in the best possible sense of the word. Yes, a compulsive preoccupation. Yes, quite possibly accompanied by feelings of anxiety–though often those are the result of trying to figure out how to put the rest of life on hold or how not to burn the chicken when you haven’t met your daily word goal. And yes, perhaps almost impossible to do–but ultimately, the task is about jump starting, it’s about taking a turn down the to road of creativity. It’s about getting so deeply into story that those editing voices in our heads, the result of a lifetime of correction and discipline, are stilled, and the words just flow. For once, it’s possible to believe that it can all be edited and revised later, because there’s no time to stop. Fingers are flying, words are flying, there’s only time to get it down on the page.

I did NaNoWriMo five years ago and it was amazing. True confessions: First, I only got to about 42,000 words; Second, I broke the rules and used the time to try and finish a book I’d started and then hit the pause button on nearly a decade earlier. But since this is only about a writer’s personal relationship with the page, that’s okay. I’m the writer. You’re the writer. We’re using this as a device. This is NOT our homework, it is our life’s work, our dream work, our step-out-on-the-tightrope-and-see-what-happens work. Our writing, and the decisions about how to approach it, always, first and foremost, belongs to us.

So what did I learn from my NaNoWriMo adventure? First, that it should probably take place in February. November is an impossible month. I’m helping to run a huge weekend-long mystery writing conference, The New England Crime Bake. I’m teaching other mystery writers. I have a book to finish before I can start NaNoWriMo. But I’m not going to let any of that stand in my way.

And when you’re writing obsessively, you are there when lightning strikes!

Why? Because what I rediscovered when I did it before, something I knew from a long-ago stint to see how fast I could write a book (485 pages in 3 months), is that the upside of obsession is something akin to ecstasy. There’s something almost breathtaking about getting so deeply immersed in story and character that they begin to write themselves. There is a kind of magic in being in what some writers call “flow,” where the story just comes pouring out. Where characters are so freed to be themselves that they just start talking and we writers almost break our fingers as we try to write it down. Being that deeply in story is a high like no other that I’ve ever experienced (and since I may still run for political office, I’ll leave it right there). And quite honestly, as I sit here at my desk and look at my to-do list and my calendar, the passionate writer in me can hardly wait to shove everything else aside and write: Chapter One.

50,000 words. 1,666 words a day. I hope you’ll be joining me.

For some nitty gritty details and advice, check out guest blogger Steve Liskow’s post in our archives:

NaNoWriMo 101 or Some Planning Tips for Writing in November

And for other thoughts, blogs, ideas, and suggestions about tackling NaNoWriMo, here are some links:

Chuck Wendig on the Pros and Cons:

Annie J. Kelley on getting some ideas:

Robin Rivera: A Writer’s Ode to her Inner Critic: (We don’t know if his name is Carlisle)

Finally, a so painfully close to the truth, is this blog post from Chicks on the Case:

How Not to win NaNoWriMo


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16 Responses to NaNoWriMo – a month of lovely obsession

  1. I love NaNoWriMo. It’s a wonderfully freeing exercise to write with a word count goal that does not afford the luxury to worry over details that should be addressed in subsequent re-writes. I didn’t participate last year but have done so on three previous occasions.

    This year I might let myself get carried away with writing again. I have an outline that should be given time. Besides, it’s wonderful procrastination for that other novel that needs to be re-written and edited.

    Write on!

  2. MCWriTers says:

    Absolutely, Michelle. Right now, I’m rushing to get another project done so I’ll be free to obsess.

    I hope you’ll do it, and report about your progress.


  3. Pamela Oberg says:

    I signed up last year, and then, well. . .just didn’t. I think I let my nerves get the best of me. This year I’m determined to participate, and celebrate my accomplishment–even if it’s not 50,000 words. I’m with Kellogg on this one.

  4. MCWriTers says:

    Pamela…so much of it is turning off those critical heads and just writing. It takes some work, though.


  5. I’ve tried it for two years and failed both years even though I’ve managed to write 20 books in 5 years. LOL. But I’m going to give it another shot. Maybe I’ll make it this year. 🙂

  6. MoW says:

    I have five-and-a-half Nanowrimo manuscripts, and I loved creating every single one. As Kate said, the characters seemed to step out of the wings and speak as if they were just waiting for me to give them a cue to come on stage. I started each one with just a vague “What if?” and the pressure to keep writing. Not outlining. Not creating character sketches. Not researching. Not questioning the plausibility of plot lines. Just writing, writing, writing.

    I’ve tried to use Nanowrimo to edit previous manuscripts, but it’s not the same creative process at all. Couldn’t do it. So this year, I plan to sign up and write something new, even though I have all those manuscripts clamoring for attention.

    My best advice for succeeding is not to try to clear your schedule of everything else, but to work at the daily writing. Don’t try to keep up with the running word count goal, which is 5000 words every three days, or you’ll get too discouraged if you miss a few days. Just divide the words remaining (or the words you’re “behind”) by the days remaining. For example, if you missed the first three days completely, you might think, “I’ll have to write 6667 words today just to catch up!” Not so. You’d only have to write 149 more words each of the remaining 27 days. That’s a paragraph!

    What’s the worst that can happen? You get great e-mails from published writers on the craft. You get something written that you didn’t have before, even if it’s just a few pages. You get invited to meet with other writers in your area. The Boston “municipal liaisons”–Travis and Anna, Queen of the Universe–are fabulous at coming up with events.

    Go for it!

  7. MCWriTers says:

    Wow. Thanks for sharing this advice, Mo. So much easier to think one only needs to add a paragraph for each remaining day than to feel so terribly far behind, isn’t it.


  8. John Clark says:

    I’m jumping in this year. New padlock for front door, wire cutters to eliminate ringing phone, extra rounds of buckshot to deter traveling bible salesmen. Guess that about sums up my preparation.

  9. Pat Marin says:

    Frist, let me say, I’m a short story writer. That’s all I ever planned to be. However, my first short story ended on page 508 at 125,000 words.
    Second, my students (I taught fiction writing at the local college) turned me on to NaNoWriMo 9 years ago. I’m still not sure if that was a blessing or a curse. WARNING: NaNoWriMo is addictive.
    Third, thanks to the help of those two students and their suggestions, I’ve completed 8 NaNoWriMos. More than half (5 of the 8) are decent drafts.

    So, here’s my advice (some from Reenie and Alysa and some I’ve learned over the years)
    1) Prepare in October. Not so much your novel unless you’re an avid outliner, but your life. Do the fall cleaning, make sure all laundry is done by Nov 1st, food shop, cook and freeze meals (Thus avoiding very supportive Hubby handing me a hot dog and calling it dinner.), and purchase a Crockpot. Stock up on coffee, tea, Coke, Pepsi, or whatever your caffeinated drink of choice is.
    2) I now make notes on characters and plot ideas before I start writing. I didn’t always to this. I start a couple of time with no idea at all, but it bothered me to not know where I was going until day 5 or 6.
    3) Don’t worry about secondary character or supporting character names. “Miss front desk person at whatever police headquarters” or “female next door neighbor” adds to your word count. You can brainstorm for a name later during edits and rewrites. How many of you know that March is National Novel Editing Month?
    4) In the beginning your story is fresh and exciting and if you are like me you will get on a writing roll. Use this time to stock up on word count for the times you will only write 250 or 435 words in a day. Trust me, this does happen.
    5) Falling be behind. Sign up for a 5K challenge on a day when you will have time to sit at your computer. If you sign up you will do it. Why? Do you really want to admit to the writers in your area challenge that you didn’t do it? Nope, not me. If you area doesn’t offer a 5k challenge, you offer it on a forum. There will always be someone else who needs to boost their word count.
    6) NaNoWriMo helps your typing speed. It is amazing how many words you can type during the commercials in your favorite TV show or while adding all ready cut up vegetables to a pot of homemade soup (set the timer for each addition and type in between. I’ve added 1800 words to my project while doing this on my AlphaSmart at the kitchen table.)
    7) If you get stuck or need inspiration to finish, don’t be afraid to reach out to your local area. I’ve met and made many friendships over the years. Go to the Kick-off Party and Thank God It’s Over Party.
    8) And if you can, make a donation. Every little bit helps.

    I wish you all a wonderful NaNoWriMo 2012

    • MCWriTers says:

      Pat, Really wonderful advice, which we will share with others. Thanks for being so generous with your experience. I’m going to follow many of these suggestions…though I would love it if my spouse would hand me a hotdog instead of asking whether there is anything to eat.


  10. Heidi Wilson says:

    “Over 250 NaNoWriMo novels have been traditionally published. They include Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, Hugh Howey’s Wool, Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, Jason Hough’s The Darwin Elevator, and Marissa Meyer’s Cinder. See a full list of our published authors.”

    Was there supposed to be a link at the end? I’d love to send it to my writing group.

  11. MCWriTers says:

    I’m so tempted this year .. with a book already started and due to my editor January 4. But with Crime Cake and six days of appearances and Thanksgiving … I suspect I’ll just be writing like mad — but on my own schedule. And, yes, doing a little editing along the way. Not what one should do for NaNoWriMo … but what my life demands. But I’ll be at my computer … cheering everyone else on! Lea Wait

  12. Michelle says:

    Add my novel to the list of NaNoWriMo started novels that have been published. The first draft of Wolf Creek by Nikko Lee was written in 2012 as a NaNoWriMo novel. It was published by Prizm Books in September 2015.

    I NaNoWriMo last year with a new baby. This year I will be missing it again due to time constraints and a pressing need to revise an existing manuscript.

    NaNo on!

  13. Karen Whalen says:

    I’m preparing to participate again but panicking because I don’t have an outline, heck, I don’t even have a concept or a premise!! I just reread last year’s “winning” novel and must say I think it’s worth revising (after November!). It’s the third in a series of NaNoWriMo submissions–might be able to combine them into a complete novel. But do I write #4 in the series since I don’t have an idea what I’m writing and using an existing setting and cast of characters would help guarantee another win? As a pantser I’m used to this but if you’re a plotter you might be setting yourself up for failure (my husband hates it when I say that) if you find yourself in the same situation. But I think everyone should attempt this at least once. If nothing else, you’ll find out how many opportunities you have throughout the day to write, even if it is just fifty words at a time. It’s the one time during the year I feel like a real writer. And I still manage to pull off Thanksgiving dinner…and it’s not hot dogs!!

  14. Monica says:

    I did NaNo as a challenge 8 years ago. It was amazing to start off the month dragging my feet to the desk every night only to end up shoving everything to the side to be able to have more time to write. I had no idea!

    8 years later, 2 years with a writing group doing the editing, I now feel like I have something worth reading.

    Hurray for NaNo!

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