Next month thousands of people will be taking on the mad challenge of writing 50,000 words in one month for National Novel Writing Month. With 10 days left to begin, participants have started voicing their hopes and fears across the social networks while organisers and veterans are posting advice and tips on how to cope.
I'm guessing the top tips must include: 1. Quit your day job 2. Separate from your partner 3. Give up children / pets / friends for adoption. As much as I love writing with the proverbial gun to my head, even I can't get my head around how people manage to get that many words down in so little time. It's not just the word count either. It's the fact they must know enough about their plot to keep bashing it out. So how do they do it?
Laura Chapman is a writer, blogger and co host of the virtual discussion #ChicLitChat. This will be her 4th year doing NaNoWriMo. I got in touch to find out how she does it.
Are you a full-time writer? No. For the past year I have been a full-time communications coordinator at a museum in Lincoln, Neb. While some of that job involves writing, I also do social media, advertising, marketing, public programming, etc. During my first two years participating in NaNoWriMo, I wrote corporate publications, such as newsletters, website articles and employee manuals, for various industries. That job was also full-time and required me to travel about 20 weeks a year. I would guess that about half of my debut novel, which will be out this winter, was written in airplanes, airports and cheap motels.
How many words do you usually write in a month? It definitely varies. I typically post between 20 and 30 blog entries a month, which requires quite a bit of writing. I tend to do my novel writing in big binges. The word count on my books can vary from as few as 5,000 words a month to 50,000.
How have you managed to hit 50K every year? By making NaNoWriMo a priority and by sticking it out until the end. In my three years of passing the finish line, I have only once known I would hit 50,000 words by the end of the month. In year one and year three I submitted my word count in the evening of Nov. 30. The second year, I reached 50,000 words a few days early. Something I did the first two years, which I plan to do this year, is scheduling a few days off from work.
How much of your plot do you sort out before you begin NaNoWriMo? The first year I wrote a rough two-page outline on Nov. 1. The next two years (and this year) I put together my ultimate plotting kit. You can read about it more in this blog post, but basically I create character sketches, identify the 10 key scenes in my book and do a chapter outline of the book. I’m a planner and sorting out that crucial information in advance enables me to focus on telling the story when I sit down to write. That’s not to say I don’t sometimes deviate from that plan, but I like having one to start.
What's your daily writing routine for November? Again, it definitely varies. I’m usually at my best at generating word count during my first and last week of the month. During week one, I’m so excited to tell my story I wake up an hour earlier than usual and write before work. Sometimes that means going to work with dirty hair, but that’s a sacrifice worth making.
If I have an idea during work, I’ll jot it down on a Post-it and save it for later. I try to find about 30-45 minutes during lunch to do more writing. When I get home after work, I make sure to take some me time. I’ll make dinner, maybe do something fun for a bit and then sit down to write again for a couple of hours before bed. I do try to avoid reading any full novels or watching TV except at designated times, because I find it distracts me from writing. On weekends, I try to write in two or three two-hour blocks each day. I’m a big fan of American football, and November is a prime time in the sport. If I know there is a game I want to watch each day, I plan my writing around the game.
The first and last week of the month, I also find myself writing for long periods of time on Friday nights. Something that helps me do this is to find a writing buddy also working on NaNoWriMo. We’ll get together, put in our headphones and tell each other we won’t speak again until we hit a certain word count. I have a healthy competitive streak. Admittedly, after about eight days, I’ll find myself skipping out on a day of writing, but I still try to write for at least a few minutes – even if it only yields 250 words – because it keeps the story on my mind.
What do you do when you get stuck? During any other month, if I find myself getting stuck I stop to consider why I am stuck. Is it something wrong with the story? Do I need to change what’s happening to make it work better? During NaNoWriMo, I’ll skip to another scene.
Something else that helps me when I’m stuck? I step away from the computer and try writing out the scene with a notepad and pen or pencil. For whatever reason, I find it much easier to fill out a piece of paper than I do a blank screen. Once I get going (and I try to only write a couple of pages by hand), I’ll transfer it to the computer. By then, I’m so engrossed in the scene I keep going. I also like to pick a song that sets the tone for a scene. I’ll put it on repeat and it helps me get lost in the story.
Do you have special writing / brain food? Kind of like a person training for a marathon, I try to eat a protein-rich diet, because it helps me with my energy. To help me save time, I’ll try making a full dish, like lasagna or enchiladas, which I can re-heat and eat throughout the week. Here’s a recipe for the enchiladas I make at least once every November. I also try to drink more water, because I feel better when I’m hydrated. Admittedly, I also tend to bribe myself with candy and energy drinks along the way, but I figure the extra water balances out those sweets and caffeine.
What sacrifices do you make to reach the word count? Sleep is a big one. Not all of the time, but when I’m seriously invested in a story, I tend to stay up late writing and I’m willing to wake up early, too. I also cut back on drinking during November. I’m not a lush by any means, but I’ve found it’s hard to get much writing done if I’m spending every weekend night in a bar, not to mention recovery time the day after. The biggest sacrifice is time. While I still manage to spend time with friends and family, they know my main focus will be on my book, so we hang out in smaller doses. And they know there’s a good chance I’ll talk through any issues I might be having.
What will you be working on this time? I’m working on a stand-alone women’s fiction novel. I don’t want to say too much about the story yet, but it will be a romantic comedy that involves American football. I’m actually running a contest right now to come up with the names of the fictional athletes who will be mentioned in this book. Feel free to submit your own ideas.
What do you love about NaNoWriMo? NaNoWriMo fuels my competitive spirit. I see people around the world focused on writing 50K words in one month, and it pushes me to think I can do it, too. Both my completed novels are more than 50,000 words, but having that much done on them in advance motivated me to keep writing until I reached the end. Also, by doing so much writing in one month, it allows me to focus on other projects throughout the year while still writing a book a year.
What's your advice to people wondering if they should do it? Give it a try. I’m a big advocate for NaNoWriMo, and I think it’s always worth attempting even if you don’t reach the 50,000-word goal. Look at it this way: even if you write 10,000 words in November, it’s still 10,000 words. Every writer has to start somewhere. Also, keep your eye on the prize, but don’t drive yourself crazy in the pursuit. Make sure to celebrate milestones, like having a piece of cheesecake because you reached 5,000 words, or getting a manicure, because you’re at 40,000. NaNoWriMo is a lot of work, but you can also make it a lot of fun. If you follow me on Twitter, I’ll be sharing more of my advice in the days leading up to Nov. 1.
Laura Chapman found a way to mix her love of romance and humor as a women’s fiction author and blogger. A 2008 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Laura studied journalism, English and history. She travelled across the United States as a writer/photographer before settling into a career in communications. She also maintains Change the Word, a blog devoted to promoting women’s fiction and documenting her experiences as a writer.
More from Laura Chapman:
Born and raised in Nebraska – in a city, not on a farm – she is a devoted fan of football, British period drama, writing in bars and her cats, Jane and Bingley. Her debut novel, Hard Hats and Doormats, will be published with Marching Ink this winter. Her romantic holiday short “Twelve Drummers Drumming,” will appear in the Simon and Fig anthology Merry & Bright, which will be available Nov. 15.
More from Laura Chapman: