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35: How do you have a “successful” NaNoWriMo?

This week, authors J. Thorn and Crys Cain discuss how to make November’s National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) or any intense writing-goal time frame successful (with a few of J’s NaNoWriMo protests thrown in).

Transcript

Crys: Welcome to The Author Success Mastermind Podcast. I’m your host, Crys Cain, with my cohost, J Thorn.  

J: Hey Crys. What’s up?  

Crys: I’m in Cleveland. I finally get to track J down at his new place because he decided to move as soon as I visited his old place.  

J: You were my last visitor at the old place and my first at the new place. 

Crys: Oh, gosh, let’s see. We actually have been recording every weekish. That’s been exciting.  

J: We have been, we have been. This is like a bonus session here. We’re in a workspace in my new place, so if it sounds a little different, that’s why. But yeah, we’ve been pretty consistent.  

Crys: It’s so strange after two, three months of inconsistence. 

But we are in town, in Cleveland, for a workshop that J’s put together for some Three-Story Method stuff. There’s a bunch of us who are sharing a house and being crazy writers together which is just delightful.  

J: What works out perfectly is that there’s a hospital right across the street.  

Crys: Yeah. Just in case we decide to act out some scenes just to see what would be realistic.  

J: Us writers are crazy people, you never know.  

Crys: Got a couple of thriller writers in there. It gets a little hairy sometimes.  So yeah, what has been going on in the last week for you?  

J: Just getting ready for this, getting ready to do some training and some workshopping. And then there’s a one day break and then I get on the train and head to New Orleans for Vampires of New Orleans. 

Crys: Yeah. Which I am crashing, quote, unquote crashing. I was invited. I was going to invite myself, but I got invited before I could invite myself.  

I did get work done. So we were just talking, this summer I basically didn’t really have many weeks where I worked more than three hours, which is excellent and terrible in turns. 

And so in the last couple of weeks, I’ve really gotten back into working. I have not written but I’ve been doing a lot of the administrative work of using existing IP to further the income that I’m getting from that intellectual property. And that is part of the advanced publisher life, one of the blessings and the curses. 

J: Yes. Yes. For sure.  

Crys: Yeah. But we did have a comment from a podcast that for our listeners will be a couple of weeks ago, but Kim referenced the podcast on how to make more money. And I had referenced just that we need to recognize privilege in that aspect.  

Kim had been talking with another writer who suffers with ADHD and that a lot of the advice that we give people just doesn’t fit every situation. And I think that’s completely valid even without disabilities, without health issues, there are often circumstances that keep people from following the most commonly useful advice. It is not always useful for every situation.  

J: Agreed. And I have tremendous respect for Kim and this is not to sound defensive, but I also think too that there’s certain things that certain people just won’t be able to do. And I just want to recognize that. So like you said, we can’t give advice or we can’t make recommendations that will fit every single circumstance. And so it’s also important to recognize that that’s just not possible when it comes to a podcast.  

Crys: A hundred percent. For this week, we’re coming up on National Novel Writing Month. 

And the writing community has a love/hate relationship with NaNoWriMo. And regardless, a lot of our friends and colleagues participate in it. And so I wanted to talk about techniques, tactics that our listeners can use to make National Novel Writing Month a success for them. So would you mind giving a quick description of what NaNoWriMo is for anyone who isn’t familiar? 

J: Sure. I’m wondering if I’m the hate and you’re the love on that part of the equation for NaNoWriMo, but I guess we’ll find out. NaNoWriMo started 15, 20 years ago now, Grant Faulkner in the Bay Area. And it’s a wonderful program. I’m not a big fan, and I’ll explain why as we get into this, but the idea of NaNoWriMo is you write the first draft of a novel in one month. And that happens every November. And it’s very community-based, people who sign up, it’s like a challenge there with other people who are doing it. I forget the exact words, I think it’s like 1600 words a day, 

Crys: 50,000 words total. Yeah, 1666 a day.  

J: That’s the goal that you want to average to hit your 50-some-thousand words at the end of the first month. And you win if you hit that word count. So that’s what NaNoWriMo is.  

Crys: I have participated a few times. I think I might’ve only won once, however. And it was really useful for me when I was in a day job to have a specific time of the year where I had that community that was all focused on getting words done to push me forward. 

None of those projects have ever seen the light of day, but I do credit that with keeping me more active in the writing community than I would have without it.  

J: I think that’s a very accurate assessment of how it can be used. I’ve never done it. Part of it is, I’m not wired that way. 

I don’t like, I can’t believe I’m saying this on air, but I don’t like doing things in cohorts necessarily. I really like doing things on my own. Like I don’t show up in writing rooms very often because I find it’s distracting to me, it’s not motivating. But I recognize that for a lot of people, like locking arms with other writers and going through the same experiences, it’s very productive. 

I think where I’ve struggled with NaNo in the past and why I don’t fully embrace it is that it almost celebrates an amateur mindset, in that it would be like saying January is like “National Get In The Gym Month.” All the focus is on, okay, let’s say you’re going to lose 10 pounds in January, but like if you do that and you win, that doesn’t transform your life. It doesn’t make you any healthier. It certainly helps. It’s getting you on the right path, it might be starting to build habits, but it’s not a holistic approach.  

And I think that’s my issue with NaNo is that it’s very gimmicky. And I say that as a compliment. As a marketer, I think it’s great. Like it’s very gimmicky. It feels like a bucket list item for people who aren’t really serious about writing.  

Crys: Yeah. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. We can both say that. And I do know professional authors who use it, particularly author teachers in fact, as a way to connect with their students and get new projects done, particularly passion projects that they have had to put to the side because of works that they need to get done for whatever schedule they’re on. 

But as far as if you are going to participate in this or any timeframe where you’re like, I’m going to sit down and I’m going to write so many words or whatever your deadline is, I want to talk about techniques that we can use to help us stay consistent, get there, meet the idea. So with that as the concept, and not necessarily National Novel writing month itself, what ideas do you have? 

J: I always recommend for people to scale down. Like in this circumstance, what I hear a lot is, “I don’t have the time to do NaNo.” No, you do. But you need to scale it. So if the 1600 words a day or the 50,000 words feels overwhelming, do 16 words a day, do 60, like whatever. It’s building the muscle is what’s important. It’s not what you end up with at the end.  

So my number one tip would be to scale it to fit whatever situation you’re in. And if writing daily is a struggle for you, then maybe this is a good struggle. Like maybe this is something you try, and if you only have 10 minutes a day then make it 10 minutes a day, but do it for 30 days and then see what happens from there. But you don’t have to hit those numbers to make it worth trying.  

Crys: Yeah. I would say, have a particular success metric for yourself, whether you are doing the 50,000 words in a month or not. There are a lot of people who participate in the month but don’t follow the quote unquote NaNo rules, and they call themselves NaNo rebels. 

So some people will write a short story a day. Some people will finish an existing manuscript. There’s a lot of ways that people utilize this as a get across the finish line. Which I think that any kind of challenge can be very useful for when you are aware where it takes place in the context of your pattern as a whole. We, of course, are huge fans of plotting, which is a great way to help you get across the finish line if that is a trouble you’ve been dealing with.  

Now, some people are pantsers, like they just are never going to be happy writing to an outline. That’s fair. If that’s you and you are getting books done, keep doing that. If you are not getting books done, maybe try plotting, even if it feels like anathema to you. 

J: Yeah. I agree. 

Crys: I just read the book Take Off Your Pants for the second time, did not remember any of it from the first time I read it. And it’s by Libbie Hawker and it’s kind of described as the book of plotting for people who don’t like to plot. It’s a really good place to start if you feel like you are not a person who can plot. 

J: Yep. Great recommendation. Another tip that I think you could use from the NaNo model is finding other people and doing it together. And I don’t know what the numbers are, it’s tens of thousands of people who do NaNo. So again, if you’re overwhelmed by that, and you feel like a big Facebook group is just too much, find a few writer friends.  

Or if you’re part of a writer community, do your own challenge. Maybe it’s not 30 days in November, maybe it’s a 15 day sprint in April. Like whatever it happens to be, but do it with a smaller cohort. Because I think, in my experience anyways, I’ve always felt more accountable to a smaller number of people who I’m closer to, as opposed to a crowd of people. I don’t feel very accountable to crowds.  

Crys: And that allows each of you to set your own specific goals with the kind of mental guilt that you ought to be following along with the larger cohort. I’m part of another professional forum that there’s a group of people who they’ll take the first week of the month and the goal is to write an entire novel in that week. And these are people who are publishing a lot of books. They’re on the rapid release model, and so they try to write a book in a week so that they have time to do the editing, the marketing, everything, get it all set up, and not burn out completely on the writing because they’re putting all the work in a week and then they have the three weeks off from the creative intensity. 

J: Yes. Yes. I have one more tip around NaNo and these types of challenges, which is something that I’ve also spoken to other writers about, in that the NaNoWriMo language is a bit odd to me. Like winning. Like it’s not a competition. Like I don’t like framing it as a competition, but I know that’s how people talk about NaNos if they win it. Because I always think if you try one of these challenges, you can’t lose, you just can’t lose. If the end of November rolls around and you have 30,000 words, you have 30,000 more words than you would have had you not done the challenge, so you don’t lose. So I think also, taking the guilt or the pressure off of yourself to hit that goal and put that badge on your website, that’s not nearly as important as taking action and doing something.  

Crys: Yeah, I would say that there’s three ways of measuring metrics that come up that I know that a lot of people use to define success, and you can gauge what you think is the best for you.  

And one is words. And if you are wanting to do this, but do it outside of NaNo, Pacemaker is a really good app online that lets you set in what your schedule is, how many words you want to write, and then tracks your progress, how far ahead or behind you are from your plan. That’s a good option.  

Just hours writing is a really good metric, showing that you’re putting in the time. Saying, Hey, I’m going to put a half hour or an hour in before I go to work for an entire month. And if you’ve got kids, I’m only doing that Monday through Friday or whatever it is because on the weekends I’m taking off. Or if you’re doing it every day, knowing what your metric is so that you can visually see. 

And then another is just, did I write today? Or did I work on my story? Even if it wasn’t writing, maybe it was editing, maybe it was planning, and putting a sticker or a check mark on a calendar so that you can visually see, I have moved forward and made progress. I think being able to see that you’re making progress is really important. 

Some people print out the new pages of their manuscript and put it in a binder just so they can visually see those pages stacking up without having any of these other production metrics because that doesn’t work for them.  

J: I used to do that and it was very fulfilling to see the binder grow. 

Crys: Yeah. So I think my question for folks this week is: will you be participating in NaNo? And if not, do challenges like this work for you in general?  

J: Excellent.  

Crys: If you’d like to join in on this conversation in real time, you can check us out at www.theauthorsuccessmastermind.com. Thanks for joining us this week. 

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