National Novel Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo) is rapidly approaching. Literally at the speed of time. Every November tens of thousands of writers strive to produce a 50,000-word manuscript in thirty days. Why 50k?* Because in publishing, that's the official definition of a novel. Today 90,000-word novels are common, but they are a recent development. (Or at least younger than I am.) Take a look at your copies of The Old Man and the Sea and Brave New World. Time was most novels were that slender. Though most were not that good.
More than a month devoted to writing, NaNoWriMo is an active internet community – something of a global glee club – with daily encouragements, prods, and reminders to keep you going. In many cities NaNoWriMo writers get together one or two nights a week for group writing sessions that take the loneliness out of what is usually a solitary pursuit.
The purpose of NaNoWriMo is not to produce great literature, though creating great literature is not discouraged. The purpose is to get writers – especially writers who do not think they have enough time for writing – to sit down at the keyboard and write. And in that respect it has been a great help to me over the years.
I have NaNoWriMo-ed five times – the last in 2006 – and twice finished the month with a manuscript of more than 40k words that told a story with a beginning, middle, and end. None of these manuscripts are ready to be submitted to a publisher. And of the five, only my last will become a novel some day. Right now "Dram Rock" is a 42k outline of what will be the second novel in my Coastal Carolina mystery series.
Chris Baty's No Plot? No Problem!, the book of all things NaNoWriMo, has been on my essential reference shelf for half a decade. (Though it's not at the moment; I loaned my copy to an aspiring romance writer who's preparing for this coming November.) While much of Baty's writing advice is NaNoWriMo-specific, there are clear lessons on discipline, priorities, and time management that should be in every writer's tool kit.
One example, useful to anyone who's ever lost an evening of writing to puzzling over how to fix a scene that doesn't seem quite right no matter what you do: Use bold. (Actually, Baty suggests italics, but bold is easier for me to spot.) When you're having problems with a scene, or a bit of dialog or a chapter ending, highlight the troubling section by putting it in bold to remind yourself the problem is there and get on with your writing. That way you do not lose your creative momentum and get more words out of your head and onto the paper where you can work with them.
Don't go back to your bold sections until either your subconscious – which never stops working – has provided you with a solution or you finish the rest of the manuscript. I work in Word, so the easiest thing for me to do is view my ms in "print layout" and shrink the images to 25%. That saves paging through looking for areas that need work because the bold passages show up as dark smudges. I just click on a smudge, go to 150% (I have old eyes – large print is my friend), and get to work fixing whatever needs fixing. Sometimes I can't think why I bothered to highlight the section. Other times the solution is obvious. Usually it's something in between. But no matter what I find, I'm able to make clear editorial decisions quickly because I did not waste time trying to edit when the words were flowing.
If you have trouble using your writing time productively – or if you have trouble finding writing time at all – I highly recommend taking part in NaNoWriMo. It's a fun and challenging way to prove to yourself you can overcome the excuses and get words on paper. Can't go wrong investing in Baty's book, either.
Either will show you you've got more time to write – and can write more in the time you have – than you knew.
* = I originally had the word count wrong. I corrected it when a commenter pointed the error out.