Harnessing the Fast Draft: Eight Essential NaNoWriMo Tips

Since 1999, millions of writers have accepted the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) challenge. The literary equivalent of a Thanksgiving binge, they work to churn out a 50,000-word book over the course of one month. The challenge is not restricted to novelists. This year, plenty of people (including me) are using the challenge to write their memoirs. We’ll call this offshoot NaMemoWriMo for short. 
There’s something about the end of the year that inspires us to produce more work. Perhaps it’s that extra hour of sleep we gained at the end of daylight savings time or the promise of feasting and family time motivates us to sit in our chairs. Maybe, with time running out, we can no longer ignore our inner procrastination monster’s frightening roar. 

We talked about the fired-up creativity some of my students feel as my Memoir in a Year Part I class winds down. Endings and deadlines keep us focused. Like my students, I’m working to meet a high-stakes deadline. Earlier this year, I was awarded a TA position at the 2019 Writer’s Hotel Conference. All conference participants receive a manuscript evaluation before heading to New York. As a TA, my manuscript is due in mid-February. Finishing looks to be a nail biter, so I’m tapping into the NaMemoWriMo spirit even if I don’t reach the 50,000-word goal. 
In fact, the word count isn’t what really matters. NaNoWriMo encourages us to treat our time and creativity as precious gifts. By committing to the challenge, we take our work seriously. For thirty days we become the writers we dream about.
My newsletter is reaching you midmonth. Whether you’re late to the NaNoWriMo party (nothing says you couldn’t run your NaNoWriMo from the 15thto the 15th), or your momentum is flagging, here are some tips to supercharge your creative process. 

  • Find an accountability partner STAT: Anything is easier when it’s shared with others. To find an accountability partner, consider friends, family, and colleagues who share your writing goals. Ask social media friends to meet you for virtual writing dates. Those of you who have registered on NaNoWriMo’s website can join their groups, but if you feel like too much of a procrastinator for NaNoWriMo (or you feel too NaMemoWriMo to join a bunch of novelists), this Quora article has a number of links you can check out. 
  • Create a plan: Before you write, loosely outline your process so you have a general sense of where you’re going. Charting your course before you begin will prevent you from getting lost. Even if you’ve already started, take a couple of hours to create a plan for the rest of the month. 
  • Remember less is more: You don’t need unlimited time to be successful. In fact, research shows that those with an abundance of time actually get less done. A healthy dose of pressure is required to work at peak performance. Instead of trying to clear your entire calendar, shut off your computer, stash your phone in a drawer, and set a timer for twenty minutes. Don’t let your pen leave the page until the timer goes off. If you’re stuck, write about how much it sucks to do this, or simply write the words thank you until the next idea presents itself. 
  • Write now, edit later: Rachel Herron, author of Fast Draft Your Memoir, says that writing now and polishing later makes it easier to cut scenes that don’t serve your story. Never forget that your sole NaNoWriMo job is to immerse yourself in your story by creating a quick draft. The pace and immersion encourage your brain to make associations across the arc of your book that may not occur when working at a slower pace. Jot down ideas, sketch scenes, note items for research, and keep moving forward, even if that means skipping around. 
  • Reward every effort: Whether it’s a pat on the back or a Hershey’s kiss, treat yourself for showing up. Simple rewards may include emailing your writing buddy so he or she can cheer you on, going for a nature walk, or giving your favorite furbaby a swift belly rub. When you reach a milestone, do that one joyful thing you’ve been putting off. At a brain level, success begets success. If you don’t believe me, try the alternative: obsess about word count, cry about how far you have to go, and berate yourself for missing any goals. 
  • Adopt a progress, not perfection attitude: Whether you crank out 50,000 terrible words or 20,000 mediocre ones, you’re guaranteed to be further along than you were at the beginning of the month. Not to mention, the act of writing consistently reinforces a consistent writing practice, which will help you meet other long-term writing goals. 
  • Anticipate Your Next Move: End every writing session at the point when you know what’s going to happen next. This is a trick Ernest Hemmingway used to maintain momentum. It will help you spend less time staring at the page wondering what to write.  To maintain the mood of your work-in-progress, Rachael Herron suggests you read the preceding chapter before beginning your next draft. But don’t go back any further, lest you break your momentum.  
  • Retreat Yourself: If you feel like total immersion is required to meet your goal, organize a writing retreat. If you live near Charlottesville, (or even if you don’t), The Porches Writing Retreat* in Nelson County, Virginia offers the solitude needed to help you stay focused. At $65 per night, with limited internet access and a daylong silence policy, you’ll have few excuses to do anything else. You can also check out Electric Lit’s list of retreat centers to see if there’s one near you. But you don’t have to go away to create a writing retreat. Instead of Black Friday shopping, cloister yourself in a room or go to the local library or a coffee shop to write for the day. Ask a friend or accountability partner to join you. If a daylong retreat doesn’t fit into your schedule, consider a few 2-hour mini-retreats to help you catch up on your word count. 

I make time to write every morning. On days when I’m pressed for time (which happens frequently), I set my timer for 20 minutes. Because of my looming deadline, I’m heading to The Porches along with a few of my students for a four-day retreat. The friendly peer pressure of writers working next to me will guarantee I maintain my butt-in-the-chair practice. In the evenings we can celebrate our successes. 
This is my first NaMemoWriMo. It took close to a year to write the first draft of my previous book. In the past two weeks, I’ve written close to 15,000 words. Each day I write, new insights creep into my awareness. I’m seeing my book not as a series of chapters but as a whole project. The intensity is bringing my story to life. That alone makes this intensive slog worthwhile. 

*I am not paid to endorse or advertise any products or services mentioned in my newsletter. Any recommendations are given freely based on my personal experience. 

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