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How to write 80,000 words in a month

NANOWRIMO always sounded like such a fun idea, but I’m always too busy (& usually travelling) in November to take part. So for the last several years, January haws been my personal NANOWRIMO for one.

My previous record was around 36,000 words in a month (NANOWRIMO aims for 50,000 words), so, I can’t claim to be a seasoned practitioner of the ‘many words, one month’ school. But this January, having thrown off the shackles of the day job in a way that suggests a certain delicious finality, I wrote 80,000 words. Or, more specifically 79,951 words. In 31 days.

Here’s how:

1. Quit your job.

What?

Oh, ok, disclaimer: I never said the process was going to be a financially responsible or sensible one.

(Note: writers should never quit their jobs. No one makes money from writing anymore. In fact, you should probably stop reading this post now & step awaaaaay from the crazy lady’s blog.)

2. Put off as many other commitments as you can.

Buy some TV dinners. Put your phone in a drawer. Set up an iTunes playlist &/or make sure to have a whole bunch of familiar TV on hand for background noise. It’s a good time to start watching CRIMINAL MINDS again from the beginning if you like that sort of thing, or something else you’re largely pretty familiar with. Don’t answer the door. Postpone your socialising for 4 weeks. Tell everyone this is ‘novel writing month’ & you can’t respond to their emails until February.

Do whatever else it takes to open up as many hours as possible in your life. Except, don’t quit on sleep. You’ll need it.

3. Memorise this TEDx video featuring Elizabeth Gilbert discussing creativity.

And then, every day follow her advice to just damn well show up. Gilbert has changed my entire approach to writing, & maybe she’ll work for you, too. Go on, watch it again.

4. Work on a story that’s been nagging at you for years, but that you haven’t had the time & energy – or courage – to address.

You’ve been telling yourself this story for years, you may have even mentioned it to a couple of friends. All the while, your subconscious has been clamping down, squeezing the story, transforming it from a grain of sand to a hard, perfect pearl which you will now spit out onto the screen or page.

This is another of those very personal steps that I ‘got lucky’ with this January, but any nagging, important story will probably feel the same. Don’t think you have to wait years before you begin to tell it!

5. Don’t set out to write 80,000 words.

Just tell yourself, sincerely, that you’re here to beat your previous January best. Aim for something more like 40,000 words, say, or 10,000. Whatever is a challenge for you – but a challenge you at least have a chance of achieving. Be delighted when it becomes obvious you’ll be hitting your goal about 2 weeks into your writing month.

Make a new goal, but don’t forget to celebrate hitting that first one.

6. Set a low daily word count goal.

I aimed for 879 words a day, since I based this exercise on previous experience & thought an 80,000 word draft would take me something more like 3 months (80,000 divided by 3 months is 879 words, about).

I failed to meet this word count exactly four times in the month. Some of those days were spent thinking & plotting instead, which still contributed to the story. Some days were just difficult. But each day I set out to meet that goal afresh.

Having a low word count meant it almost always felt achievable.

But even when it proved to be unachievable, I didn’t waste time beating myself up about it. I needed my energy for writing!

Remember, also, that January was about generating words. It wasn’t about editing or perfecting. It was about telling the story.

7. Record your progress.

I kept a spreadsheet where I recorded my cumulative & daily totals & compared it to my daily word goal. I can now look back & notice that my biggest word-generating day was Friday 6-January, when I wrote 4,749 words. But on Tuesday 17-January I wrote only 297 words (I even made a daily word count graph). My average was 2,579 words daily.

The word count logbook makes me feel proud every damn time I look at it. 

8. Work to an outline.

OK, this contradicts the ‘No Plot? No Problem’ ethos of NANOWRIMO, but I’ve discovered without an outline I can fall into cliche and worse, writerly boredom. I need something to aim at and something to keep myself on course.

I had an outline which I started work on during my first week. That means my first few writing days were just free-form, trying to work out the character & direction. After that, I started outlining. I kept that outline open on the desk beside me as I worked, ticking off the scenes as I progressed. (It became another great way to record my progress, & to check that my 80,000 word goal was realistic. When I hit my middle scene at almost exactly 40,000 words, I figured my planning & progress were on track.)

The next step will appear to contradict this advice, btw.

9. Don’t force yourself to work to the outline.

Yes, that’s right.

Are you okay? Do you need to lie down?

What I mean by steps 8 & 9 is this: have an outline, but don’t feel feel obliged to write only that, or exactly that. Where the outline came in handy was on the days where I sat down, blank-minded, & tried to work out what the hell to do next. I could check the outline, cross out scenes that were no longer relevant, recognise the scenes I’d added in new – and, most importantly, I could identify events from the outline that the novel needed in order to meet its ending. Sometimes, I added those scenes in next. Sometimes I wrote them even though I hadn’t yet worked out how to get from where I was to where that scene occurred. Then I could go back & add in the bridging scenes over the next day or days.

Mostly, though, I wrote the novel in order. I’ve no idea if this helped or not, but it made sure I didn’t try to skip any scenes (if you’re trying to avoid scenes, your readers will probably want to avoid them, too).

And, finally:

10. Be kind to yourself.

Don’t expect your best performance every day (remember what Elizabeth Gilbert says!). Some days you’ll be tired even though you’ve eliminated the day job or cut out all other commitments. Some days you’ll be disappointed with yourself. Sometimes you really will have to take time out for your physical and mental well-being and just have a damn good lie-down. Sometimes you’ll feel depressed about how you’ve sabotaged your finances. Some days you’ll find yourself napping even though you were perfectly wide awake a minute ago.

And some days you won’t be able to face the page until late in the day or evening, and you’ll wonder what happened to the rest of the day. All of that is OK. Don’t beat yourself up about it. Just take the time out that you need, safe in the knowledge that though you’re resting, your subconscious isn’t. And then show up again the next day, aiming to hit your daily word count goal.

Also be prepared for the fact your NEXT month of writing will probably not be as prolific. :)

Because, of course, some days will be everything you hoped they’d be: absolutely wonderful and brilliant and liberating. And you’ll be glad you took the plunge.

“Leap and the net will appear.”

- Zen saying

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