The matter of writing: how to draft a novel in a month
NaNoWriMo has become an international phenomenon, a writing challenge undertaken by thousands of people around the globe each November, with the aim of producing a draft of a novel (target length 50,000 words) in thirty days. In this post, Dr Rachel Connor, Course Director of Creative Writing, offers some insights on the process for would-be participants.
Ask anyone about NaNoWriMo and they will say the same thing: it’s a creativity bootcamp. Being aware of why you want to write it is a huge help. Living alone during the initial stages of the Covid pandemic, Zoe Tempest-Mitchell (a Leeds Beckett BA English with Creative Writing student in the second year) used a NaNoWriMo-type activity to lend structure to her days and spark creative connections. She says: ‘getting to set myself a challenge and channel my free time into something creative was very fun.’
Zoe was clear about what she wanted to achieve – so much so that it didn’t matter that she didn’t achieve the high target she originally set herself. Focus on your motivation for NaNoWriMo as a way to keep going with it. Write down your intention; post it up wherever you do your writing. Remind yourself of this intention every day.
‘Every story matters’: this ethos is the cornerstone of NaNoWriMo. Matter equates with significance, of course, but it also relates to ‘material’ – the things we need to bring a thing into being, to give it concrete form. The main materials you need are your ideas. Set aside time well before November to explore these: sketch possible plotlines; play with characters. At Leeds Beckett, we encourage our final year creative writing students to come up with three proposals for their end of course portfolio before they even begin writing. They test their ideas with tutors and on each other before committing to one. Allow yourself to dream and doodle – digitally or on paper, on post it notes, shopping lists or the back of an envelope…
Writing, says American novelist Annie Dillard in her book The Writing Life, is like digging. It is a process of laying out a line of words that creates a path. Dig in and don’t be afraid to get mud under your fingernails. You don’t have time to prettify sentences. You need to be able to live with a messy draft, which you can come back to (after November is over) to edit. This muck-raking is the hard bit. Think of it as needing to turn over the solidified earth in the whole garden before you can refine the soil in one isolated patch.
Procrastination can be a big obstacle in a challenge like NaNoWriMo. Sometimes it’s best to work in micro-sessions. For example, you might be better to achieve your daily word count by writing in two sittings rather than in one go. Set smaller goals and think of them as contributing incrementally towards your end outcome. For Zoe, this ‘chunking’ is a helpful psychological trick: ‘I have now started setting myself smaller goals, because achieving them makes me more motivated to attempt another smaller goal.’
Gardeners have potting sheds as a place to care for plants. Sheds work for writers too (check out #shedwriting on social media). But you don’t need a shed to take part in NaNoWriMo. Writers like Zoe who do Camp NaNoWriMo can be part of a ‘cabin’, a supportive online space populated by other participants to whom you can share experiences, track your word count and be each other’s cheerleaders. ‘My group used accountability partners and daily check ins on our chat to keep people motivated,’ Zoe says. ‘We even did an evening a week where we would dedicate a full hour to a group write in.’
The writing process, as Annie Dillard suggests, is a climbing steadily and ‘doing your job in the dark’, with your feet feeling ‘the step ladder’s balance’ and feeling the ache in the thigh muscles. Whatever the outcome at the end of November, take time to celebrate your efforts. You may not have hit your 50,000 word target (consider doing Camp NaNoWriMo instead, where you can choose your own word count). But you’ve made a start with a significant project.
The insights can be surprising. Zoe says: ‘the main success for me was meeting new people, trying a new style of writing, and learning some new ways of trying to combat procrastination. In a writing challenge, watching your writing unfurl before your eyes can feel like flying. Absorb the feeling and enjoy it, for all its pain and dizzy exhilaration. Your job, as Dillard suggests, is to hold your breath and capture the magic.'
Course Director for Creative Writing, Rachel is a novelist, short story writer and a dramatist for stage and radio. She has an interest in the intersections between fields of knowledge, especially between those of the creative and the literary critical.