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The Frame of Mind and Routine to Tackle NaNoWriMo

The first week of National Novel Writing Month will soon pass.

For aspiring writers, this month-long challenge has its difficulties: if you lack the routine more experienced writers undoubtedly employ, reaching 50.000 words by the end of the month will become a tough ride when you are fueled by excitement only.

There’s nothing wrong with being excited. Motivational excitement will deplete over time, though, leaving you with nothing but a commitment. You can’t replace true motivation by reason. Reason needs emotional back-up to move you.1 And so people tend to fail to reach the goal of NaNoWriMo without realizing why. There’s another way out, though. (Spoiler: it’s clear daily outcomes and a routine.)

To fail the challenge due to a lack of excitement is too cheap an excuse. You shouldn’t be too hasty to rationalize as most people do: You don’t give because you didn’t seem to have wanted to reach the goal bad enough in the first place. Such after-the-fact rationalizations are common, but they don’t lead anywhere. Focus on the fact that excitement is a very limited resource (as is discipline and will-power, by the way). Then embrace the opportunity to find a different motivator.

When the excitement wanes, your primary source of fuel has dried out. You need a different one, that’s all. To employ an analogy: it’s like your blood sugar was raised by eating candy, making you all jumpy, but now the usual low kicks in. Better run on slow-burning fat instead of fast-burning carbs. Don’t try to force to re-kindle your excitement. Instead, do what the pros do and get a writing routine. That’s your slow-burning but dependable alternate fuel source.

Routine will save your butt because you can lean on it. It’s a secure foundation which directs your actions. But you may not have a routine in place already. We’ll worry about this in just a moment.

First, let’s get as accurate an outline of your duties for this month as possible.

The NaNoWriMo Undertaking: Your Intent Shall be to Write Until Finished

hamster in a wheel
Photo Credit: Zebra Pares via Compfight cc

Your commitment for the rest of November is clear: write, write, write. Write as much as you can. If you only start by tomorrow, you still have 25 full days left to write. That makes 2000 words a day. You should be able to do this in about two hours.2

You’re expected not to edit too much at first. The goal is to pump out 50k words for your novel project and tell a story. Nobody scores a perfect first draft, and no-one expects you to complete three to five revisions in this short amount of time. Picture Murakami’s delightful novel 1Q84,3 where the young Fukaeri managed to hand in a manuscript of a novel which got everyone hooked despite its sub-par style. Unlike Fukaeri, you won’t have a professional editor at your disposal, bringing the super rough draft to perfection.

By now we agree you will have to get out 2000 words per day to reach your goal. (If you’ve written something already, all the better for you.) Whereas “writing” usually means to draft, revise, and proof-read, in respect to this month-long challenge, it doesn’t: we’re talking about pumping out words only.

You need to break down the rather hard to grasp month-long challenge into manageable pieces. Create milestones to check your progress. Reaching 2000 words a day is such a milestone.

Separate the process of drafting from revising. Reach your 2000 words a day as quickly as possible. Your first and foremost responsibility is to get these words out. Period. Write badly, write with style, I don’t care – but write with force.

Still got time left in the day? Great, now treat yourself with a nice round of editing. Forbid yourself to add something new, to complete the current chapter, or to sketch the next one. By limiting yourself, you may actually raise tomorrow’s energy level because you just Need. To. Get. Going.

Can’t seem to write at all? If you feel anxious or blocked, do a free-writing exercise and write about how you feel for ten minutes. Now see that you can write. Writing is not your bottleneck. Maybe some vague plot-related thing is keeping you from going on.

To keep the mind flowing, keep pen and note-pad with you all the time. Take note of ideas to teach your brain to generate more of them. Don’t try to remember them, because keeping them in your head will clog the outflow of ideas. Putting down everything that’s on your mind on paper is a great way to clear the channels.

Recap the frame of mind:

  • Write 2000 words each day until the end of the month. Writing means pouring words into the document.
  • Editing is optional and can always (!) be done later. You have to move fast now.
  • Getting stuck is optional, too. Don’t think yourself into a writer’s block. There is no such thing as long as you keep yourself in a healthy state and manage to take care of everything that worries you. To achieve that, you’ll need to …
  • … Take note of ideas and put down everything that’s on your mind to free your mind from the task to remember boring stuff.
  • Inspiration does not guarantee quality. Routine and practice do. So write even when you’re not inspired. Write about that you’re not inspired if you have to to get started. Routine writers write 3.5 times as much as spontaneous or inspired writers, which in turn write only negligibly more than people not writing at all.4

Install a Month-long Writing Routine

Routine is a better friend than inspiration –R. Keyes5

I already mentioned that most serious writers employ a routine. If you don’t have one already, figure out how to fix this for the course of this month-long challenge. Routine will give you something to hold on.

When it comes to writing, I’m a morning person. I can code all day, but writing comes easiest in the morning. So if you have no clue how to create a routine, I suggest you start to free an hour and a half in the morning.

You’ve got 25 days left in November. It should be totally manageable to direct your energy towards creating a writing habit with the aim to reach 50.000 words by the end of the months.

This habit is based on sitting down to write, distraction free. No phone, no internet, no spouse. Tell everyone involved about this commitment, and that it’ll last 25 more days only. They’ll respect this.

You don’t find time to write. You schedule your writing.

Just don’t try to make a 25-day binge-writing session from it. These don’t work, they only exhaust you. Incorporating a routine is both putting an upper and a lower limit to your productivity. In any case, it will raise your productivity to a non-zero level. That’s the point of it all.

Get up earlier than usual to pull this off. Remember: it’s for 25 days only. That will be manageable. Ideally, not much else will occupy your energy for this month so you can experiment with this writing schedule, go to bed earlier than usually, and make some time to relax, too.

Keep in mind this is my suggestion, only. You can schedule an hour or two in the afternoon instead if that suits you better. When I wake up and complete my morning ritual (stretching, meditation, and a short body-weight workout), I don’t have anything on my mind, yet. I am able to focus on writing best when I’m in this mood. You may tick differently.

The Takeaway

Let’s suppose you stick to your plan. You schedule writing sessions because you take them seriously. You write as shitty as you want to reach the 2000 mark. You’re allowed to continue to write more than that, but you’re not allowed to do nothing else but write during the day because binge writing will deplete your energy. Focus on reaching your goals reliably every day. That’s your premiere responsibility. Don’t overdo it or you’ll hurt yourself.

You don’t edit the text while you write. Do this after you reached your 2000 words a day if you want to. To keep you going, you may write nonsense for a while, or pick up a childish tone, or swear all the time in dialogues. Taylor Lindstrom found her writing became better when she intentionally wrote as bad a draft as she could. No one will see these attempts, so relax and play.

Here’s how Taylor approached a serious copy-writing for a website:

“Home page – Man, we’re awesome. So awesomely awesome. Look how awesome we are. We produce services and good stuff and we’re nice to our customers, too. Go team. Man, our awesomeness just gave me a hernia when I tried to lift it. That’s how much awesome we have.”

Now, that’s nowhere near what the final draft will look like. But when I write an intentionally bad first draft, with all the sarcasm and such, occasionally my brain will try to trip me up. It says, “Ho-ho! You’re trying to write a bad draft, are you?! Well, we’ll see about that!”

Then my brain starts to give me some pretty good sentences. It thinks it is tripping me up. I just write the sentences down as though I didn’t notice there were good sentences cluttering up my bad draft.

Overcome the self-imposed obstacle of writing with perfect style and trick your brain. Knowing these things helps to stop beating up oneself and accomplish a real behavior change.

Some of the research on this topic I found in the fabulous book How to Write a Lot by Paul J. Silvia. It’s directed at academic writing first and foremost, but the overall morale stays the same: routine trumps inspiration trumps binge-writing.

Usually, you don’t need a lot of time to get going. During NaNoWriMo, you’ve got a tight schedule to meet. That’s the real challenge. So stop tricking yourself into inactivity with excuses and start to leverage the power of serious commitments, well-defined daily outcomes, and daily routines.

It might be hard at times. But everything in life worth a dime is. Overcome the obstacle just a few times and you’ll be able to flow into writing 2000 words a day.

Sascha and I don’t attend this year. What about your NaNoWriMo experience so far? Tell us in the comments!

  1. I don’t have any English literature handy at the moment. For the time being, I got this information about the way the brain works from Gerhard Roth (2011): Persönlichkeit, Entscheidung und Verhalten. Warum es so schwierig ist, sich und andere zu ändern, Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta. 

  2. Shameless self-advertising: I just watched my progress on this very article and found I was able to pump out 1500 words in an hour using the live Word Counter app for Mac I developed myself. That’s not even much compared to more experienced writers. Some of my articles on my blog are longer than 2000 words. And I need to edit a lot. I’m not even writing in my primary language. That’s why I believe you can do it, too. You’ll just have to find out what might be in your way. I bet it’s a lack of practice and routine. 

  3. Affiliate link; I get a small kickback from the vendor if you buy from my link but it won’t cost you anything. 

  4. R. Boice (1990): Professors as writers. A self-help guide to productive writing, Stillwater, OK: New Forums Press. 

  5. R. Keyes (2003): The writer’s book of hope, New York: Holt, cited after Silvia, How to Write a Lot, p. 26.