by Ellen Buikema
National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo, is an organization that promotes creative writing worldwide via annual writing challenges where participants attempt to write fifty thousand words in a month. I pondered whether or not to attempt their challenge for several years and finally opted to give it a try in 2020, the unhappy year many wish wasn’t. With a plethora of time available due to the curtailing of social activities during the pandemic, I took the NaNo plunge.
NaNoWriMo changed the way I write. Below is my story of moving from Pantser to Plantser.
Timing is everything.
We live in a beautiful area by the Sea of Cortez that attracts tourists from all over the world. This means lots and lots of noise. Fresh air therapy is good for minimizing exposure to COVID-19, so we throw open the windows to keep the breeze passing through our living space as often as possible. Unfortunately, the joyous sound of happy travelers . . . travels.
When we lived in a quieter area I could write any time. If writer’s block ever reared its ugliness, I’d step away from the laptop and find someplace out of the way to get horizontal and let my mind go blank. Sometimes Bailey, our lovable black lab, would lie down next to me to lend his special brand of calm and help me think. A few minutes of mind-clearing (sweeping out the panicked thought of not being able to think) and I’d be ready to continue the story.
Now that we live in the land of loud, it’s become vitally important to discover the quietest times of day. That ended up being from 3 AM to around 1 PM. Out of necessity I became a morning writer, and my writing schedule is between 8 AM and 1 PM.
There is no magical time for writing, except what works best for you.
The goal of 50,000 words in one short month scared the bejesus out of me. Prior to NaNoWriMo I rarely wrote more than 1000 words in a day, and I've never written every day of the week. The idea of no writing breaks caused some anxiety too.
I decided to wrap my stubborn streak around me and figure this out for a positive potential outcome. When moving to a new location, I completely unpack and organize one room. When I need a break from staring at disorder, I have a blissfully organized place to gaze at before I attack more of the unpacking. I applied this to the writing word count.
Instead of panicking, which causes brain freeze (not the fun ice cream-induced kind), I set a 1600-2000 word target, with breaks along the way. Those breaks made all the difference for me.
I wrote before and after breakfast, took a break to play solitaire with an old deck of cards, and did my lie down and let-the-mind-go-blank thing until an idea popped in. This worked well even without Bailey who has passed over the Rainbow Bridge.
To outline or not to outline, that is the question.
Being a happy Pantser, I typically don’t do detailed planning. I start with the beginning and end points, and have a basic idea rolling through my mind of how to get from point A to point Z. I suspected that 50,000 words in a month would require more planning than usual.
Here is what helped:
- To help the Pantser in me become more "plotterly" -- a Plantser of sorts -- I took the month of October to ponder genre, age group, and point of view to use for this experimental novel.
- I decided to write a YA fantasy with elements of time travel titled “Crystal Memories.”
- I wrote a basic outline and chose a location, time, grammatical tense, and basic character traits.
- These ideas are not included in the word count, which is part of the challenge. Notes are "legal," just not in the count.
My internal editor was not a happy creature. For the first few days, I suffered through an internal war. Eyes drawn like a magnet to flaws, I had to force myself not to re-read and change things. Instead, I made use of the strikeout feature in Microsoft Word. (Here are the shortcuts for this feature if you need them [link], or Ctrl+D will get you right to strikeout.)
I reminded myself repeatedly that NaNoWriMo is not an exercise in perfection. My 50,000+ word novel could end up being a hot mess and still have good bones.
We are all in this together.
I never expected to complete the NaNo goal my first time around. I didn't even know I had it in me. I certainly couldn't have done it alone.
- Several times, joining the groups focused on encouragement and discussion kept me afloat.
- Every day I checked my stats on the NaNoWriMo site.
- During the last week I received a note on the site stating that I might finish my 50,000 words a few days early. To my surprise, I did.
What kept me going:
I wrote the last chapter the day after I hit the 50,000 word count goal. My internal editor awaits the next step.
Do you have a best place and time to write? What are your writing rituals? What methods do you use to help with writer’s block?
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Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents and a series of chapter books for children with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Works In Progress are The Hobo Code, YA historical fiction and Crystal Memories, YA fantasy.