Last year over a quarter of a million people worldwide partook of the November madness known as NaNoWriMo – the national novel writing month.
NaNoWriMo is the marathon (or the sprint, depending on how you think of it) of the literary world, and it’s where you commit to writing one 50,000 word novel in the course of a month. For comparison’s sake, that’s roughly the size of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, or Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer or John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. And though he has hints and guidelines for helping you to bring to life the novel that’s been waiting to get out on paper, the advice that NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty offers in his book No Plot, No Problem is tongue-in-cheek about how to treat yourself while pounding out the 50,000 words of your magnum opus. It’s usually variations of, “And after you have three gallons of coffee…” or “the fast food take-out place around the corner is a writer’s best friend.” Considering that my local NaNoWriMo chapter had a midnight gathering of writers (start writing at midnight of November 1st and rack up as many words as you can in that initial impulse of excitement and productivity), which, had I attended, would’ve left me reeling from lack of sleep for the next few days, I thought I’d put together a real list of suggestions for those writers who want to complete their novel (or thesis or whatever other long writing project) in a month… and not check into the emergency room at the end.
Whether you are joining in with the quarter million (or more) other souls endeavoring to write their novel this November or not, you need to draw comparisons to Olympic athletes, who train rigorously and arrive at the competition in top form, eating only the right foods and supplements, mentally prepared, and rested: at the peak of what they can give. You, too, are an Olympic Athlete (of literature, or something that passes for it) and need to foster the conditions for your mind to perform at its peak through this endeavor.
Having successfully partaken of novel writing inside and outside of the NaNoWriMo context, here are my suggestions for that peak performance, from most important to least important:
- Sleep well. Sleep better and longer than usual. Whether you’re a morning person or a night owl, allocate more time for sleep and you’ll find your brain not only less fuzzy but also filled with the sometimes surprisingly good ideas arising from that helpful co-writer, your subconscious. And yes, the premise of NaNoWriMo is that you’re writing a novel in addition to the million other things you’re doing in your daily life; and how can you do those, write the requisite 1700 words a day or so and allocate more time for sleep? Part of what a focused endeavor like this does is force you to live a more mindful life. You have to make moment-to-moment choices in terms of your time and activities; and maybe, just maybe, that level of greater consciousness might mean that paradoxically, you actually have more time in your day. Use that extra time not just to write in a balanced fashion; use it to sleep well.
- Watch your posture. Sitting in a position that only after a few hours is noticeably uncomfortable is a sure way to make you tired, diminish your concentration and literary output and start a subtle association between exertion and your writing endeavors. It doesn’t have to be that way. Change positions often, play around with standing while writing (a la Hemingway), use an inflatable ball as your chair, switch things around with a posturepedic chair or just be sure to stand every ten minutes, even if for a couple of seconds, to reset your sense of how you’re breathing and how you’re positioning your body relative to your writing tool. Double all these suggestions if you’re using a laptop.
- Get extra exercise everyday. The level of endorphins, physical energy, and ideas generated will make the time spent exercising a worthwhile, productive side endeavor. Dance, walk, run, swim, lift weights, do yoga – whatever gets your body physically balanced. No time to exercise? Forfeit cars, elevators, any form of motorized transportation that you can avoid. Sure, it takes 30 minutes to walk someplace that you could drive to in ten (if you figure parking and traffic lights in the equation), but by walking, have you lost 30 minutes or gained 10? I think of it in terms of the latter. If you already exercise daily or almost daily, congratulations. Don’t let it lapse: stick with it to derive even greater benefits than usual.
- Eat well. Easier said than done, right? In the midst of adding a new thing into our lives, where do we find the time for anything other than take-out or frozen dinners? I’m the first one to concede that there’s nothing like the convenience of both of those, but it’s not “brain food” – stuff that nourishes both your body and your mental acuity. The solution? Make your own take-out. Once a week (especially during those times when your plot seems to go nowhere, or your characters are in mutiny against your well-crafted plan) cook a large batch of several dishes, package them, and make it simple for you to reach into the fridge and grab something that nourishes you. Junk food tends to be consumed first perhaps more on the basis of the convenience than their junky-ness; so make it convenient to eat good, tasty, balanced, whole-food items that nourish you and your creativity… and require no more effort than the less beneficial food.
- Speaking of junk food… It’s easy to go overboard on the treats. If it’s hard to break the habit of reaching for something whenever you get to the point in the story where things seem flat, consider switching the sugary, carb-full treat for vegetables. It’s mindless eating, right? Since you’re mindless here, might as well make it mindlessly good for you. Or just get up and go do those other tasks from daily life and then come back (more in point 8 below).
- Stay off the coffee. Sure, it may give you the necessary buzz to crank out a few extra hundred words, but coffee ultimately dehydrates you and takes its toll on your adrenals and the rest of your system. I’m not suggesting you quit coffee during NaNoWriMo, just that you don’t lean on it. If it’s a caffeine lift you’re after, try green tea instead – it’ll be easier on you and also give you a boost in the free-radical fighting department.
- Restrict your media intake. You are breathing the rarefied air of the world your characters inhabit. News, TV, email, Twitter, Facebook updates and the like may be fun and entertaining, but they also split off your creative energy and crowd out the part of your brain where your characters live and develop. Each writer is different, of course, so this suggestion could not only not apply to you but be counterproductive if you’re the rare writer whose creative style thrives on overstimulation. But you might err on the side of less media, or being very specific about which media you choose, in order to give breathing space for your characters to develop. Creative media, on the other hand, may help to stimulate the imagination. The right music, the right visuals, the right book that you’re also reading, can be a source of what Julia Cameron, in her fantastic book The Artist’s Way, calls “adding to the well of creativity” – so we’re not just drawing out of the well, but also putting into it.
- Find compatible and complementary activities for writing. Yes, dinner needs to be cooked, or the laundry needs to be done, or your child’s diapers need to be changed. Fantastic. Let the story and the characters continue to brew in your head as you take care of life’s details and then come back to where you were. Frequent mini-breaks can let your subconscious do the work for you. The key is to find compatible activities. For instance, for me getting lost in Wikipedia is not compatible with my writing: just like other media in the above point, it crowds out my creative impulses and tends to put me in a passive “entertain me” mode rather than the active involvement that creating requires. So the question is to welcome “no brainer” activities from your daily living that permit the story to continue to write itself in the background of your awareness so when you return to the keyboard, you have new things to say.
- Other “take good care of your writer” areas include… drinking plenty of water while writing (it’ll keep you and your brain hydrated and will force you to change posture every now and then by running to the bathroom); using a neti pot on a daily basis (it’ll keep you breathing better and hence give you greater mental focus); eating a higher protein to carbohydrate ratio (it’ll keep you more alert and less prone to get the post-meal lazies); meditating (it’ll clear your mind and relax your eyes); and not making the novel-writing endeavor your be-all and end-all for the month: yes, you can get there, but with a mix of your other responsibilities, enjoying your friends, other good books, and life in general.
Does this sound like a lot to do on top of writing a novel (and leading your regular life)? Maybe. Do as many as you think you can incorporate with balance. But as I said, writing a novel in a month, whether you’re doing it as part of NaNoWriMo or on your own, is the Olympics of Literature, and you’ve got to keep yourself fit in every area in order to get the necessary edge to compete and win.
Except in this case, it’s a competition against yourself, against a deadline, and against a specific word count.
Incidentally, this article is about the length of what you need to write every day for 30 days to get a 50,000 word novel. Not that bad, huh?