Some of you may know that this is National Novel Writing Month—affectionately known as NaNoWriMo. The idea is that you write 50,000 words and call it a novel.
No one grades it or evaluates it; you get your virtual trophy by uploading the text to the NaNoWriMo site, which verifies that you did, indeed, submit a 50,000-word document.
Some of you will sniff and immediately point out, in voluminous detail, why submitting a 50,000-word document to a random third party is worthless and will not make you a novelist.
Others will quail at the idea of writing 50,000 words, period. Let alone in one month.
Some will say that since they didn’t start already and a week of NaNoWriMo has already passed by, it is pointless to start now.
A variation on “a week has already passed” is “I don’t have time to write!”
Yet another common response will be, “I don’t have an idea for a whole novel. I just have a scene or two in my head.”
Let me suggest, ever so gently, that every single one of these reasons, plus whatever other ones you have ricocheting around in your head, are 99.94% pure bullshit.
Because really, you’re scared to write. There can be thousands of reasons why, but mostly it boils down to a few overarching themes:
Perfectionism: I can’t write the Great American Novel/next bestseller, and I’m not going to embarrass myself by trying and failing. Because then I will know for sure I can’t write, and I can’t really handle that truth.
Fear of Being Heard: I say and think things that make people uncomfortable. People avoid me when they’re uncomfortable. I can’t handle being a social pariah.
Fear of Actually Being Good: (This one sounds odd, but I’ve seen it.) I may have some talent at writing, but I won’t be able to handle the attention. People will find out that I’m not all they think I am, that I’m really a fraud.
Personally, I don’t think the best thing about NaNoWriMo is writing 50,000 words in a month. Not that it wouldn’t be fabulous.
The important thing is that you can use NaNoWriMo as a springboard into the writing pool, where you long to be. Trust me on this—if you have a secret, quiet, or even loud desire to write, you need to write. It’s calling you. I don’t know for what purpose, because that’s not my job to know; it’s yours.
Let me just say that you can, maybe even should, answer a call without knowing exactly why you are being called, or where it will take you. I’ve watched those who do just that, and they lead the most interesting, juicy, ALIVE lives of anyone I know. They also will tell you they had no idea that things would turn out how they did, but they are grateful beyond measure that they listened to their call.
What If I Don’t Have 3 Hours Daily for Writing?
The key to NaNoWriMo is to make it what you need it to be for your own growth as writer. “Growth” can mean just starting to put your fragile ideas on screen or paper, instead of saying “some day,” like a trained parrot.
So let’s get down to the nub: How are you going to put NaNoWriMo into your life for the next 3 weeks?
As you might expect, I have some suggestions.
- Get up 20 minutes early daily, and just transcribe whatever comes into your head. It matters not one whit if you like what comes out; brilliance, or even liking what your write, is for later. Your writing does not initially have to make much sense, either. It doesn’t even need to have complete sentences, punctuation, acceptable grammar, or correct spelling. Promise. That is what editing is for, my friends.
- Join up with a local NaNoWriMo region and go to some write-ins. The website helps you find them: https://nanowrimo.org/regions?
- Go out to lunch daily, and spend time writing while you munch. I once wrote a good third of a novel by walking to the nearest Starbucks with a notebook, getting something to eat, and scribbling for a while.
Basically, you need to commit to tweaking your habits. Create a space in your life for a new, small habit: writing. You really don’t need the vast savannah of time that we writers are convinced must shine before us. Sure it’s nice, but absolutely it isn’t necessary.
But I Don’t Know Anything About Writing a Novel!
Most of you are lawyers. That means that most of you have fully internalized the notion that you must know the rules before you embark on such an intimidating project. That is what we do when we’re lawyers!
To counter this, I ask you to consider the experience of novelist Roxane Gay. While usually I don’t like to quote people at length, Gay’s particular set of questions was so lawyer-like that I know many of you have or are thinking the same things. Just to make them easier to scan, I’ve bulleted Gay’s questions:
- How long should a novel be? (There are a million different answers to this question, by the way.)
- I prefer to write in single-spaced, un-indented paragraphs. Would that be an acceptable way to submit a manuscript?
- How long should a chapter be?
- How many chapters is too many chapters?
- How do you number chapters during the drafting process when certain sections might be moved around?
- Is it acceptable to use multiple points of view (i.e. both first and third person)?
- What if certain chapters adopt an experimental format but are interspersed with more traditional prose?
- Is it really true that every chapter should be self-contained and readable as its own thing?
- Do you have to write from beginning to end or is it acceptable to jump around the story and pull it all together at the end?
- How do you pace a novel?
- How explicit is too explicit?
- Is it okay to leave gaps in the narrative?
She goes on to say, “There is lots of advice on novel writing out there but I struggled to find satisfying answers for my specific set of questions. Finally, there came a time when I decided to ignore all the advice I had read and do the only thing I know how to do, which is write. I wrote what I felt like writing, when I felt like writing, how I felt like writing. I jumped all over the place. None of my chapters had numbers. I didn’t take notes, or create a timeline, or plot anything out.”
Gay is the author of 6 books, so I think things worked out OK for her by following her own inner guidance.
I’ll bet you can follow your own inner guidance, too. If you’re willing to listen to that wisdom, and not your fear.
Jennifer Alvey is a recovering lawyer who coaches unhappy attorneys to add their own unique creativity to their lives. What better way to create a better life than with your own innate abilities? If you want help tapping into your own creativity, contact Jennifer at firstname.lastname@example.org.