I used to hate fall.
Not because of the turning of the leaves, when the surrounding oaks and maples would go from emerald green to scarlet and golden orange. That was beautiful.
Not because of the first frost that settled onto the rolling pastures, inviting me to wrap myself in fluffy scarves and puffy jackets. Those things were cozy.
I hated fall because of the prevalence of sports. Like college football. In my 20s and even into my early 30s, fall became a sort of prison sentence for me. In my relationships, I took a backseat to my partners’ needs so they could cheer on their favorite teams. It meant spending all day at college tailgates when I had other things I’d rather be doing. Nothing sounded more miserable to me than sitting in a stadium full of tens of thousands of screaming fans while I froze my ass off. I didn’t care who won, I didn’t care who lost. I just wanted to be home making the most of that window of time.
So I wised up. I took control of MY time. And I’ve loved fall ever since. No longer do I associate fall with wasting precious time following pastimes I don’t care about. These days, I associate the season with my passion and love for writing.
You see, something exciting comes to mind now that fall is here, and it’s called NaNoWriMo.
What is NaNoWriMo?
For those of you in the dark on what it is, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. Every year on November 1, a community of writers from around the world sits down and bangs out a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. Or at least, tries to, anyway. And this year, it happens to be NaNoWriMo’s 20-year anniversary. Yep — it was started in July 1999, by a guy named Chris Baty (thank you, Chris!).
Stumbling upon this community happened at a time when I was undergoing significant life changes. I’m talking huge life transitions. I’d just had my first child — completely unplanned — and my future at Uber was looking uncertain. I was struggling with stepping into my new role as a mother and working full-time, managing a household, and working through relationship challenges. I was going through a lot. I signed up for NaNoWriMo on a whim, but didn’t actually participate for the first year or two after I created a profile. Life got away from me.
But that all changes this year. I’ve finally found the momentum I need to be able to hit the ground running with this awesome community of writers. This will be my first ever NaNoWriMo. And it starts two days from now.
Trying to write a 50,000-word novel in one month is no small task. Minimizing things like writer’s block, social media use and interruptions, and life obligations will be key to having productive writing sessions. That’s where preparation comes in. And in the NaNoWriMo community, that preparation is referred to as Preptober. It typically takes place in the month of October.
Preptober: how I prepared for my first NaNoWriMo
Preptober looks different for every writer. It can be something as intensive as writing a super detailed story outline as early as September, fleshing out all of your characters, world-building, and untangling your plot and subplots. For me, it involved anticipating what my obstacles in the writing process would be, and trying to mitigate them as much as possible before November 1 struck.
Here are my specific challenges and how I addressed them:
- Perfectionism: I’m one of those people who will tinker and tweak forever if I don’t set specific limits for myself. Everything has to be just right. The thing is, even with all my editing and rework, it’s still never perfect. And what’s worse is when I realize how much time I just wasted. Sitting around, trying to think of the best word to use or how to structure a sentence will take me down a rabbit hole that severely cripples my productivity. I’m already a slow writer. I don’t need to further undermine my writing sessions by nitpicking as I go. I use Scrivener to write my books, so I plan on using its typewriter setting to keep myself from scrolling up and rereading and tweaking what I’ve written. My strategy is to get my story down as fast as possible. Setting word goals, using focused writing modes, and picking a placeholder word to use when I can’t think of a specific word are a few ways to keep the writing on track.
- Writer’s block: I’m convinced writer’s block is what happens when I haven’t done my due diligence in figuring out who my characters truly are and how the story plot will change them. If I hope to write 50,000 words in one month, I need to have a clear path of my overall story so I don’t waste time staring at the screen and wondering what the hell happens next. It’s not plotting or pantsing — I tend to agree with Lisa Cron on this. Check out her book Story Genius for details. I plan to combat writer’s block by brainstorming and outlining the specific scenes in my novel, and jotting down how each scene impacts each of the character’s stories. Having a roadmap, so to speak, will ensure I know exactly where I’m going next.
- Creative burnout: Writing so many words in 30 days is an absolute beast of an undertaking. It’s a self-imposed gauntlet. There will be drudgery and there will be times I ask myself why the f$%& I’m doing this to myself, but I need to anticipate those moments. That’s why I spent October reading as much as possible, writing blog posts (to counter the feelings of guilt when I neglect my website), finishing up other projects, and just enjoying life before November hits. Doing these types of activities refills my creativity bank so that I’m functioning at my best once NaNoWriMo starts. It’s also a good idea to schedule specific blocks of time for me to relax and veg out after a demanding day of working and getting my daily word goal in. Planning ahead and maintaining a balance is vital.
- Family obligations: The crazy thing is, National Novel Writing Month takes place over Thanksgiving (for those of us living in the U.S.)! This means that the days before and after the holiday can be spent juggling out-of-town friends and family while still trying to work and write. For me, it helps when I keep Thanksgiving in mind each day of November so that I can hopefully surpass my daily goals and cushion the blow of the upcoming holiday. I plan to get up early, before everyone else is awake, to write. And then, I must communicate my intentions with my loved ones so they can support me.
- Full-time job: This goes hand-in-hand with the previous challenge. Organization and proactivity are the keys to success here, so I will wake up early to write before work, squeeze in time to write over lunch breaks, and try to finish work tasks as early as possible to avoid unnecessary stress later — like from procrastination. If you have a good relationship with your manager, you could even share what you’re working on. Transparency can give you just the boost you need to feel supported. Another thing to consider is that many workplaces are slower during the holidays — if you can swing it, take advantage of the extra time and write.
- Interruptions: Imagine how much we could accomplish if we didn’t have Instagram and Facebook and Twitter luring us in. One of the most depressing things I realized when Apple started pushing out its weekly screen time reports was how much time I wasted jacking around on social media. I plan on setting defined times to engage on social media. If it’s a big enough distraction to you, you might consider temporarily removing social media apps from your phone for the month of November. I plan on using social media as a means of keeping myself accountable. By posting weekly updates to my social media accounts, I tell everyone what my goals are, and that provides me with a reasonable amount of pressure to keep going. Do what works best for you.
The important thing to remember whether you participate in Preptober or jump straight into NaNoWriMo is: just have fun. Whether you hit 50,000 words or you don’t, all that matters is progress. Don’t give up. Keep capturing your story, and one day, you’ll finish it. And when you do — wow. What an accomplishment!
There’s an enormously supportive community of people joining you on this journey, and the NaNoWriMo website is a great place to meet people or find local support groups. Connect with them. Pick their brains. Encourage and lift each other up. Just remember to have fun.