NaNoWriMo–Was it Worth it?

When I was younger, I was always that one kid who flat out refused to wear green on Saint Patty’s day. And if you pinched me, I slapped you. When I got older, I sneered at Cinco de Mayo drinkers and wasted New Years’ Evers. Gawd, I’d think, why don’t you just celebrate when you feel like it instead of this arbitrary day just because everyone else is doing it? I don’t know if that aversion to popular events was just my stubborn, rebellious lone wolf streak, but the edge has softened over the years. 

But, that didn’t stop me from thinking every writer in the modern world was absolutely nuts for trying to knock out fifty-thousand words in thirty days. And everyone was talking about it, and not just in November. Needless to say, I did not participate the first year I became familiar with National Novel Writing Month, and I didn’t the next year either, although my unexplainably intrinsic distaste had faded. 

Over the last year, I’ve become more and more entrenched with writers on the internet. That’s right folks, I have internet friends. We’re mostly on Twitter, and we’re all writers, and we’re mostly, sensationally, totally nuts. So, when everyone (and I do mean everyone) started asking, “Who’s doing NaNo this year?”, my gut said, “NO.”

And the who’s-doing-nano tweets piled up, and the excitement and encouragement was overwhelming. I was getting excited for my friends who were preparing themselves for NaNo–and it was serious stuff. There were meal plans, novel outlines, reward baggies prefilled with candies and treats. The dedication was impressive.

Que to me sitting alone at my desk, staring at the rough draft I was supposed to be almost finished with. The plan to have it written by the end of November was long abandoned. I had about 10,000 pathetic words and plenty of excuses–totally valid excuses, mind you–and my motivation to keep going was flagging. My characters were moping, poking me every now and then like a begging orphan who’s form was only half-fleshed out in my mind. And even though I was pulling every rough draft writing trick I knew out of the bag, progress was slow and faltering. 

So, when one of my favorite writing friends messaged me directly about NaNoWriMo absolutely spilling with contagious enthusiasm, I surprised myself by writing ‘Yes, I’ll do it!’ and hitting send without a second thought. 

Shit. 

What had I done? 

So, naturally, I panicked. And when the panic started to fade, I had a stern talk with myself. Look, I said, you’re pantsing your first novel, you haven’t written a novel-sized rough draft in years, and you have no idea what you’re doing–no stress, just words. 

So I started getting up early before work and sitting down and writing. If I was stumped, I wrote nonsense, stream-of-conscious-type words until I felt warmed up. If I wasn’t sure where to go with a scene or a character, I broke out of story-telling-narrative mode and started talking to myself. I would literally write paragraphs that started: ‘Okay, I have no idea what Anthony’s going to do know. Okay, if I was fourteen, and I had just moved away from everything I knew and my only friend, how would I be feeling right now?’ 

And I would keep writing that way until sceneage started coming out instead of self-talk. And all of a sudden, my word count started piling up. Not only did making that NaNo goal seem possible, finishing my rough draft  before the end of the year didn’t sound so impossible anymore. And every time I got online, I was inundated with triumphant updates, congratulations on hitting milestones, vents about rough days and getting behind on word count, encouragement to keep going, and invitations to write in sprints together. 

Not only did I “win” NaNo by writing 50,000 words in thirty days, I also amped up my excitement and inspiration about my project, and even though I woke up today, this first day after NaNo’s ended, with all the intent of not writing a word and just relaxing, I found I didn’t want to. As I paced back and forth in my kitchen, I knew what was bothering me. I wanted to write. And that is what NaNoWriMo is really all about. 

Ease Editing with Microsoft Word’s Table of Contents Feature

Editing long documents can be a nightmare. As writers, it’s exciting to see your work in progress grow, but daunting when it comes to revisions.

One way to ease those editing pains is to use Headings and a Table of Contents to organize your work into sections, whether those are chapters or something more tailored to your work. Microsoft Word makes this extremely easy to do, and easy to update your Table of Contents once you move Chapter 2 after Chapter 4.

Here’s the step-by-step:

Set the Heading Styling

Write the text of your section heading (or chapter title), then highlight the text and select the desired heading in the top ribbon.

Set the Heading Type in the top ribbon

Note that styles can be customized, and that Word is fairly logical; Heading 2 will be automatically considered a sub-category of Heading 1, etc.

Add Page Numbers for Easy Reference

If you haven’t already, you’ll want to add page numbers to your document as well.

On the Insert tab of the ribbon, click the Page Number dropdown and select the numbering style you prefer. Note styles again can be customized here.

Set the Page Number style in the Insert tab

Insert the Table of Contents

On the reference tab of the ribbon, click the Table of Contents dropdown. Make sure your cursor is where you’d like your ToC to appear in the document. 

Add the Table of Contents from the References tab

Again, style can be customized here.

You can use your Table of Contents to jump to the chapter of your choosing by clicking the chapter on the ToC or from the Navigation tab.

Use the Navigation window from the View tab

Updating Your Table of Contents

Once you’ve made changes in your document, you can update your ToC by clicking the Update Table under the References tab.

Update your ToC if you add, move, or remove sections to your document

Word will now ask if you want to update the entire table (your ToC) or just the page numbers. Typically, you’ll want to update the entire table.

If I hear the word ‘platform’ one more time, I’m going to scream….

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If I hear the word ‘platform’ one more time, I’m going to scream….

If you want to make a living with your writing, you’ve heard the word platform. And if you like writing enough to want to eek out a living on scribbles, you’re probably not the prototypical social butterfly. So, if you’re like most introverted writers — all of us who are dying to tell you a story but can’t look you in the eye to do it — you probably cringe when you hear the words platform, audience, following, reach, yada, yada,yada.

And as much as I like to sneer at the DiSC and INTJ fad of categorizing us many-faceted humans into plot points on a quadrant graph, I am an introvert through and through, and every single person-on-person interaction outside of family drains me. It doesn’t matter how positive the experience is. The mental energy spent plotting, revising, and delivering responses and tone wears me out. The more of it I have, the more I feel like a limp balloon.

And no one will sugarcoat it — building a platform is WORK. Years of internet wheel spinning for what? Anonymous strangers who will sign up for (and unsubscribe to) your email newsletter and might (miiiiiight — maybe) buy your book one day, assuming you ever finish it well enough to buck up and send it out in the world. And no, I don’t mean emailing it to your mom. I mean submitting your baby to agents and editors and the constantly overflowing slush piles of hopeful manuscripts that litter the publishing realm.

And what about that whole ‘regular life’ thing?

We modern writers know it’s not just as simple as a cup of coffee, a notebook, and one good editor contact to make a writing career these days. In this modern world of instant updates and constant news streams, the newspaper PR release of the past just doesn’t carry as far as it used to.

To ‘make it’ as a writer these days, you have to maintain an active social media presence, attract and grow a mailing list, push out regular blogs and articles, make conference and library appearances, meet publishing contacts — oh, and then there’s the actual writing. If — fingers crossed — you get a shot with your novel, you’d better pray to your muse of choice that you have enough juice to throw out another release within the year. Publishing one novel every three years just won’t build that readership you need to claw out a full-time writing career in today’s short attention span society.

So, how do we balance it all?

Ask a thousand writers and you’ll hear a thousand and one answers, but all that juggling does lend credit to the quote by John Gardner, ‘One has to be just a little crazy to write a great novel.’

But what about when it gets just a little too crazy?

Writers don’t just tell stories. We absorb the world around us like sponges, and when we write, we squeeze every drop of those real world details out onto the page. But what happens when you’re so wrapped up in your bulleted list of goals and objectives that you miss all of life’s messy details? When life turns into rushing from one task to the next, you don’t notice when the hostess winks at that married customer when she thinks his wife isn’t looking. When you’re too busy to notice the little things, you miss out on the inspirational fodder you need to spew out intricate details of your side character without reinventing mankind.

When your writing world evolves into nothing more than unchecked items on a to-do list, you don’t notice things, and you don’t connect the things you notice with your subconscious, to mill around in that chaotic pit of emotions and fledgling story ideas that we writers call our minds. When your writer sponge is empty, your writing is thin, forced, and shallow.

And that’s when you need to step back, take a breather, and tune out. Put your phone down, turn off notifications, and simplify. Your platform will still be there when you come back.

Keep Your Writing Resolutions

We all know the schtick. Resolutions are made to be broken.

By February, most of us have forgotten any resolutions made, let alone are sticking to them. It’s another pointless, painful cycle, accompanied by nagging feelings of disappointment and self-doubt. Are you ready to kick it to the curb?

Try thinking of your resolutions as goals instead.

My BIG goal, and I think I’m not alone here, is to write full-time with enough income to comfortably sustain myself. But I’m not going to get there setting resolutions like: get my first novel picked up by one of the big three publishers, sell the movie rights, and celebrate Christmas in Hawaii. Come on, let’s be real.

Make sure goals are achievable, actionable, and within your control.

Why is ‘getting published’ not a good goal? You don’t control all the pieces of that process. Even if your novel is a knock-out, its genre might be wrong for the market this year, and publishers won’t touch it. Getting a manuscript to the query stage and sending it out IS under your control.

Break down your goal into single actionable items.

For our original ‘resolution’ to get published? That could mean a lot: write the MS, edit the MS, revise the MS, share the MS, review feedback, make revisions, write the query. It sounds like a lot, but with each action item mapped, you have a clear path to take and it breaks the goal down to smaller sub-goals, if you will, to digest and accomplish rather than one big overwhelming, unattainable-seeming goal.

Yes, shoot for the stars, but also, shoot for down the road.

I’d like to go to some writer’s conferences this year. My first imagining? Mingling with New York Times bestselling authors at the Writer’s Digest Con in NYC. I am, however, sadly on a budget and out-of-state writer’s cons just didn’t make it in it this year. So, instead, I’m going to an author night with Mindy McGinnis and a one-day writing conference at my local community college. Not as glamorous, no, but still helpful to my writing goals as an opportunity to network and learn from those who have made the switch from part-time writer to full.

Give yourself the creative fuel you need.

If you need downtime to read or do yoga or pet the dog or drink wine, give it to yourself without the guilt trip. Listen to your body and mind. If your creative juices aren’t flowing and you’ve tried all the usuals (break down your writing marathons to sprints, get up and stretch, try writing in a new location, etc.), maybe listen to yourself and take a break. Read your favorite author, watch bad television, bake cookies, whatever. If you have to admit you need those other things in your daily life to feel creative, admit you’re a turtle writer and get done what you can–even if it is only a measly 320 words in an hour.

Share your story. Find your tribe.

Find your preferred outlet (mine’s Twitter) and share your story. Share when you stare at your screen in frustration for an hour and write nothing. Share when you’re in the zone and push out 2,000 fantastic words in one sitting. It might seem like no one’s listening at first, but keep at it and you’ll find your virtual tribe, and they’ll encourage you and be excited to share their progress with you in return. It’s fun making writer friends!

Oh, and don’t forget to write! Write every day.

So you think you want to write fiction…

Write a million stories.

Write a hundred bad stories. Write short short stories and long rambling neverending tales that you’ll never finish and will eventually give up as a bad job. Write different genres, point of views, settings, voices — anything to mix it up in the early stages. When you ‘finish’ drafts, rest them, read them, revise them, then, if you can read them without cringing, submit it somewhere. Or, if you still hate it, take it out back and shoot it, and when I say shoot it, I mean put it in an archived folder and almost never, ever go in there.

Do not read bad fiction.

It will seep into your subconscious and soak into your writing style. In the early days especially, you’re a little fiction sponge — mimicking, consciously or subconsciously, other writers. So make sure you only read books you enjoy, as you’ll pick up on more nuances as you go. You won’t even realize that you’re struggling with how to describe a character’s emotion, or how to show action, and then you’ll read (in your good fiction) a similar scenario and your brain will go, ‘Ooh that’s how they did it.’

Read so much.

Read as much as you can. Listen to audio files of your favorite stories while you work, or drive or go for walks, etc. It’s okay if you’re not fully paying attention — the words will soak into your subconscious.

Do not write and edit at the same time.

You will hate yourself, your writing, and your god of choice. Creativity and analytic thinking are two separate parts of the brain and they do not mix.Write first (literally no editing — take notes if you must), edit later, and preferably only after a rest. Letting the writing rest before you review and edit is critical — you’ll have fresh eyes and a clearer perspective.

Create a system for notes.

You’ll be chugging along writing and then all of a sudden you can’t remember a side character’s name, or you realize there’s a continuity issue, or hell, maybe you just want to describe something and you can’t think of the right word. These mental tangents detract from your writing, but aren’t things to be ignored or forgotten about either. Make a note system that’s easy to spot and easier to implement. Once you find writing flow, try your damndest to stay in that flow as long as possible. You can use @@double @ signs to sandwich notes@@, because when in fiction will you ever have those? [Or bold like this.] Or just make your notes bolded and italicized.

Write at the same time every day.

Your body and mind will subconsciously anticipate it and you’ll be better primed for creativity. THIS IS REAL HARD. Especially starting out. If you challenge your schedule by waking up early or rushing other to-do’s to make time for writing, your body will rebel and try to convince you to quit. Don’t listen. Keep showing up. Even if you only get 50 words written and can only stay for ten minutes. Keep showing up, keep improving your sessions day by day. It will change your writing.

Create a writing home base.

If you’re able, make a writing space of your own. Doesn’t matter where, or how fancy, but make it homey and comfortable and fill it with a few of your favorite things. Light candles, hang inspiring art, always snuggle with your favorite blanket — whatever feels right for you.

Listen to the right music.

Set the music according to your mood, or listen to thunderstorms (try www.rainymood.com). Create a playlist for your work in progress, or find an atmospheric artist (like Pretty Lights), or go classical with Mozart, but avoid songs with prominent lyrics.

Use Google Docs to write on the go.

Ideas come at odd times, and you might realize what’s wrong with your plot in the strangest of places, but I bet you almost always have your phone nearby. Waiting rooms and desk lunches are perfect for revisions and edits, and Google Docs, and other similar platforms, keep your documents easily accessible and automatically saved.

Keep paper notebooks nearby.

Some ideas come out better on paper. Notebooks are great for brainstorming. Sometimes you won’t be able to work out why something doesn’t feel right until you write it out. Give yourself permission to talk to yourself on the page, even if you say: ‘This feels stupid and I hate it and this character sucks. They should be more like…’

Give yourself permission.

You’re allowed to make mistakes. Be nice to yourself. Be nice to your fellow writers, no matter what stage of the journey they’re on. Allow yourself to experiment without the repercussions of a self-administered beatdown.