It’s NaNoWriMo, and I know many people are bending over backward trying to write half a book this month, and while I’m nowhere near an expert (are any of us, really, when it comes to writing?), I thought it might be helpful to talk about some of the things that have helped me in the past. I’ve been writing seriously for about fifteen years, and, by that, I mean anything from short stories to novels to poetry to fanfiction. “Seriously” is more just an adjective to describe the fact that I do it as often as possible and with all the fire of a thousand burning suns. Thus, these are just tips that I’ve acquired or figured out over the years.
Just write, damn it.
I know this sounds obnoxious and easier said than done, and it is both of those things, but it’s also the single handedly most important thing I can tell you about writing. I’ve also heard it from several other published authors, and I feel like just about anyone would agree because you can’t write a book unless you write a book.
During one of Maggie Stiefvater’s seminars (pre-COVID, in NY), she talked about a writer friend that she had that would literally just put commas and random bits of dialogue and absolute nonsense down on her pages because if she just started with something, eventually the rest would come. When I saw Victoria Schwab in Boston a couple years back, she had much the same to say. Even if all of her sentences were out of order and everything was a mess, she could still move forward because she’d taken that first step of writing.
I’m not a big believer in writer’s block because it always just sounds like a fancy term for fear because there’s almost always something else standing in the way, and calling it writer’s block is just easier than facing whatever it actually is head on. But, when I am feeling stuck, and I don’t feel like addressing whatever it is that’s sticking me, I’ll just write one sentence. Pick my POV character, and write a single sentence with them. Even if it feels like pulling teeth, I drag that sentence out because, inevitably, every single damn time, that single sentence is the tipping point. Sure, sometimes it requires a few more back of the mouth molar-tugging sentences, but as long as I’m forcing something out, the rest is going to come.
Because, truly, and I know this is idiotic, you cannot write a book unless you write a book. There is no way, ever, that you’re going to have a finished book in your hand if you just keep waiting for inspiration to strike and write the book for you. Just write, damn it. Yank those words out, put them on a paper, and worry about all the surface stuff later. Who cares what color your characters eyes are? Just remember that they have eyes, and you can change the color later if you need to. It’s time to get words written.
Set a schedule.
This is probably the only one that I’m going to say is not a done deal. I think setting a schedule to write is an incredible way to get words on the page, but if you’ve got a hectic life that doesn’t allow you to set a schedule, and all you can do is write when you have a chance, then that’s the way the cookie crumbles, and I’m never, ever going to fault you for that. However, if you don’t have that hectic of a life where you can legitimately set aside time to write with frequency, a schedule is going to change your life.
Look, I used to write whenever I wanted to. At night, middle of the day, a few quick pages before work. I’d write on weekends only, in huge bursts of 8k words at a time, or not for weeks until I felt itchy and awful, and then, like a tornado descending, it was one chaotic week of writing before I burned out in utter exhaustion. I could generally write about 30k a month, which I know is a lot, and that’s not what we’re here to talk about, but the numbers don’t lie. Because recently, I’ve realized that, in order to not burn out, I had to give myself some kind of parameters. I really enjoy winding down with a book at night, and I don’t have a set time at night when I’m done with the day, so it’s pretty flexible when I actually get to tuck into bed. In the morning, however, I do the same thing every morning, and, for a while, I was just filling those morning hours with whatever I wanted.
Since August, I’ve been very specific about my writing. I write from about 9AM-1PM, and then not again until the next day. Not only has this consistent schedule made me start to associate the mornings with writing so that’s what I’m naturally drawn to do now, it leaves the entire afternoon and evening open for me to dream about what I might get to write the next day until I’m just bursting with excitement at all the possibilities. This has truly revolutionized my writing because every single month since August, I’ve written somewhere around 70k words. Now, that is truly insane, but the numbers don’t lie. Schedules work.
Find your own vibe.
The first week of NaNo, something very predictable was happening. I was chugging right along, getting a chapter done a day, and generally just speeding on toward the standard 50k goal. I wasn’t pausing to do anything but write. Each day was a new chapter, and though the chapters were piling up, they were also getting shorter, messier, and just all around confusing. Why? Because that’s not my writing vibe.
There are a lot of different ways to draft a novel, and no one is going to do it exactly the same. For me, I usually write a chapter a day, let’s say Monday, and then, when I sit down on Tuesday, I reread the chapter from Monday before I start writing the next one. While I’m rereading, I also edit. Not huge, book-altering things, but I’ll fluff up sentences, add in some more emotional depth, tweak the edges of a scene, just things to make it more of a polished first draft rather than an all-out sprint to the finish. When I don’t do that, I tend to get disoriented pretty quickly, and it was showing in that first week. When I sat down to write the second Monday, I truly had no idea at all what I’d written the previous week, just that it had a robotic flavor to it that I wasn’t happy with.
Thus, I ended up spending half of the second week of NaNo rereading about 60k’s worth of words because I hadn’t paused to edit pretty much any of the book up until that point. I cannot truly explain how much of a relief it was to do that, too. The last few chapters I’d written were just–a skeleton, really. It was so bad, and it needed so much padding that I ended up adding 800 words to it, but now? It’s much better now, and I’ve learned my lesson, albeit not for the first or last time. I’ve got to edit while I write, and though that may seem nuts to other people who draft first, edit later, this is the vibe that works for me.
And you’ve got to find that vibe, too, because what works for you is only going to work for you. Someone else may have a similar process, but it’s never going to be exactly the same, so no one can hand the process to you and say, “Here. This is the key to success.” Find the vibe that makes the most sense to you, and get writing. (Damn it.)
Set realistic goals.
It really, truly doesn’t matter what those goals are as long as you’re setting some. I know that I’m capable of writing a chapter in the hours that I set aside, which is about 3500 words, give or take a couple hundred. If I had to, I could write 8k in a day, but I don’t enjoy doing it, and it’s not really realistic because it takes a long ass time, and I’m usually writing into the night, so my goal is never going to be anything more than those 3500 words that I know I’m capable of.
And if words don’t work for you, time is a great way to measure goals. I have a hard time leaving things unfinished, whether that’s writing a chapter, reading a book, or even just watching TV. I don’t like to stop in the middle of something, and, if I have to, it kind of haunts me for the rest of the day. Thus, setting a full chapter as a goal works for me, but if it doesn’t for you, find what does. Maybe saying that you want to write for one hour a day is the goal that’s most realistic to you. Maybe you want to write in thirty minute sprints four times a day. Maybe you want to write before work, for whatever time you have. Maybe you don’t even do daily goals, and you just say that you want 10k at the end of the week, or to finish the second act in a two month span. Whatever it is, make sure it’s realistic, and set it as a goal. And then? Well, just like with any kind of intention, you have to actually put the work in, and we’ve worked our way back up to the first tip.
Once you’ve set a goal, you can’t just wait for the universe to hand you the words. You’ve just got to write, damn it.