Nanowrimo as a college survival skill

National Novel Writing Month. You know what I’m talking about. That crazy, insane, impossible challenge where you have to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. Which is 1,666 words per day. That’s actually, for a non-professional author, a new writer, or one of those writers who takes ten years to finish a novel, a stunningly huge amount of words. Even worse is the idea that you some how have to come up with a coherent plot, on the fly, while managing this monstrous word count.

Supposing you do figure that out, and mastering 50K words in a single month is no longer the huge challenge it once was, overachievers set even higher goals for themselves. Goals like 80K, 100K, or 150K. Yes, there are people out there who can actually write one hundred and fifty thousand words in a month. That’s five thousand words a day! Five thousand words is the better part of an entire short story!

I’ve been doing Nanowrimo since 2009. I’ve won every year, which resulted in more or less terrible manuscripts. After writing “City of Lies” in 2010 based on an idea I came up with on the 2nd of November I had an absolutely horrible, horrible draft that might have been much better if I hadn’t been writing so quickly, or so madly. I didn’t write anything else until the next November rolled around and I began to panic. What if I had somehow “broken” my writing by forcing myself into a mindset that, at the end of the day, didn’t actually produce any decent work?

Long story short, I got over it. In 2011 I wrote a series of short stories. Some came out well, some less so, and one day I plan to finish the collection and publish it as a YA novel. After it was written I worked on editing it and writing some other short stories, and in April 2012 came up with the idea for my novella series “Supervillain of the Day” which has been my winning Nano project for two years, and two Camp Nanowrimos. (Yes, there are people who think that once a year isn’t enough insanity!)

Nanowrimo is not quite the challenge for me that it used to be, but I remain religiously devoted to is because it was so much fun the first two years. It was the first writing community I got to be a part of, and as time goes by I become less afraid of the bad habits I picked up and recognize the valuable skills it taught me along the way. Those are what I want to share with you now.

1. Writing on the fly

There are two versions of the ACT test. One of them requires you to write an essay, on a timer, without getting told what the question is in advance. This version of the test is required to get into more prestigious schools such as Vanderbilt. But, as we all know, there’s nothing quite as effective as a deadline to dry up creativity. Sometimes you need a way to shut off your brain and just write without worrying about the time its taking, or making it perfect.

Winning Nanowrimo involves writing late at night, cramming in ten thousand words on a weekend because you slacked off all week, and doing complicated math (or just studying the graph) to realize that the more you slack off the less likely it is that you will catch up. The day comes (usually half an hour past bedtime) when the lack of creativity is more annoying than an actual hindrance and you just start typing words. Sometimes they’re nonsense, sometimes they’re a completely different story, sometimes you just jump into the middle and hope it works…and then keep going. Starting is the hardest.

I haven’t been to college myself, but I have plenty of friends who have. They put off homework until two hours before the deadline and then panic because no one can write that fast. Or instead of finishing a paper write away they wait two weeks because they’re strapped for inspiration or can’t think of what to say. Well, guess what? In two weeks you’ll still be strapped for inspiration and the difference will be that a deadline is tolling it’s bell of doom and failing doesn’t just mean not getting a shiny purple bar on your profile and some consolation ice cream. It means a grade, which is a real life thing. So what do you do?

Exactly what you do two weeks into Nanowrimo. You start spitting words out. They don’t have to make sense. Make a list of relevant words, expand the words into phrases, turn the phrases into sentences, and the sentences into paragraphs. Need more words? We’re getting to that next! The important thing is to get started, don’ put things off, and don’t worry about the quality. It’s far easier to revise once you have something written, and if you have two weeks until the deadline you can revise at your leisure, and if you don’t have leisure than at least you wrote something.

2. Wordcount Padding

This is the biggest trick for reaching that mythical 50K, and has an entire section devoted to it on the Nanowrimo forums. Word padding is what you do when you’re only at 1,127 words for the day and just finished your chapter, and have writer’s block for the next one, and literally can’t think of a single other thing to say and desperately want to go to bed. You go back through what you wrote and you add adjectives, flowery description, take out contractions, use full names, add titles, and make random margin comments that don’t actually apply.

This works even better for non-fiction like college essays, or blog posts. My favorite trick is this: when you run out of things to say, then repeat what you just said using different words. When your inspiration dries up, fall back on what you’ve already written. If you can’t think of a new tactic, reprise what you just covered. You can do this endlessly. Repeatedly. Pretty much until you run out of synonyms.

Especially in non-fiction there’s always room to expand. By expanding we mean taking the last thing you said and elaborating on it. Go back through previous paragraphs and notice where you actually change subject and then make that change more, and more subtle until it’s a barely noticeable grade. It’s a bit like hoeing.

The best part about that last word-padding trick is that it can actually make better writing. The reason essays come with minimum word counts is because professors want to know you actually thought it through and can’t write two sentence replies that basically sum up the question. By going back through and clarifying your clarifications it makes you sound really smart and knowledgeable…even though it’s really just plain cheating.

3. It’s Okay to Cheat

Let’s get one thing straight–cheating is a tool. If you use it for something bad, like stealing someone else’s money, then it’s bad. If you use it for something that doesn’t hurt anyone else (like beating an unbeatable level of Portal) then it’s a perfectly legitimate way to survive life. This is famously portrayed by James T. Kirk, everyone’s favorite starship captain, in the movie “Wrath of Kahn.” He beats an unbeatable simulator by…reprogramming it. Despite the fact that this is technically “cheating” he was commended for original thinking. (Yes. Yes, he was.) This is a principle he went on to apply to his entire life, leading to the brilliant star-studded career he’s known for by history. (Hint: it didn’t include flying starships into oceans, or trampling all over aboriginal cultures in red-colored forests.) Captain Kirk didn’t believe in the “no-win scenario“, and stood stolidly by this belief in the face of all odds. Another famous example is the TOS episode “The Corborite Manuever” where he pulls the (now famous) trick of making his enemy believe there’s more to lose by destroying him then making him escape.

Okay, so guess what? Your writing is the same way. Too many words to write and not enough hours in the day? This is a scenario where it is okay to cheat! Cheat on your word count. Cheat on your inspiration. Don’t cheat in an obvious, illegal way (like copying answers or stealing an essay off the web!) but feel free to quote references extensively, and then comment on them! Include song lyrics (It’s fair use!) Use famous quotes from famous people. Use time-management skills to squeeze more hours into your life!

In the Nanowrimo forums there are multiple dire warnings posted telling users in no unclear terms not to call anyone a “cheater.” But the fact is…I never saw anyone who did. In Nano there is no such thing as cheating. If you repeat the same word twenty times on a page and call that “art” then you’re good to go. It’s a challenge, not a competion. Everybody wins…even the losers. You win–because you write more words by failing at Nano then you do by not even trying. And more words is always a victory. Even if it’s just five hundred….or just five.

4. Even Five Words is Better Than None

Ultimately what Nanowrimo teaches you is that writing is good. I don’t know how the mental reward system works…but it does. Whether you’re playing mental games like “The carrot and the stick” or warring with friends (or completely strangers who later become friends!) there’s a drive to make your goal, to finish the quest, no matter how impossible or stupid it seems. Even when you know it teaches you bad habits and you know you’re turning out complete rubbish. It’s hilarious, it’s awesomely fun, and it teaches you tow rite under pressure which is a skill everyone, especially authors, especially college students, needs to know how to do. It teaches you to write under pressure…and have fun. Turn off your inner editor, stop obsessing over every line, and let the words fly out of you as if you’re the featured artist in “The Typewriter” by Leroy Anderson.

And when you finish, whether you win or lose, what you have is, more than likely, a pile of garden rubbish. But it’s garden rubbish you didn’t have before November started. And even rubbish has its uses. So turn off your brain, poise your fingers over the keyboard, and close your eyes. Think of a word. Any word. Type it. Turn it into a sentence. Add another sentence. Don’t worry about diverging or making sense or or connecting two thoughts together. It might be nonsense, but it will be beautiful, glorious nonsense.

And it will be yours.


Nanowrimo as a college survival skill — 1 Comment

  1. Another thing you can do if you need more words, are at the end of your chapter (or section) and have writer’s block for the next chapter or section, is to write a scene, chapter, or section that you do have ideas for. I did this already this year and it worked wonderfully!