It’s the most wonderful time of the year! It’s fall! It’s time for
pumpkin spice lattes salted caramel hot chocolates and hoodies and football and soon it will be time for my favorite November activity… National Novel Writing Month!
For those not familiar, the goal of NaNoWriMo is to spend the month of November writing a 50,000-word novel. It’s crazy, but it’s not impossible. I think I first participated in (and won!) NaNoWriMo in 2005. Or 2006? I’ve done NaNo several times over the years. Some years I’ve “won” and some years I haven’t. The thing is, even if I didn’t cross the 50K finish line, I still eventually finished the book, no matter what was going on in my life. In 2012, I wrote book number three while going through a divorce and living with my parents. In 2015, I wrote book number four with a 6-month old baby, while also doing a ton of freelance writing. In 2017, I was back at it and somehow managed to write my 50,000 words… while taking my first grad school class at Harvard EXT. With a two and a half-year old. I ended up finishing book number five (almost 94,000 words!) in January of 2018.
And then I did something really crazy. I decided to do my own personal NaNoWriMo of sorts in June/July of 2018. I had an idea for another story, but I was taking two spring classes and already had a class lined up for the summer, so I only had this teeny-tiny window of a couple weeks where I wasn’t going to have any schoolwork. I started planning the story in the spring, and then once my classes ended, I started writing! I budgeted out my time to finish my story by the end of July, giving me two months to write book number six. I hit this weird post-vacation motivation slump but still managed to finish (all 75,000 words!) the night of August 2nd… just a couple days later than I expected.
So… that means in less than a year (five months, actually) I wrote not one, but two books. 169,000 words. (Enough to “win” 3 NaNoWriMos!) Not to mention two literary analysis papers, 4 short stories, and three feature assignments for my classes. Plus all my MotherHustle posts. Plus who knows what else I wrote and sent out into the universe.
And I have a three-year-old, y’all.
So how do you do it? How do you balance work/school, a kid, your home life, and still bang out 50,000 words in 30 days? I’ll tell you what worked for me:
Plan ahead. Okay, so I know there are some “pantsers” out there who prefer to write by the seat of their pants, and if that’s you, then that’s cool. For me, I like to at least have the skeleton of my story figured out so that I know who my characters are and what my big events are. Some people use index cards and post it notes and fancy planners to do their outline or their story map or whatever you want to call it… I just prefer treating myself to a brand-new notebook or legal pad and writing out my story in scenes or blocks.
I’ll jot down a couple sentences about each scene just to kind of figure out where my story is going. I really don’t spend a whole lot of time on these; it’s literally just meant to be a quick “what happens first?” “then what happens?” “then what happens?” “then what happens?” kind of exercise. Of course I might move things around and draw arrows or add notes of things I want to be sure to include when I get to that scene.
When I start writing, I keep the notebook next to me and use it to keep track of where I am. As I’m writing, I add in all my details and dialogue. If my notebook is the skeleton and the bones, this is where I start to add the flesh and muscle of the story. Plus, I like a to-do list, so when I finish with a scene, I can cross that baby off or scribble it out.
Make time to write every day. There’s really only one way to do this, and that’s to sit down and spend the time writing. There are some people that can do these marathon writing sessions where they pound out 12,000 words in a day, but what mom has that kind of time? The thing is, you can still reach the magic number by writing a little bit at a time. It all adds up. Just find the time that works for you.
For me, I usually write around my son’s nap time. I am NOT a morning person, so I can’t set my alarm for an hour earlier and sit down at my desk and expect to churn out anything coherent. In the same token, I am also not really a night owl, either, because usually, after the kid goes to bed, I’m so depleted that I just need to veg out for a little bit and either read or watch Netflix. Hell, sometimes I just go to bed right after we put the kid down.
So nap time usually works best for me. It’s the middle of the day. I’ve gotten to the point where I need some kid-free time and he’s upstairs and out of my hair. I have two (mostly uninterrupted) hours where I can give 100% of my attention to my work. He’s also in preschool three days a week now, so that buys me 9 extra hours a week! This fall, that will probably all be spent on classwork, but see what I mean? You can find time.
And if you REALLY want to do this, but still aren’t convinced you’ll have the time… think about things that you could cut back on. Do you spend a lot of time watching TV? Do you kill a lot of time on your phone looking at social media? Could you plan your day differently so that when you do have some kid-free time, you can use it all for writing? I’m a big multi-tasker. I will empty the dishwasher and fold the laundry while dinner is cooking in the oven if it means that I can steal half an hour to write while my husband does the kid’s bath time, ya know what I mean? You do what you gotta do, mama.
It’s about numbers as much as it is about words. To write 50,000 words in 30 days, you need to write 1,667 words a day. Some days, 2,000 words would flow from my brain, through my hands, and into my document like it was nothing. Then there were days where I would sit there and stare at the same paragraph over and over again, check Twitter, go back to my paragraph, and then realize that nap time was over and I hadn’t really gotten anywhere. I forgave myself for those off days and told myself I’d have to make up the difference the next day, or spread it out over the next couple days. So, like, if I only wrote 1,000 words, I’d tell myself that to make up for the 667 I didn’t get to, I’d either have to write 2,000 words the next two days, or else just knock it all out at once and write 2,300. I hate math, but it really helped me because instead of focusing on how far behind I’d fall, I’d think of it as only adding a couple hundred words to the next day.
Just get it out. This is not the time to make your story perfect. If you spend a lot of time going back and editing as you’re writing, you’re not going to get anywhere. NaNoWriMo is just meant to be a first draft. NaNoEdMo is for editing.
Find your tribe. A support system is everything. There will be some people in your life who think you are absolutely bonkers for attempting something like this. Your toddler will not understand that you have twelve days left in the month to write 20,000 words. You may doubt your ability. You will likely question your own sanity.
But you’re not alone! If you look anywhere on social media, the #NaNoWriMo crowd is full of writers who are ready to cheer you on. In my experience, the writers I follow are already extremely helpful and supportive, but I love Twitter at NaNo time because everybody becomes so vocal in their encouragement. All of a sudden, you feel like you have a boatload of strangers rooting for you. Plus it’s kind of nice to know that there are people out there who are just as crazy as you are.
What do you do when you’re done? You celebrate like crazy, and then, if your story isn’t complete at 50,000 words… you finish it! The post-NaNo crash can be hard, because the next thing you know, the winter holidays are upon you and you’re traveling and visiting family and decorating the house and making New Year’s Resolutions… In the middle of all that joy and merrymaking, it can be tempting to take a little break from writing. If you do, that’s fine, but don’t forget to finish what you started!
The 50K I wrote my first year of NaNo eventually became the first book I self-published, Here We Go. Here We Go (and my second book, The One Who Got Away) eventually went on to hang out on the Amazon bestseller list for a little while (even with that awful cover!) alongside authors like Debbie Macomber and Emily Giffin. To this day, I’m still baffled that something I set out to write just for fun ended up doing that.
It took me awhile to finish Here We Go because I lost the entire manuscript when my computer died. I didn’t have the story backed up anywhere. All I had was a printed-out copy. I had to write the entire thing all over again. But because I’d survived that NaNoWriMo, I was determined to finish that damn book.
LESSON LEARNED: ALWAYS, ALWAYS, ALWAYS BACK UP YOUR WORK.
The One Who Got Away took less time. The third book took even less. And so on. Even though I might have gotten busier, even though I may have had other things going on. Because the more I wrote, the better I got about making and managing my time. And now that I have a kid in preschool and am taking my own classes, you better believe I am all about using every spare second I can grab.
So when NaNoWriMo ends on November 30th, whether you’re a winner, or you hit 50K but your story isn’t done yet, or you just didn’t make it across the finish line…
Keep going. Don’t give up!
Let me know if I can help! I will be cheering for you ON TWITTER!