NaNoWriMo: Powering Through Writer’s Block

ImageEvery year when November comes round, I start off with the highest hopes of being able to write a novel—a full 50,000 words, complete with rich, complex characters and intriguing story arc—in 30 days.  I resolve to wake up early and write fiction for a full hour, maybe two, before my literary inspiration fizzles away in the face of the daily grind.  This lasts on average three days and 4,000 words before I get distracted, discouraged, or caught up in other projects.  There are many possible reasons for this: maybe I’m not cut out to be a fiction writer.  Maybe I need a wealthy patron.  Or maybe I should stop trying to write a different version of the same dead-end novel every year.  However, I always look back on these Novembers—NaNoWriMo, as it’s known amongst the creative writing circles, for “National Novel Writing Month”—as valuable exercises in forcing myself to write.

NaNoWriMo was launched in 2001 as an experiment by freelance writer Chris Baty from San Francisco.  Initially, 140 participants signed up for the challenge of starting and finishing a novel in one month, and since then NaNoWriMo has mushroomed into a worldwide phenomenon in which hundreds of thousands of authors attempt to hit the 50,000 word mark.  Writers get free reign in terms of genre, voice, and writing style—the only rules are that the novel has to be a new, original work started on the 1st of November, and it cannot be coauthored.  While 50,000 words does not make for a very long novel in light of the standard 300-400 pages that defines most contemporary novels, (although The Hitchhiker’s Guide To the Galaxy and The Great Gatsby both contain not much more than 50,000 words,) a novel is officially discriminated from the shorter novella once it reaches 40,000 words.  Your 50,000 words (averaging at a 1,667 words per day—a less daunting goal,) can be a complete novel, or it can be the beginning of a larger work that you continue to write after November has ended.

Image 5While this may seem like an extreme and inorganic way of writing, it’s proven to help many writers overcome bad habits of procrastination, over-editing, and self-consciousness.  By focusing on quantity of writing rather than initial quality, NaNoWriMo provides a means of getting past the initial discouragement and loss of momentum many writers undergo when reading their early work.  It’s all too easy to take your lackluster first draft and compare it abysmally to the prose of your favorite writer, forgetting that that writer has spent years honing and reshaping their words until they arrived at the finished product.  As it is, somebody who’s written a hundred pages of mediocre writing is more successful than somebody who hasn’t written anything because they were too worried about whether it would be good or not; mediocre writing can be improved, but somebody who won’t write unless it’s perfect right off the bat won’t get very far.

As NaNoWriMo gains popularity and influence among writers of all sorts, many local bookshops and libraries have organized writing communities to offer local participants support and encouragement in their novel-writing.  The NaNoWriMo website offers pep talks, brainstorming exercises, tips on mapping out your prospective novel, flair, and creatively-themed merchandise for the aspiring writer.  There are also plenty of writers’ forums where you can exchange advice, anecdotes, and rants with others who are in the same boat.  Whether you’re a serious writer looking to jumpstart that novel you’ve been mulling over for ages or somebody just curious to challenge your discipline, drive, and creativity for a month, NaNoWriMo is sure to be an invigorating and fruitful enterprise that will teach you a thing or two about the craft of writing and about yourself.