Goal setting

How I hacked NaNoWriMo

I’ve wanted to win NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) since I first heard about it. The goal is to write 50,000 words–the size of a novella–in one month.

In high school, I was over 20,000 words into a story about a zombie physics teacher who seduced his students in order to grow his zombie army. (Please don’t spend too much time psychoanalyzing that plot line.) But as November wore on, the novelty of the story died out. Thanksgiving break brought with it a host of activities and responsibilities that made it difficult to be at the computer. And I did not complete NaNoWriMo. Most successive years, I would take a half-hearted stab at it, even going so far as to chart the most basic of plots for stories that would never see completion.

I think more people (at least in the U.S.) would succeed at NaNoWriMo if it was in January or February. Months with fewer obligations and shittier weather, but that doesn’t result in the same joy of finishing a project despite mounting odds. Plus, then those horrible winter months can be used for revisions!

My goal in completing NaNoWriMo was to finish a project that I started attempting over a decade ago. In 2017, my year of completing projects, I’ve been working on completing goals I began with the best intentions. The scrapbook, crochet projects, the half-finished spreadsheet of every classic movie I feel I need to watch, etc.

I didn’t need this to be a good book. It just needed to be 50,000 words.

My previous pitfalls in NaNoWriMo had been:

Losing interest: This time, I needed to write about a topic I cared about or a story that interested me.

Needing research: I’m a person who likes to collect information. It’s far too easy for me to begin writing about a topic only to get dragged into hours of Wikipedia pages only because I was wondering when the first camera was invented. This was useful finishing my history thesis, but can be detrimental when used as a distraction when writing 50,000 words in 30 days.

Planning for Thanksgiving: I chose to begin again in a year where we had a 10-day road trip planned. That means I either complete the novel in 20 days or I figure out how to write a book in the backseat of the car.

My solution:

Write a book about Poland. I lived in Poland for a year. I’m not an expert, but I could easily write about the ways an American with Polish background would experience and travel through the country. This solved both my research issue and my interest issue. To plot it, I figured a two-week trip and followed two characters. Since I read a lot of romance novels, let’s make it a romance. I spent most of my pre-writing planning their meet cute.

Meet Cute: His grandma sends him in her place. They sit next to each other on the plane. The grandma met the protagonist through a website for solo female travelers to find companionship. The heroine is too poor to pay for the half of the trip without the grandson. He wears funny shirts with famous Poles on them. She’s angry and distrustful. He thinks she’s pretty. The rest works itself out.

Finally, I wrote. I wrote a lot. I barely made the 1,667 minimum to stay on track the first day, suffering from post-Halloween hangover. So I wrote more the second. I missed three or four days in a row from responsibilities or exhaustion, so I forced myself to write another 5,000 the next day. I wouldn’t let myself stay up late. I need my sleep to function at work. But I wrote during my lunch hour. I found time to write whenever I could. I wrote on a Google Doc that synced to everywhere rather than worrying about backing up files or not being able to write because I left my flashdrive at home.

Then it was time for our trip, and I was barely on schedule. I brought my laptop. I wrote in the car for an hour at a time. This made me remarkably car sick. I bought dramamine and kept going.

Then Thanksgiving came around. And the two-three days after Thanksgiving came around. We were relaxing at a beautiful lake house. And relaxing at a beautiful lake house involves large dinners, after-dinner entertainment, hiking, boating, and near-constant activity. The fun thing about wanting to give up on day 24, is that, if you’re on target, you’re already at 38,000 words. That’s almost 80% done. How can you quit at 80%?

I locked myself in a room under the guise of a stomach ache and banged out another 5,500 words. They weren’t good words. They didn’t need to be good words. They just needed to be. Every time I came to a point where I would want to look something up. I wrote a note to myself to do it later. If I ever do a rewrite, I’ll fix it then.

Day 28 rolled around, and I was 6,000 words short of my goal. I’d already completed their trip of Poland. They already saw everything I planned and had a nice little romantic fling. So I went back to my favorite locations my characters visited throughout the country and wrote detailed descriptions of the red flowers hanging outside the amber shops on Mariacka street in Gdansk and the taste of warm, spiced beer on a drizzly day overlooking the mountains of Zakopane. I wrote about the foods that made me feel home sick for Poland and injected my favorite historical trivia. It was easy to find 6,000 words of everyday life about a country I’ve loved and had experienced deeply before.

Finally, on day 30, I closed my computer with 50,013 words.

It’s not a good novel or even a very good first draft of what might become a novel. But I did it. And that’s how I hacked NaNoWriMo.

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