It’s NaNoWriMo! Here’s some expert advice on writing a novel in a month

Did you know that November is National Novel Writing Month, a.k.a. NaNoWriMo? Every year, writers across the globe sit down to challenge themselves to complete a novel in just a month. Maybe you’ve been prepping all year, or maybe this is the first time you’ve thought about taking a crack at it. Either way, Pratima Cranse, the author of All the Major Constellations, has some advice to get you going.

As National Novel Writing Month advances (NaNoWriMo, an acronym that never fails to make me giggle, despite the awesomeness of the event), it’s time to think of new ways to tell the same story. Willa Cather famously said, “There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened.” Whether or not you subscribe to that belief, it certainly applies to the art of writing: write often, write more, write every day. But how do you stay the course? How do you keep yourself inspired to do what you already know you need to do? “Write every day!” is not groundbreaking advice, but it can be awfully hard to accomplish. Let me tell you something about snow.

I have an affinity for snow. I can’t ski or snowboard, or even snowshoe that well. Since I have a somewhat anxious and fearful nature, I’ll admit that even sledding makes me nervous. But I can shovel. I can shovel and then walk where I’ve shoveled, reveling inside the walls of cold beauty I’ve created.

Writing is a similar kind of creation, but it can be daunting if you’ve never really done it before, or if the mere idea of it is so overwhelming that you can’t even get started. I’ve been there, believe me.

For a brief period of time I worked for an accountant during tax season. I was a receptionist, a temp, and was hired along with several others to help run the office during this busiest time of the year. One of the accountants was not a temp. He had, in fact, worked at the same office for decades. He worked for the father, now he worked for the son. He was in his eighties when I met him. He was quiet and polite, a gentleman. His wife packed him lunch and a thermos of tea every morning. Sometimes an apple for dessert.

One night we had a tremendous snowstorm. We got something like fourteen inches in twelve hours. Where we lived you could rely on the roads being relatively well plowed for the morning commute, but you were on your own when it came to digging out your driveway and, if you didn’t have a garage, your car. We all struggled into work an hour or so late, including our meticulous boss. Covered in snow, bitching about our backs, ready to work but also to complain. And who was there to welcome us, a pot of coffee brewed in our honor? The older gentleman, of course. He’d gotten here on time, he told us, opened up the office, and gotten down to work.

Amazed, we asked him how he’d managed to shovel out and get here before any of us. He didn’t look weak or sick, but he was small, he was older, there was a touch of frailty in his bearing. This was not a person who could safely shovel fourteen inches of heavy, wet, snow. Privately I thought maybe a neighbor had helped. He assured us that he’d done it himself.

“I knew that I couldn’t shovel all that snow in the morning. But I figured I could shovel two inches at a time. So I set my alarm to wake me up every two hours. I’d get up, shovel two inches, reset my alarm, go back to sleep, wake up, shovel two inches, repeat.”

We cheered for him and clapped him on the back. There was much talk about the “greatest generation,” which he dismissed with a sarcastic and up-to-date, “Whatever,” probably gleaned from a grandchild.

So that’s my story. Two inches of snow, and it stays with me to this day.

It’s tempting to indulge in the fantasy of what it means to be a writer. The words flowing out of you and into a leather-bound journal at sunrise on a mountaintop, the tendrils of your hair softly blowing in the wind. Or perhaps at midnight, in a garret, candles everywhere, your ink-stained fingers, your pretty clothes, everything like an Anthropologie photoshoot. Or in a manly cabin in the woods with a manly typewriter and a manly bottle of booze to keep you company (don’t do this). The theme that unites these fantasies (and believe me I’ve had them all, including the Hemingway-esque one) is the ease with which the material is produced. And yes, sometimes, very rarely, the words do flow out unbidden and beautiful. After nearly a quarter century of writing I’ve had three such occasions (in daylight, at a computer, and I did not look cute doing it), but I had to really earn those amazing days. I earned them by sitting down and writing a little bit every day, even if what I wrote was difficult to produce and terrible. You just get it done, bit by bit. Two inches of snow.

So what’s your two inches of snow? For a long time mine was writing exactly one page a day. Some success as a writer has afforded me more time, more pages per day, but I would not have had that success if I didn’t do the sometimes agonizing work of squeezing out a page a day, despite full-time jobs and school and motherhood and shoveling out of snowstorms and other commitments. How did I become a writer? By writing. One page a day.

NaNoWriMo is a great time to get into the habit. You’ll have the support of your peers, of everyone else participating, and you’ll feel more like a writer every day that you write. Heck, if all goes as planned you’ll write a novel in a month! And even if you don’t produce a novel, you will have jumpstarted your need to write every day. And it IS a need. You’ll have to have that fix. You’ll find time to write every day, no matter what, because if you don’t you’ll feel like crap. Then you’ll know for sure that you’re really a writer.

[Image via Dreamworks SKG]