Writing After November: Building a Habit Despite the Finish Line

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Many people take on the challenge of National Novel Writing Month in the hopes of building a habit of writing daily. The event seems perfect for this since success requires writing at least 1667 words a day for 30 days. Years of participating in NaNoWriMo has taught me my first reaction to having written 50,000 words under the gun is to collapse. It can be hard to do any writing for the week after I finish my novel and December is spent struggling to write regularly on whatever project I want to complete next.

Fortunately, I discovered why this is a problem in Gretchen Rubin’s book Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives. The reason NaNoWriMo doesn’t build a writing habit is because it has a finish line. This gives us an excuse to stop doing something, even if we’ve been doing it successfully for days on end. Once we cross the finish line, our brain says “I’m done!” and walks off whistling. Our reason to write is gone.

Setting a finish line does indeed help some people reach a specific, one-time goal, but although it’s widely assumed to help habit formation, the reward of hitting a finish line can actually undermine habits. — Gretchen Rubin

According to Rubin, the trick to making a goal with a deadline help build a habit is to have a plan. Not just for the event but for what you will do right after the event. Having a clear idea of how you will transition from before the finish line to after it can help you carry what you have been doing forward and turn what was a deadline-fueled commitment into something that will last longer and become habit.

Ways to keep writing after you hit 50,000 words:

Know what’s next. Before the month is over, decide what you will be doing in December. Pick the project you will work on and set goals now for what you will do then. (For those new to the game, I recommend setting aside this month’s draft and letting it rest while you work on something else. You need to get some distance from what you’ve written before you try to revise it. I always wait until January at least before I read through my latest NaNoWriMo draft, and longer than that to start revising it.)

Change the short term into the long term. Instead of thinking, “I’m done when I write 50,000 words,” think “I’m done when I’ve written my 2000 words for the day.” Focus on today instead of forever. Success is meeting that daily goal, one day at a time.

If you work really well with a deadline, use it. To leverage this month’s activity into future activity, take on a new challenge when this one is done. You can keep using finish lines as long as you make sure you have another one on the horizon.

While I’ve faced this tricky transition for more than ten years now, this year is harder than usual. I crossed the 50K line on the 23rd and finished my story on the 24th. My brain has been thinking “I’m on VACATION!” since the moment I typed “The End”. But I am not letting it off the hook. I’ve decided to follow my own advice and keep writing what I can daily. Today I’m drafting blog posts and will not be done until I’ve got 2000 new words down. I am also going to add some more material to my draft to make it more complete before the month ends, 2000 words at a time.

I was lucky. The words really came pouring out this month and I want to keep them flowing. So I will keep showing up and keep writing and hope this steady effort can become a daily habit even when NaNoWriMo is over.

How about you? Do you have a plan for what to do after NaNoWriMo is over?

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Kit Dunsmore

Kit Dunsmore has believed in the magic underlying the muggle world since she was a child searching for the Shetland pony pooka she was sure was hiding in her back yard. She learned early on that books were magic doors into other worlds, and that she could revisit a beloved character or place by opening the right book. As she grew, she decided she wanted to make magic with words, too. Today Kit writes about things she loves: poodles and dragons, witches and artists, quirky underdogs and loyal friends. Whether her setting is 6th-century England, the imaginary Twelve Kingdoms, or an art-obsessed version of modern America, magic always finds its way into her story. She enjoys turning fairy tales inside out and watching characters sacrifice everything to reach their goal, but she also believes in happy endings. When she isn't writing, Kit experiences magic by making things with her hands. Over the years, she's made quilts, fabric sculptures, collages, sweaters, and blank books. Her newest interest is learning how to spin her own yarn, a skill guaranteed to strengthen one of her many delusions: that she is a self-sufficient pioneer woman. She also thinks she is a hobbit, a witch, an artist, and a good cook. Living in the foothills of Colorado, Kit enjoys the giant skies and prairie landscapes which suit her need for wide open spaces. In addition to hiking through glorious scenery with her husband or imagining herself living in the Middle Ages, Kit works as a pillow for her miniature poodle and polishes the next small piece of her handmade life.

8 thoughts on “Writing After November: Building a Habit Despite the Finish Line”

    1. I am excited to hear you will be trying NaNoWriMo next year! If for some reason you don’t have an outline ready, don’t let it stop you. I have written 50K words with no more than a character name and a vague idea.

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    1. It is, and it isn’t. It takes discipline to get that many words written that quickly, but it’s also really a crazy idea. The result is certainly not something ready for the reader, but it can provide a good first draft, ready for more work, so that it really is a novel one day.

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  1. I saw that you’d won and did a happy dance for you and my other pals here in my kitchen. I’m here at 37.4K and I still have the zeal to make it. We shall see. Regardless, I’m LOVING my story and I’ll be continuing the couple thousand words a day.

    Sooooooo proud of you!!!

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    1. Thank you! And I’m proud of you! 37K+ is nothing to sneeze at, and that you keep going even though you don’t know if you can make 50K by the deadline shows dedication to your story. And that is the most important thing. Happy writing!

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