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?

With NaNoWriMo, Everyone Wins

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Writers participating in NaNoWriMo are heading into the home stretch. While there are eight days left for writing, I wanted to encourage everyone who signed up, no matter if they’ve written their 50,000 words already or only managed 50 words all month.

Look at you! You took on a big bad challenge and you took a swipe at it. You wrote this month, even if it wasn’t as much as you’d hoped. You probably love books and maybe you’ve always longed to be a writer. And now you are one.

You may not be as far along as you’d like. 50,000 words may seem out of your reach. But celebrate what you have done already.

To have reached this point is no small achievement:
what you’ve done already is a wonderful thing.
— C. V. Cavafy

The best news? You still have eight more days to add some words. So treat yourself to more time with your novel and celebrate every word you get written.

Plenty of people dream of writing a book.

You are actually doing it.

How is your November going?

To Create Art, We Must Show Up

 

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I love starting a new project. It’s one of the reasons I’m such a NaNoWriMo fan. I get to write a whole new book in November, meet new characters, discover new worlds. Starting a new quilt is always a buzz, and I sew like crazy, inspired by the unfamiliar colors and fabrics.

New projects are exciting, but they can be challenging, too. The newborn idea is dazzling in its beauty and potential and we adore it. We dress it up in cute sleepers that say “Momma’s Favorite” and “Future Best Seller” and we coo. We walk around with a huge happy grin on our faces, so proud of our baby, anxious to get back to her when we are forced to do something else.

Then we start to work and things change, fast. The baby grows into a toddler, and what looked perfect is suddenly smearing mashed peas all over the walls and pouring milk on the cat. What happened to our sweet little baby?

Hoping to get the little monster back on track, we work even harder. To our dismay, things change even more. Suddenly, a willful teenager is there, with her own taste in music, his idea of what’s cool, and it may bear little resemblance to what we dreamt of when we held that little baby in our arms.

Now what?

Nothing we create is art at first. It’s simply a collection of notions that may never be understood. Returning every day thickens the atmosphere. — Walter Mosley

Now we take a deep breath. And we keep working. Because we are not done yet. Teens with braces and zits can blossom overnight into attractive adults. That kid who wouldn’t clean his room becomes a naturalist intent on saving the environment. We have no way of knowing how this is going to turn out.

Which is why we have to keep the faith. Keep working. Keep showing up.

Love that project through all its stages, from cute baby to adulthood.

Maybe we will get a work of art, maybe we won’t.

The kid doesn’t have a chance if we don’t give her the attention she deserves.

The Secret to Being A Writer? Keep Writing!

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November is halfway over and by now, many people despair of finishing their NaNoWriMo challenge. I’m here to remind you that there is no magic. There is only determination.

Over the years I’ve noticed that the most significant difference between the people who keep writing and the people who stop writing is no more and no less than this: The people who keep writing are the ones who keep writing. … There’s no magic to it, only sheer bloody-minded stubbornness. — Rachel Kadish

As I’ve been saying all month, any writing beats no writing, so make time to write a few words today.

If you are not meeting your expectations, try lowering the bar. Sometimes less can lead to more.

Whatever you do, pat yourself on the back for the things you accomplish today.

Did you write 2000 words? 20 words? or 2? It’s all good.

You deserve credit for showing up. And if you are stubborn enough to show up again tomorrow? Even better.

Keep writing and let me know how your novel is coming.

No Talent or Patience? You Can Still Make Great Art

Not long ago, I asked a friend if she was interested in writing a book. I was gearing up for NaNoWriMo and hoping she might join in the fun. She loves to read, she’s articulate and smart, and I was pretty sure she would be interested in writing.

I asked her if she had ever done any creative writing. She said once, long ago, but she was very bad at it.

She gave up because she didn’t have any talent.

Her misunderstanding made me sad.

As a beginner, she couldn’t expect to write a brilliant story right away. If she wanted to be a good writer, she needed more practice. What looks like talent from the outside is really lots of skill built through experience. Just like a new runner does not start by running a marathon in their first week, novel writers train up, writing lots and lots of pages before they write a book worth reading.

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People often say “I’m not talented enough to do that” when they see a beautiful painting, hear a musical performance, or read a great story. We must remember that what is masterfully done is the result of hours and hours of practice. The artist must develop their skill set before they can expect to get the results that are so admired. They must make lots of art, good, bad, and mediocre, before they can achieve great.

Which brings us to the other comment often made when someone admires a really complex or large piece of creative work: “I don’t have the patience to do that.”

I thought a lot about patience as I was putting beads on Tiny’s Elizabeth I costume. It took me hours to do, but believe me, I am not a patient woman. I don’t want things now, I want them yesterday. Much of the time I was stitching beads onto fabric, I was looking forward to being done. It was certainly not patience that got helped me finish that project. It was determination.

Skill and determination, not talent and patience.

However, there is one place where having some patience is handy: while you are learning your craft. Practice takes time.

You are going to write bad stories, hit the wrong notes, and draw crooked houses while you are learning how to write, play, and draw. Lots and lots and lots of mistakes will be made. There will be successes, too, but it may be a long time before you are able to perform at the level you dream of. This is when patience comes in handy.

If you’re not all that patient, my advice is: use it. Your impatience can drive you to work harder. The more you practice, the quicker you will get better.

So no more excuses. Get to work.

To Write More, You Must Write

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One week into NaNoWriMo, and I am reminded that if I want to write more, I need to write more.

OK. That sounds crazy. William Hazlitt said it (somewhat) better:

The more a man writes, the more he can write.

My word count for the last week shows this. Not only did I write more words per session by Day 7 than I had on Day 1, but I also got faster, writing more words in less time.

True, part of the reason for this is the deadline. The founder of NaNoWriMo believes that all we need to accomplish great tasks is a deadline and, in a way, he is right. It’s much easier to stick to my daily writing when I have a word count to hit by the end of the month than when I am working on a project I plan to finish “someday”.

But the other reason I’m doing so well? The more I write, the more I can write. I’m training up. Writing every day makes it easier to write again tomorrow.

What do you think?

Important NaNoWriMo Reminders

In the whirlwind of November, when I am busy writing for NaNoWriMo*, it’s easy to forget things I’ve learned in previous years. I start asking myself questions and am too tired to remember the answers. I forget basic things I once knew. This year I’ve made a list to refer to and I’m sharing it here for those who also suffer from amnesia in November.

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November is National Novel Writing Month

 

Why in the hell am I doing this again?

  • Because it’s fun!
  • Because this is your audacious goal, the crazy thing you do every November. Some people run marathons, cook all Julia Child’s recipes in a year, or spend months hiking the PCT. NaNoWriMo is the dare you take.
  • Because this is an opportunity to try something new. Take a risk, set a goal. See what happens.

Why am I wasting my time writing this shitty draft when I already have plenty of shitty drafts to revise?

  • You are practicing writing and story-telling.
  • You are exploring new territory and trying things out. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work out. Discovery of what doesn’t work is as important as discovering what does.
  • Writing is about process, not product. It’s the unexpected discoveries, the unfamiliar vistas, the surprising ideas that make writing so satisfying.
    To take a break from other projects and have some fun.

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I’m stuck/ bored/ frustrated/ way behind on my word count/ ready to give up. What do I do now?

  • Make sure you are not trying to be someone you aren’t. Honor your process. Don’t fight who you are by trying to do something that is wrong for you. If you write best with a plan, then make a detailed outline. If plans freeze you up or make an interesting story go cold, then wing it.
  • Write to find out what you should do next. Brainstorm lists, puzzle on paper. The answers will come. (And if you are behind on your word count, there’s no law that says you can’t include these thoughts in your novel.)
  • Get some help. Visit the NaNoWriMo forums or ask for ideas from friends on Facebook. No one said you have to do this all alone.
  • Make a visual “map” of the story. Drawing can help generate ideas, even if you are only good at stick figures.
  • Blow something up. Or burn something down. Throw a disaster in and see what happens.
  • Skip to a different part of the story (forward or back) and start writing about that.
    Summarize the boring parts of your story in order to get to the good stuff.
  • Make lists instead of writing detailed descriptions. (This sounds like contradictory advice when you are trying to get your word count up, but I spend too much time writing descriptions. Instead, I just list the details I want to remember and move on.)
  • Fill your story with things you love to read about, not things you hate or think are “good” for your novel. Write Cap’n Crunch with Crunchberries, not Bran Flakes.

Other things to remember:

  • You can do this.
  • No multi-tasking. Turn off the internet and the phone. Focus!
  • Pace yourself and take breaks. That day between writing sessions gives your muse valuable time to come up with new ideas.
  • Take care of yourself: rest, eat well, exercise, pamper yourself. Creative writing is hard work and racing the clock is wearing. You need to be at your best to survive.
  • Uncertainty is an unavoidable part of the creative process. Feel the fear, and do it anyway. Everything will be all right.

Did I miss anything? What do you need to remember in November?

*NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days.