Struggling with #NaNoWriMo word-counts? Maybe you’re trying too hard.

Here I go — breaking all the rules that I had set myself for my own personal blog. I had decided earlier this year when I set this thing up that I wasn’t going to post anything that would look like writing advice, but with the number of people that I know struggling to keep their word counts up for NaNoWriMo, I decided that I would break my own rule just this once. As a Municipal Leader for my local region and a veteran WriMo myself, perhaps I do have some advice to give that is actually worth listening to. Here goes…

We have just crossed the mid-month point and you’re looking at those word counts. Some of you are starting to freak out. Maybe you haven’t hit 25000 words yet and are seeing that you need to write over 2000 words per day to make it on-time. Maybe when you sit down at the computer to write (or with the pen and paper if that is your method) you find that only 200 words grace the page, and you’ve been at if for hours. Maybe you just stare at the blank page and your mind goes blank as well. Or, the worst of all, maybe your story doesn’t excite you like it did when you started. Well, you know what… These are all things that happen to every writer. They’ve happened to me too. But there are some simple easy things that you can do to get out of this rut and get back on track for NaNoWriMo.

You may have a high total word count left to write and your required daily count to hit that 50000-word target is getting higher by the day. The first thing that you need to do is forget about the total word count and those mounting required daily limits. If you keep staring at that big number of words left to write, you’ll never make it. There is a philosophy out there that the most successful people are the ones that have the ability to take every problem and break it down into smaller chunks. Let’s face it. You can’t add 2 + 2 together and have it mean anything unless you have a concept of what 2 is in the first place.

Make no mistake about it, 50000 is a big number. Can you imagine what you could do with $50,000? Just imagine the goodies you can buy with that. Write it down. Look at that… You’re writing again.

What? You were reading, not writing? Should I shake my head now, or later?

No, seriously. Here’s a little trick that I’ve started using this year with the WriMos in my region.

The Chip Challenge:

Chip Challenge

Chip Challenge: Get some poker chips and write numbers on them. Place them in a bag by your favourite writing device. Every time you sit down to write, pull out a chip. That’s your session target.

Get yourself a small set of poker chips. I spent all of $3 on mine at the local nick-nack store. Take a vivid, or some other permanent marker, and write numbers on the chips, ranging from say 250 to 1500. Make sure you have a good spread. Now put the chips into a bag by your favourite writing device. Every time you sit down to write, pull out a chip from the bag. That is your session target. Complete that chip, then give yourself permission to indulge in some sort of reward. For the WriMos who attend my write-ins, the rewards are things like erasers with stupid faces on them, shiny pencils, fluorescent gel pens, etc. For a while there, my personal reward was little chocolate mints, or that cookie. I stepped on the scales this morning and decided that chocolates and cookies were not such a good idea, but you get the hint.

ML Chip Challenge Box

Some of the goodies in my ML box for the chip challenge at write-ins.

By giving yourself a chip challenge, you’re no longer focused on that giant word count or any pressures that NaNoWriMo is putting on you. All you see is that little chip with a number on it. That is your goal. If inspiration strikes and you feel like taking another chip challenge after you have completed the first one, then for go it. You’re the writer. You’re the one in control.

But what if the words are still not flowing. I have so been there. Only the other night, I struggled to write more than 45 words within a span of 90 minutes. You read that right, people. I had a massive case of writer’s block. I knew where the story needed to go, but… Well, we won’t get into the buts. Let’s just face it… I was having an off day and even the chip challenge wasn’t working. So what did I do? I closed one story file and started working on another.

Many writers have more than one project going at a time. I have tons. My brain constantly jumps around, very rarely focused on one plot for any length of time. It’s probably why I write stories that have multiple plot-lines. Some would argue that it’s the sign of a writer who doesn’t plot sufficiently, however, I would argue that it’s my brain’s way of plotting. My mind sees snippets of scenes from here and there, but rarely knows how they all fit together until I have managed to see enough of the scenes to slot them into place. It’s like little islands that grow out of the flowing waters of my imagination, all isolated, but as I continue to jump around, the bridges between those islands slowly get constructed. Then bam… I have a full plot and story arc.

My core NaNoWriMo project for this year has turned into one massive plotting exercise. So many little scenes: cats using the toilet; US Air Force pilots buzzing the tower; murder investigations and people getting run off the road; jumping through rainbow portals; and the list goes on. But those scenes are clear in my imagination, the dialogue, the setting, even the body language of the characters. So I write those scenes. The ones that are still hazy, I write what details I can see and move on. Because of this, I now have a full story arc for the first novel in what looks to be a series of six. The full manuscript is completely plotted out, even with its subplots, and the overall arc for the whole series is also plotted out. 25000 words worth of notes and scenes that don’t necessarily all fit together, but it’s all words that count toward NaNoWriMo.

But notice that I said “core” NaNoWriMo project. The novel I have listed on the NaNoWriMo website is only one of the projects that I have been working during the month of November. I am also working on various blog entires, the edits for my first novel, edits for a client’s novel, the start-up of my editorial business, and the list is just getting bigger. Now here’s the thing… All writing is still writing. I count all writing tasks into my NaNoWriMo total because it still took me time to formulate my thoughts into a coherent fashion. Even this particular blog post will be added to my total when I’m done.

Counting editing into the word count is a simple calculation: look at the total number of words in the passage that you were editing (after you have finished editing for the day), then for every hour that you were actively editing it for, take 15%. E.g. A passage that is 3000 words when you’re finished that you were editing for 2 hrs solid, would give you 900 words you could add to your NaNoWriMo total.

Some would say that editing is not in the spirit of NaNoWriMo. Well, I have one response for those nah-sayers: raspberries and lots of them. Editing is one of the core activities of any writer. We may write fantastical worlds, but no one can write that brilliant masterpiece from the first draft only. As Ernest Hemingway once said, “The first draft of everything is shit.” Every writer needs to spend a significant amount of time to edit and rewrite that manuscript to make it sparkle and shine (hopefully, not like vampires). The writers that don’t understand this are in for a rude awakening. Even agents and publishers dread the months after NaNoWriMo because of the number of people that falsely believe they have written the next No1 Best Seller but haven’t spent the time (normally months to years) to actually edit and rewrite said masterpiece.

So here is my little bit of real advice: if you are feeling that your story has stalled, and you have given yourself enough time to back away from it by working on something else for a while, then give yourself permission to actually go back and reread what you have written, and perhaps do a little editing. It doesn’t matter if it’s November and you’re supposed to be working solely on “new” material. Give yourself permission to remind yourself why you wanted to write this story in the first place. Maybe then you’ll be able to see where the story was heading and be able to write more.

But the best thing that any of us can do for our writing, the one thing that I have found that helps with the word counts the most, is to actually give yourself permission to not do anything writing related for an evening or two. Sometimes you just need to recharge — and sleep.

We writers often make a joke of it — sleep is overrated — but sleep is the brain’s way of fixing itself and anything else that might be going wrong with your body. When we’re overtired, the brain starts to shut down the higher functions so it can focus entirely on what it needs to do to keep us alive. This means we become cranky, irritable, irrational and our writing is no longer just “shit” but becomes worthless dribble that makes no sense in our waking states.

Some of my writing buddies have become so fixated on that NaNoWriMo-set target that they have forgotten what it means to sleep. This brings me right back to where this post first started. It doesn’t matter if you have a high number of words left to write to reach your 50000-word target. Forget about that. Take that larger goal and break it down into smaller, more manageable, chunks. Spread those chucks across multiple projects. Do some editing if you feel you need to. And take a break.

The true spirit of NaNoWriMo is not about meeting a word count for the month. It’s about training yourself to become a writer. It’s about setting that goal that is attainable: writing that novel.

P.S. I’d love to meet you on Twitter or Facebook.

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© Copyright, Judy L Mohr 2015

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