It was November 2017, the days were darkening, in more ways than one, so I embarked on a novel-writing mission: 30 days, 50,000 words, a complete novel. NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month was the brain-child of Chris Baty; launched in America it is now a global phenomenon with people logging on from all over the world to upload their manuscripts and “win” at the end of the month.
The idea is you write your first word on the 1st of the month and then finish a novel in 50,000 words by the 30th, uploading it onto the site’s word counter. There is no monetary prize, but something far greater: the satisfaction of knowing that you did it; you climbed the Everest of novel writing, conquered the wave of self-doubt and planted your 50,000 word flag atop the mountain of procrastination. And you have a printable certificate to prove it. And a victory dance – just make sure you film it so you never forget.
I first signed up 8 years ago; newly engaged and waiting to be wed, I thought it would be a great way to while away the winter months until our January wedding. But given the insurmountable obstacles, I never really got it off the ground: I was working fulltime as a secondary English teacher, planning a wedding and getting ready to move to a new city. Also, I just did not have the stamina and the discipline – surprising considering I was living with my parents with no husband and children. Fast-forward 8 years and 2 children later, and I finally found my inner-NaNo and channelled it. I channelled it so hard that I powered through sleep deprivation, various child ailments and finished fairly sane with only a few minor, pre-scheduled mental breakdowns before the end of the month.
Many marvelled at how I did it, but I will admit, it was easier than I thought, not because of anything I did, but because of my circumstances: I am currently not working, but looking after the children fulltime; my eldest has some hours in a private nursery and I have a husband who has some flexibility in his working pattern. Despite all this, it still required some effort and dedication so here’s how I did it:
- Plan and Prepare
Before you embark on the NaNoWriMo of your writing career, you need to embark on the NaNo of your mind. Deep.
Prepare yourself. Plan as much as you can. Use anything and everything at your disposal to ensure you can make that word count in November. “Preptober”, as the founders of NaNo call it, is very important. Some buy some books to help them on their journey, others write in journals or create complex plot maps; some even decide the story is in their heads and they are going to fly by the seat of their pants the following month. Whatever your method, mentally prepare yourself.
I bought both books written by the founders of NaNo as I like to feel like I’m doing something tangible towards my goal; one was a series of exercises designed to help you plan your novel and other a guide to getting 50,000 words done in 30 days. So during October, I read them and completed as many of the exercises in the book as I could. Then I saved the chapters of No Plot, No Problem to read at the start of each week during November. Often, I deviated from my plans, but they were always there, in the background, like a security blanket: something to fall back on and look through when the words had dried up. It was comforting to have most of my story arc already planned out, whatever happened during November, the story was already written in my mind.
Prepare your house and workspace. This is just as important as planning your story. Knowing where and when you are going to work will help keep you from dithering. The books help too as they teach you to schedule time. But ultimately, as a mother, time, space and mental energy after a day of mothering needs to be planned for. Psychologically, you need to be prepared that when the children are sleeping, or when the eldest is upstairs listening to her stories, you are going to throw yourself at your laptop and type like the wind – no matter what. This means easy access to everything; if that means the laptop is going to sit on the dining table for a month, that’s what needs to happen.
Make sure everyone has enough clean underwear and clothes to last at least a couple of weeks, if not longer, just in case you don’t get chance to do the washing. Freeze meals if you need to. Do whatever you need to do to free up writing time. Like I said, NaNo starts in the mind, before you even touch a pen or a keyboard.
I found I had very little time for batch cooking, but when I did make a bigger meal, I froze some of it, even if it was just a few curry bases. It took the pressure off in November when I had to focus my mental energy on writing.
- Lower your standards
This one may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but do you really need to shower every single day? Do you really need to change yours and the kids’ clothes every day? Do you need to clean the kitchen thoroughly, or vacuum? The answer is no. Yes, it might be less hygienic, but no one is going to die if you don’t keep on top of everything. Typically, women have a tendency to take on more than they can handle, to prove they can do everything, but it does not have to be this way: you don’t have to have everything together, all of the time. Give yourself a month off from house chores or, like I did, do the bare minimum to keep yourself and the house ticking over. (Before I’m attacked by feminists, foaming at the mouth, yes, I know men can do chores too, and mine does, but ultimately, it’s generally the person who is in house most who does the housework – this is a post for another day. Please don’t send me pro-feminist hate mail).
Sometimes, you will have to order takeaway for dinner. This does not make you a bad person or a bad mother. It is only temporary. And it is fine.
Lower your standards for your writing too. When reading No Plot, No Problem, a sticking point for me was the promotion of what I like to call “fluff” writing. The premise was that high-fluted, literary prose was overrated and it was always better to write simply. This goes against everything I feel as a writer; it goes against the very essence of my own personal craft, but for NaNo, it works.
Here’s how: instead of sitting in front of the keyboard, trying to write deep, meaningful prose, I sat down and bashed out and average of 1,667 words a day of simple, easy-to-read, easy-to-write sentences. That’s not to say I ignored who I was as a writer, but because my focus was on finishing rather than it being a work of literary genius, I picked a plot that I knew I could finish. I knew I would finish because it was plot-driven and always moving forward, propelling my word count quite organically without me trying very much.
I haven’t given up my goals of writing the way I want to write; I just shelved them for 4 weeks so I could complete this project, to prove to myself I could; for the experience and the thrill. It really did not matter if the finished novel was a masterpiece (it isn’t), but it’s finished. And for NaNo, that’s what matters.
- Kill Your Inner Editor
Although this is part of lowering your standards, it deserved a separate spot. I can’t stress this enough: DO NOT EDIT.
You are wasting time, precious time that you do not have. The baby might wake up any second, demanding a go on one of your mammaries; the oldest might come bounding down the stairs needing a poo in the middle of a 40-minute CD – you thought you had 40 minutes, right? Wrong. With kids, you never have the time you thought you had. Don’t waste the time you do have by editing. Editing is for later, or never if you don’t want to use your NaNo novel for anything.
I dealt with my inner perfectionist by scrolling up as quickly as possible after I had written a section and just putting one word in front of the other. I resisted the urge to read things back at the start of every writing session by quickly scrolling to the blank space at the end of my document and diving in as quickly as possible. Initially this was painful: it was not how I trained myself to write, but it worked. And even now, writing this post, I am using the same technique. The baby is asleep and I have a limited window so I need to get everything down as quickly as possible and edit it later.
That’s your key word: LATER. When you hear that inner editor saying, “Just have a look,” in that sexy, sultry voice of hers, tell her, “Later.” When she nudges you because all those wiggly red lines are spelling mistakes so you might as well read the last section through, gag her and say, “Later.” When she flashes her sexy bare thigh at you for that cheesy last sentence, that cliché and that eye-roll moment between two characters, drag her to the cupboard by her hair, lock her in there and scream, “Later!”
Because you won’t finish if you spend your writing time editing. WRITING time, not editing time.
- Find your writing time
Ideally, you would find yourself two hours of every day to write your 1,667 words, but it does not always work that way. Work with what you have. When the kids are sleeping/in nursery/distracted with some toys, make sure you’re writing, even if you write 10 words in that time. We’re relatively screen-free, so finding writing time when the children were about was difficult, but there were 10 minutes here and there when they were busy and paying no attention to me, so I took advantage and pummelled out some words.
I found that, apart from nursery times, the evening was the best time for me to write: the three-year old was sleeping and my husband was around to keep the baby entertained for the hour I needed to make up my word count. It was the most productive and satisfying hour of the day and it made me feel great. I would bash away at the keyboard, sometimes chuckling away, knowing that the baby had just been fed and would be fine on the sofa for an hour: she was fed, she was changed and she was loved. Make use of your loved ones to find yourself the time to write.
This was one of the most important things for me. I could not have made it work without the support of my husband who pushed me to get the laptop out. We had some horrendous days and nights with the children being ill, and there were a few days I was behind with my word count, but I made use of him and of the Saturday sessions at my in-laws and always got caught up. Every Saturday, we would sit side by side, clacking away on our keyboards, me working on my novel, him working on earning the money and I would break off to feed the baby and then hand her back to my mother-in-law and continue clacking away.
Wherever you can find the writing time, do it. You have more time than you think you do, you just have to find it.
- Visualise your goal
Thinking you are going to finish, visualising the end point will help, especially in the middle when it becomes a slog. I found having a wall of post-it notes with the word count for each day really helpful. Being a visual person, it helped immensely that I could use a marker and strike through each word count goal and see progress right before my eyes. The first 1,667 words very quickly turned into the first 10,000 this way.
“If my mind can conceive it, and my heart can believe it – then I can achieve it.” Muhammad Ali. Imagine yourself finishing, and you will. InshaAllah. (God-willing)
I also cheated a little and bought myself an early victory present (which my husband ended up paying for) as it meant I HAD to finish. I couldn’t NOT finish; after all, I had bought myself a present. (This was actually not intentional; what I wanted as a prize was a limited-edition yarn pack – see this post on Instagram – and I was worried they would sell out so I bought it prematurely. Even so, it served its motivational purpose).
- Be inventive
Use every tool at your disposal to help you finish. Binge-watching a TV show? Steal ideas from it: character names, locations, visuals – just don’t plagarise. Bizarre conversations with your toddler while you’re typing? Use her words in dialogue and tell her she “helped” Mama with her novel.
Sometimes, even staring out of the window or at a particular colour can generate ideas. The room you are writing in is full of ideas and when you’re stuck for a description, just pick something random and describe it. Eventually you’ll work it into your story. Remember: the goal is not to write a masterpiece (yet); the goal is to write 50,000, no matter what.
Need inventive ways to increase your word count? No problem. This is where those long Arab names are useful. Give your characters names that are two or three words long: Abdul Rahman, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Umm Habiba. You get the idea. Just remember not to hyphenate as they will only count as one word. Genius.
Be inventive in where you write too. Technology has moved on so much in recent years. With the beauty of the Cloud or One Drive, you can access your files across multiple platforms. Download software on your phone so you can write one handed on your phone and access your manuscript. I found having One Drive on my phone meant I had no excuse when it came to writing during night time feeds, however, I found it easier to just use the laptop so I waited and made up my word count every chance I could jump on.
Everyone’s situation is different therefore you may need to tweak my advice to suit you, however, I do believe that a 50,000 word novel in 30 days is definitely achievable with two young children – mine were 3 and 6 months old. I found it easier and more motivating to complete it in November, when the rest of the world was doing it – it meant social media was full of NaNoWriMo posts every time I logged on to procrastinate! However, there is nothing stopping you from picking a different month for your novel sprint. Novemeber or not, I would definitely recommend it.
NaNoWriMo has developed my writing stamina, given me an insight into the research process involved in novel-writing and above all, shown me that my goals are definitely more achievable than I once thought.
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