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natalie talks about writing and storytelling craft

The Unique Panic of NaNoWriMo

I always panic a little every Halloween. Not for the typical reasons of haunted houses, spooky costumes, or ghoulish frights. I am panicking because it is Nano Eve, the night before the crazy month-long novel-writing marathon kicks off. I am panicking because the challenge seems insurmountable. It seems that way every year.

This year my particular panic is related to time. Or perhaps that’s misleading – it’s really more of a question of energy. I am still recovering from a bout of bronchitis which zapped almost all of October for me. Being sick stole all the time and energy I had reserved for actually outlining my novel and putting together character sketches. Instead of creating, I spent most of the month sleeping. In addition, I started a part-time job that I’m still quite new at and I will be starting a full-time job within a week. So while time (or lack thereof) is definitely a valid factor, I have always been pretty good at squirreling away little pockets of time to get my writing done. But after what could be 60 hour work weeks, I’m afraid I won’t have much of a brain left to do the mentally taxing work of plotting, characterization, and ya know, putting words together in coherent sentences.

My First Nano

I still count my first Nanowrimo as my best – partly because the whole experience felt so new and liberating. It was a whole different attitude toward writing than I had previously held. I used to slave away quietly by myself, agonizing over word choices and plot points. Back then I was more prolific than I am now – maybe the world hadn’t beaten the spirit out of me yet. Writing was a very serious business to me, to be undertaken seriously and to have serious feelings about. I was introduced to Nanowrimo in college by my good friend Megan. She knew that I loved to write, yet I’d been experiencing a block for a long time. She encouraged me to try it. I protested that it was impossible. She said, “Just try it.”

It was the Nanowrimo of legends, I’m telling you:  I came up with a premise the night before, and I flew totally by the seat of my pants. I think it was the first time I had ever tried “pantsing” – the Nanowrimo term that refers to just making up the story as you go along with no outline to guide you. I can see why some people are die-hard pantsers – it’s pretty thrilling if you can pull it off. Somehow, by November 30, I had dragged myself through 50,000 words. I guess in some way, I am still chasing that thrill because I keep returning to Nanowrimo year after year, hoping to recapture some of that magic.

How I’m Going to Get Through This Month

I don’t think I could do this crazy month-long ride without the support of the writing community. Nanowrimo is, after all, the unifying force that brought our local group together all those years ago. I keep coming back to Nano because it’s so inspiring. I love to hear other author’s war stories, to see them emerge triumphant on the other side clutching all the words they cranked out. I love hearing that Nano has helped them to write more words than all the other months. I love being able to complain about parts of the noveling process with people who have been through the same emotional slog. If you have never been part of a writing group, it is a hard feeling to describe. It feels validating.

During my first Nano, the door to the online writing community really opened up to me. I had been reading some author blogs quite regularly, but it always felt like a rather small pool and the mode was experts (published authors) teaching the beginner (me). But Nano was different. There are forums and group chats. You could find a writing buddy halfway across the world – some nocturnal wrimos like being able to chat with someone in a different time zone. And everyone was in the same boat for the most part – we’re all just trying to write as much as we can in a short amount of time and not get discouraged along the way. I love that there is a different forum for each stage on the Nanowrimo website. Whether you are racing along with the Overachievers (we have a couple of those) or lamenting the first 10k (you know I have been there), there is always someone right alongside of you.

Of course our local in-person write-ins are always a fun time. There is something about having an excuse to get out of my house that really motivates me to get work done. It’s hard for me to write at home these days – too many distractions – so I look forward to our many write-ins at different libraries and local restaurants. Hearing the tippity-tap of everyone’s fingers flying across the keys also gives me a competitive streak – I feel like I am not doing enough if my fingers are not tippity-tapping too. All the official write-ins are on the calendar, but members can always propose unofficial meet-ups any time during the month and see if anybody is up to join.

I love how inclusive Nanowrimo is. There is no punishment if you don’t win. No one strips you of the title of “author” or flogs you for not meeting your word count. You can write about whatever you want. There’s no pressure to publish at the end. I feel that Peowrimos is especially inclusive, because we are just happy if you wrote more words this month – whether it’s fiction, poetry, whatever! The word count doesn’t actually matter. It’s the fact that you put forth the effort to do something that’s important to you.

With all that said, the only way I’m gonna get through Nano this year is to commit. To dig deep, grit my teeth, and discipline myself to write. Nanowrimo is like a crucible in that way – there’s no time to wallow in self-doubt when you have a deadline to hit. I have always been pretty motivated by deadlines, even if they are just self-imposed and made up. So I hereby announce with the publication of this blog post, I am going to try my hardest to win this year.

Are you committing to Nano?

A lot of writers don’t like Nano because they feel constricted, pressured, or rushed. I see it as more of convenient shorthand – a quick way to say, “I’m making my writing a priority this month with a bunch of buddies.” It’s a quick way to let other writers know that you’re a little crazy, you may need a lot of support, and that you are choosing your writing first over all the other things you could be doing this month.

If you want to be my online buddy, you can find me on the NaNoWriMo.org website as natfee.

And if you’re wondering whether I’m going to use this blog post toward my word count:  you bet I am.

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How to Use Project Management Skills as an Author

Project management is a valued resource in the business world, but can it help you with creative endeavors like writing a novel? Of course! Employing project management skills will help you beat writer’s block to get to the end of that elusive novel, short story, or set of poems you’ve been meaning to finish. If you plan to self-publish, project planning will be an invaluable skill set, especially with your marketing efforts. Take your next writing project from the realm of abstract into concrete actions and steps.

What is a Project?

According to the Project Management Institute, a project is “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result.” It has a defined beginning and ending with dates. It usually has about five stages:

  1. Initiating
    1. Define the Scope
  2. Planning
    1. Calculate time & costs
  3. Execution
  4. Monitoring / Controlling
    1. Milestones
  5. Closing
    1. Lessons Learned
    2. Celebrate Success

Nanowrimo is, at heart, a basic project. The scope is to write 50,000 words. There is a deadline (Nov 30) and a defined time frame (30 days). It outlines steps to get there (write 1,667 words a day). There are milestones and celebrations along the way. At the end of the project, you (hopefully) have a deliverable of a 50k manuscript. We’ll use Nanowrimo as an example as we walk through the basics of project management.

INITIATING

Scope

Everyone’s idea of success is different. What are your writing goals? Publication (either traditional or through self-publishing) is a nice clear end goal, but it’s not for everyone. Maybe your idea of success is writing more. Give it a concrete number, like 25,000 words a month or 100,000 words a year. Even if your only goal is to have fun while writing, write down a concrete goal of dedicating 15 hours a week to writing so that you can have more fun.

To revisit our Nanowrimo project, the scope is already set for you, but you can redefine the scope (for example:  write 75,000 words instead of 50,000). It’s also an important part of the process to write it down and tell your friends that you are committing to the goal.

It’s helpful at this stage to identify who can help you reach your goal. Do you need an accountability partner? Who can you ask for advice when you get stuck? Who will give you moral support as you strive to achieve your goals?

PLANNING

Identify obstacles that may delay or prevent you from reaching your deadline. In November, you might list Thanksgiving, holiday travel, or prior commitments. How will you overcome those obstacles to meet your deadline on time? If you are a freelancer, this is an important step that will help you meet deadlines for stickler editors.

Identify other risks that might keep you from your goals. Are you a Facebook junkie who can’t resist checking your feed? Maybe you need to find a place without Wi-Fi so that you can get some work done. Do you struggle to write at home because you just end up doing laundry and napping? Schedule time at a place like a coffee shop or library to put in some solid writing hours.

Calculate time and costs

It’s easy to lose the discipline of Nanowrimo in the off months. Nano gave me the opportunity to calculate a rough WPH (words per hour). That’s a valuable stat to me. It’s easy to lose track of what I’ve accomplished when I’m sitting at a computer all day. But now I know that if I put in a good 4 hours, I’ll get at least 4,000 words.

If you plan to self-publish, you will also need to factor in time for editing, beta reading, formatting / design, and marketing events. If you are going the traditional publishing route, your timeline will not be entirely in your control, but you will have additional tasks like writing query letters, sending manuscripts, or searching for the right agent and/or publishers.

Create a schedule when you will write, or perform other tasks related to editing and selling. Having a date on the calendar will help you stay on track throughout the project timeline. Peowrimos has a calendar of events during Nanowrimo and (less frequent) events in the off months. This helps me to plan time to actually write, or at least seek advice from other local authors. If you identified any risks in the previous step, be sure to add any pertinent details to your schedule.

Calculating your costs comes into play after you’ve put in the work of writing. When it’s time to market and sell your creation, you will need to determine how much money you are willing to put up for marketing costs.

EXECUTION

Execution is where the real work gets done. You’ve made a plan, and now it’s time to work the plan. This is when you write.

During Nanowrimo, the Peowrimos have several write-ins and meetups to help you execute. My favorite event is the Write-A-Thon:  an all-day marathon where we bring snacks and write as much as we can in 12 hours.

MONITORING & CONTROLLING

Milestones

Milestones are markers of achievement. Their purpose is to show how you are advancing to your goal. Milestones make it easy to digest your progress. Are you way behind on meeting milestones? Do you still have a lot of milestones to reach before you’re done? Assess and figure out a way to get back up to speed.

The Nanowrimo website has a great tool for monitoring your word count progress (the bar graph is seriously addicting). If you are a Scrivener user, that program also has some great tools for meeting your session goals.

Milestones are built into the Nanowrimo site graphs and the new badges you can earn – you can see milestones for 10,000, 25,000, and 40,000. You can also set your own milestones for different parts of the story – you just introduced the villain, you finished the first act, you are writing the dark night of the soul for your main character, etc.

CLOSING

Lessons Learned

This step is where you evaluate the project with 20/20 hindsight. What went well? What didn’t? Where did you struggle? How can you take this knowledge into your next writing project to make it more successful?

For example, if you created a schedule in the previous step but missed a lot of your writing dates, analyze why that happened. Maybe you had a lot of unforeseen emergencies that took precedence, or maybe you let your emotions dictate your schedule and chose to do other things instead. If it’s the latter, you are learning where the priorities fall in your life and you need to decide if writing will be a higher priority for next time.

Take time to evaluate how the project went and use it to create a better process for the future. Formalizing this process, especially by writing out the lessons you learned, will help you retain it for next time.

Celebrating Success

At the end of Nanowrimo, we have a TGIO (Thank God It’s Over) Party. This is a valuable way to celebrate success at the end of a marathon writing project. You can also celebrate your first major book deal with a publisher, the launch of your self-published novel, or a new clip for your portfolio in a magazine or online journal. Whatever your success is, make a point to celebrate it.

Project management skills will help you to become a more successful writer, no many what your goals are. You can employ these disciplined techniques to get more writing done without sucking all the fun out of it.