National Novel Writing Month, or ‘NaNoWriMo’, is an annual creative writing challenge that takes place globally every November. The event challenges participants to write a 50,000 word first draft of a novel in just 30 days (November).
Originally founded in the US in 1999, it has since grown into a non-profit organisation that hosts hundreds of thousands of writers around the world every year. The website lists that “over 250 NaNoWriMo novels” have been published – including ‘The Night Circus’ by Erin Morgenstern, ‘Fangirl’ by Rainbow Rowell, and ‘Cinder’ by Marissa Meyer.
‘N’ is for ‘NaNoWriMo’
There is a lot of debate about the ‘usefulness’ of National Novel Writing Month for writers aspiring to write a novel. And no, a 30 day rush to reach 50,000 words does not create a high quality, finished manuscript. But, the point of the month is not to achieve that. The point is simply to reach the target, to touch the 50,000, to write that first draft. The focus is on quantity, not quality.
Ernest Hemingway once said, “The first draft of anything is sh*t”, and I’m yet to find one that this doesn’t apply to. Terry Pratchett said that “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.” A first draft is exactly what it sounds like – a first draft. It’s not supposed to be perfect. That’s not to say that no NaNoWriMo novel can ever be good, because it can. Take a look at that list of published books I have linked to above. The point is that the authors of those books didn’t just stop at a single draft. The first draft is not the end of the writing process. After the first draft comes the second draft. And then the third draft. And so on, until – ultimately – the edits.
Over several years, I have read a lot of blog posts and articles offering advice to people contemplating taking part in the annual writing challenge – but I have never found anything that offers similarly useful advice to new, or potential, MLs. For those not aware of the term – ML stands for ‘Municipal Liaison’, effectively a voluntary regional co-ordinator for each region. I have been ML of the Europe :: England :: Essex region since 2010. As such, I thought I’d offer a few tips that I’ve compiled from my over six years of experience in the role.
1 Don’t Panic. The best way to alleviate your nerves and worry is to make sure that you are well prepared and planned. Taking organisational control/responsibility for a region is a big task, and will keep you extremely busy for well over a month. If you feel over-stretched, pressured, or anxious, make sure to take some time to allow yourself to calm down and prepare ahead of your plans for the rest of the month. If you have co-MLs, make sure to get to know and interact regularly with each other in order to provide helpful support and to make sure that you are all sharing the requirements of the role equally.
2 Plan ahead. Organisation is key, and planning ahead is a really valuable way of maximising your time and allowing for all manner of unexpected scenarios. Lots of things need your attention throughout the month, so it is enormously helpful if you have already completed as much of the different tasks as you can ahead of time. For example, write your weekly regional emails ahead of sending them. Better yet, ahead of November. Draft any blog posts, or information based social media posts, media releases, maybe even FAQ responses as early as you can. Not only will this save you time during the month, it will also help to alleviate some of the nerves and/or pressure. The more time you can save by completing tasks early, the more time you have to concentrate on writing your own 50,000 words.
3 Keep a dedicated notebook/folder and diary. There is no better way to keep everything organised than to have a specific ‘place’ where all of your notes and plans are together. This could be through an organiser on your mobile phone or tablet, in a computer file, in a paper file, or in a notebook. I tend to keep all of my notes in an A5 sized notebook, with an elastic band to keep everything secure, and a computer-based digital diary that I can access online or with my phone. Having all of your notes and plans in one place makes it easier for you to quickly find or refer to information you need to share, advice/things that you have come across, tasks you need to deal with, contact information, media information, and so on.
4 Ask. If you are not sure about something, or don’t know the best way to deal with a situation, don’t worry. Other MLs, and NaNo HQ, are always around to answer any questions that you have, to provide help or moral support, and to aid you in dealing with any issues you encounter. If you’re not sure about something, or just want some general advice or support, post a message on the ML Forum. You’ll probably be surprised how quickly you get a response, and you’ll be able to solicit useful guidance in how to move forward.
5 Be available. One of the things, as ML, that you are required to do is to be available to provide a lot of support and encouragement to the participants in your region. This could be through answering private emails or direct messages that are querying particular ideas – how to do something, how to continue with no motivation, where to find something, when to meet, etc, or through your responses to posted messages in the region forums or on social media platforms. It could also be through your general presence in different places (online, offline), allowing for a sense of security and calm, or your quick response to enquiries from local business, services or media. Making yourself available for the duration of the month will not only make your region run smoothly, but will also help with building a sense of community and security, and foster a warm and supportive environment.
6 Check in every day. As above, it is important that you maintain a regular presence within your region, your group(s), and your site(s). Don’t spend all of your time updating or maintaining the different areas (see point #7), but do make a point of checking each area at least once every day. It is likely that you’ll check each area a number of times each day, but it’s important to not skip any areas or days. Some people have different access, different preferences, and different technology to other people – and the way that they interact with the month, and the other participants, varies from person to person. For example, in my region we have the region forums and a Facebook group (amongst other areas). A lot of people tend to interact primarily via the Facebook group, whereas others only interact through the region forum.
7 Schedule private time. Spending so much time planning, arranging, organising, answering, promoting, responding to, and writing can easily take up all of your free moments and more if you aren’t careful to organise your time. November in particular is extremely busy, but October and December are also noticeably full, and with all of the different things that you have planned in advance – and the mix of things that can crop up unexpectedly – you will be very busy for an extended period. As such, it is important to make sure to dedicate some time just to you. Find and save some time each week for you to relax, recover, and do whatever it is that you need to do. Take a breath, take a bath, take a nap, take a moment.
8 Check the ML forum regularly. There’s a lot of information to keep track of for every November writing challenge, and a lot of information that isn’t released – or updated – until part way through the month. As such, it is important to keep an eye on updates and posted news throughout the month. The ML Forum is one of the most useful places for MLs to visit – it provides a lot of useful advice and information on how to properly run your region, it gives you an area for guidance or support, and a creative space for MLs to interact with each other and to bounce creative ideas around. It is a useful source of inspiration prior to, and throughout, the challenge, and an ideal way of keeping in touch with HQ.
9 Be open with participants. As with anything, plans you make sometimes don’t always go as you think they will ahead of time. Sometimes you have computer issues, sometimes a friend or family member’s birthday, a last minute work meeting, health issues, or any of a range of different circumstances that can alter or affect previously made plans. This is okay. If you need to change, amend, or even cancel something you have made arrangements for, be clear and honest about your need to do this and why. If you have to delay your event by an hour to take a friend to the doctor, or a pet to the vet, say so. If you are stuck in traffic on your way to an event, let them know you will be late. If you manage to pick up a nasty flu, people will understand so long as you are clear about your explanations and provide enough notice prior to any plans that might affect them. If you’ve got an idea for your region, but can’t decide which of two ways is best to proceed with it – put it to a vote. As long as you give enough notice, a valid reason, etc, the participants in your region will understand your circumstances. If, last minute, you can’t attend something you have arranged, be up front and clear about this fact and maybe ask for a volunteer to ‘host’ in your place. Then make it up to them later – schedule a new event, run extra online writing sprints, run a competition and give a prize, and so on. Be honest and respect your participants, and your community will stay strong. As with the ML Forum, don’t be afraid to ask – or speak to – the people in your region.
10 Have fun. It is important to make sure that you, as well as your participants, are enjoying the month-long challenge – so make sure to schedule in enough time for you to write, and to enjoy the process of writing and taking part. A lot of the fun comes from progressing with your own project, and from interacting with the people in your region, so be sure to do both regularly. If you are enjoying yourself, your energy will show also in your writing (making it a better story, better quality, and more interesting to read back through and redraft), and also in your region – through your online posts and at your in-person events.