November is one of my favorite times of year–the leaves on the trees change to a beautiful palette of oranges and reds, we prepare to give thanks for family and friends and we eat lots of pumpkin pie. November is also the start of National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo as many of writers know it, where writers (and even nonwriters) sit down and try to hammer out 50,000 words of a story. It’s a clear and simple challenge with many benefits. But according to my friend and NaNoWriMo executive director Grant Faulkner, one of the greatest benefits is how it can lead to a lifetime of better writing.
Faulkner discusses this in-depth in the November/December issue of Writer’s Digest (which you can download here), but I’d like to give you a sneak peek at one of my favorite sections of the piece:
This guest post is by Grant Faulkner. Faulkner is the executive director of National Novel Writing Month and the co-founder of the literary journal 100 Word Story. He has published stories & essays in dozens of publications.
Follow on Twitter @grantfaulkner.
Also, order the guide written by NaNoWriMo founder Cris Baty, No Plot? No Problem!: A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days.
NaNoWriMo: A Wrinkle in Time
The reaction I most often hear from writers who decline to participate in NaNoWriMo is, “Sounds nice, but I don’t have the time.” And really, who does have the time to write 50,000 words in a month?
But great writers have wrangled with time constraints for eons. “Time is short, my strength is limited, the office is a horror, the apartment is noisy, and if a pleasant, straightforward life is not possible then one must try to wriggle through by subtle maneuvers,” Franz Kafka wrote.
There’s an old saying that if you argue for your limitations, you get to keep them. [Like this quote? Click here to Tweet and share it!] NaNoWriMo is a crash course in time management—an exercise in discovering those “subtle maneuvers” to work around obstacles.
To write 50,000 words in a harried life, you have to closely evaluate how you spend your time. Each October, I go on a “time hunt.” I track how I spend each day, tallying minutes spent on social media, how many TV shows I watch, how long it takes me to shower and make breakfast—everything. It’s always a revelation to see what I fritter away, despite thinking I have no time to spare. Each year I find ways to open up nooks and crannies to hit my daily goals, whether it’s sneaking in five minutes of writing during my son’s soccer game or waking up an hour earlier.
In her book Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has The Time, journalist Brigid Schulte claims that for many working parents, free time comes in bits of “time confetti”—a few minutes here and there. Bradbury wrote Fahrenheit 451 in 30-minute increments using a rented typewriter. Toni Morrison wrote her first novel in the few spare minutes she could scrounge up each day as a working mother. Those small but consistent maneuvers add up.
NaNoWriMo also teaches one of the most under-valued time management skills, one rarely discussed in a writing how-to book: learning to say no.
Saying no takes practice. I start by turning away from my email and social media until I’ve written my daily words. Then I practice saying no to an after-work gathering, a brunch on Sunday, an invitation to watch a basketball game. I don’t want to make life a narrow affair where writing is more important than being with friends and family, but I need to make sure that my creative time isn’t crowded out—and to find the time to write a novel in a month, something has to give.
I still dream of a time when I’ll have vast swaths of space to write, but NaNoWriMo has helped me realize that limitations aren’t all bad. One’s imagination doesn’t necessarily flourish in the luxury of total freedom. One of the many paradoxes of creativity is that it seems to benefit from the pressures and boundaries of our daily lives. A time restriction of writing a novel in 30 days takes away choices that can cause one to dally and maybe not start at all. Constraints also keep perfectionist
notions from eating away at you: You dive in and just start writing because you have to.
“The ticking clock is our friend if it gets us moving with urgency and passion,” Twyla Tharp says.
If you have the opportunity to see Grant speak at a conference, I highly recommend it. I also highly recommend picking up a copy of this issue of Writer’s Digest to get the full scoop from Grant on How NaNoWriMo Can Lead To a Lifetime of Better Writing (plus, you’ll get to read our great interview with bestselling crime fiction author Robert Crais, who bragged about being on our cover here).
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.