NaNoWriMo, your wrists and the triumph of common sense

by Ekaterina Fawl

My first NaNoWriMo was a wild ride.

I’d heard about this challenge from a friend. They weren’t doing it that year; all my questions as to why not were met with hollow laughter.

I decided to give it a try, and do it all by myself. I didn’t join the website, thinking it would just upset me if the Internet recorded my early failure for the posterity. I didn’t think I needed a writing buddy, or any kind of community support. All I needed was write 1667 words a day for a month. Easy.

I was in a great place to do it: I had no family obligations, no overtime looming at work, and embarrassingly few social engagements. I had a plan, an outline, buckets of enthusiasm and love for the project, and no doubts whatsoever. All I needed was sit down in front of the computer and let words flow.

I was also incredibly naive about the physical demands of typing 1667 words a day.

Now for a bit of a context: I was working full time as a back-end web developer. The work consisted mostly of furiously typing, some mouse clicking, some light staring at graphs and refreshing web pages in the hope that the drop in performance you’ve just introduced will go away without having to go back to the drawing board. On the bus to and from work, almost an hour each way, I listened to audiobooks and knitted socks for Christmas presents for my whole family.

Spoiler: they didn’t really appreciate my luxury handmade pure wool socks with colours and patterns carefully matched to everyone’s personality. I’m definitely still bitter about that. It seemed like a great idea at the time.

Another thing that seemed like a fantastic idea at the time was online multiplayer gaming. Me and my husband were guild officers so we had to turn up for every raid and grind for supplies in the downtime. If you’ve dodged the obsessive MMO gaming bullet, that bit of arcane language meant we had to spend upwards of two hours almost every night in front of our computers, yelling at other people on the Internet, mashing our keyboards really quickly with high degree of precision to prevent other people on the Internet from yelling at us.

That ended around 10 pm, and that’s when I usually started on my daily NaNoWriMo words.

I’m sure the many flaws in that plan are readily obvious to you, gentle reader, but, to my defence, I was young, compulsive and competitive and it took a while for me to notice that my body was basically falling apart.

My back muscles were in knots. My eyes were dry and itching. I stayed up ridiculously late to hit the word count and get all my ideas out, and when I went to bed I was still overexcited, my mind firing on all cylinders, words dancing in my head and keeping me awake. When my mind quieted the constant ache in my shoulders and hands prevented me from falling asleep a while longer, and then quite suddenly it was another day and I had to do it all over again.

Two things happened at the end of the second week.

The story finally hit the dreaded middle section. I was stuck there in the quagmire of the second act, as crushed and lost as my characters.

In case you’ve not experimented with long form yet: that happens all the time. The middle is the hardest to write. That’s when every plotting problem is suddenly revealed. It’s when you’ve spent the energy and the enthusiasm you’ve started with, yet the satisfaction of reaching the finishing line is too far out of reach to sustain you.

At least my character’s emotional and physical lows were in my outline. Mine was unplanned, even though I should have seen it coming. I lost all faith in my plot, world building and characterisation. Every word had to be pulled out of me like a dead tooth, and it now took me twice as long to get the word count down. I started giving up for the day short of 1667 words.

And that’s also a weighty word: it was, to me, giving up. I couldn’t pat myself on the back for having managed a thousand words that day. I started calling those sessions failures, something to be ashamed of. I was falling more and more behind every day, and the shortfall was looking insurmountable.

The second thing was that my wrists suddenly swelled up, visibly and hideously. I looked like a doomed extra in a B-movie about to mutate into something made of bad CGI. That had never happened to me before. It horrified me and, ultimately, it was just what I’d needed.

A lot of people who are drawn to the challenges like NaNoWriMo are compulsive and competitive, and are used to playing through pain. We would easily ignore physical or mental symptoms of approaching exhaustion if we’re still being stimulated and rewarded for keeping up the work. We would probably work even harder when we begin falling short of unrealistic goals, and push ourselves into self-perpetuating spiral of anxiety, where fear of failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Luckily for me, all my problems were incredibly easy to fix. After some panic, I realised I had to think about my priorities.

I stopped knitting and bought a normal, enjoyable Christmas present for everyone who’d not yet been blessed with my socks. That was easy, but that wasn’t going to be enough. I couldn’t keep up working, writing and gaming at the pace I’d been going, not for whole other two weeks.

Somehow, at first glance dropping out of NaNoWriMo seemed like a natural choice.

Sure, gaming was frivolous and unproductive, but it didn’t requite any mental energy. It was easy to do even after a full day of work, unlike writing, which began to feel like torture. I felt peer-pressured to go back to it by the people I’d been playing with – they needed me on the team! If I stopped playing the game I’d fall behind my friends and rivals, and–

(Spoiler: I did fall behind, and once the competitive edge was gone there was much less drive to go back. I still play, for fun, on my own schedule, and my experience is a lot more pleasurable for that.)

My job – well, of course it felt like it should have been my priority all along. That was the only activity I was actually getting paid to do. I felt like people really depended on me there. I had to stay professional, show enthusiasm and drive…

(Spoiler: the company doesn’t exist any more. I doubt anybody remembers I used to work there. Definitely nobody remembers that I took three days off on short notice that November. Actually, that’s wrong – I remember, and I still think it had been a great decision.)

Once I realised what I most wanted to do was to work on my story and finish the project, the rest was easy. I told my husband he’d have to game on his own, which incidentally gave me some extra hours of quiet time every day when he wouldn’t distract me. I took what vacation days I could get and spent one of them mostly sleeping, resting my eyes and hands and doing gentle stretches. I read. I went for walks. I didn’t write for two days, and wrote a little bit on the third. I fell further behind on the word count, but I picked it up over the next weekend.

Once I rested a little the words came back. I upped my daily output from 1667 words to 2000, and with several extra hours a day finished quite comfortably. It took me until February to actually complete the first draft of the story – it turned out 50k wasn’t even the half of it. But it’s done, and I’m still very proud of it.

Looking back, here are the things I would have told myself before starting my first NaNoWriMo:

– this is a hard challenge. Really. Even if you don’t already have a busy life, this will be difficult. You will have to make changes to your routine.

– the best way to do this isn’t to sit there typing until you hit the word count. The most productive way is to dedicate a set amount of time to writing. It shouldn’t take over two hours to do a daily quota, but it’s best not to take it in one chunk. Twenty minutes is what most people recommend: set a timer, and then have a short break.

– with breaks, stretches, interruptions and so on two hours will easily turn into three. It’s not so easy to find space for extra three hours in every single day. Although every day you type anything gets you close to the finish line, it’s definitely okay to take a break for a day or two. You can still catch up.

– you don’t have to catch up! As a compulsive person this might be hard to swallow, but you can quit. The challenge is most useful to teach you about your own writing routines and the quirks of your productivity. You might discover that it’s helpful to write in this way, you might find that the worst writing-related experience you’ve ever had. Dropping out of NaNoWriMo is perfectly normal – more normal, in fact, than finishing. Less than 20% of those who sign up at the website report finishing the challenge. I assume it’s even less among the people who don’t register and don’t have pep talk emails, enabling community and snazzy word counters spurring them on. If you want to quit, you’re in a great company. And you still have all those pages you’ve already written.

– hydration is important. Writing posture is important. Good sleeping schedule is paramount. NaNoWriMo isn’t about quality of prose, it never have been. It’s about working under crushing pressure, and learning how to do that for a long time. Looking after yourself and staying in top condition is key.

– little productivity tricks, from knowing your keyboard shortcuts to having the right kind of snacks on hand, become game-changing. If you can touch type, your speed is phenomenally higher.

– if you’re doing this at the wrong time of day for you, you’ll struggle that much more. Of course, if you’re working nine to five you’re limited in what you can fit in around it, but if you try writing fist thing in the morning you might fly through your quota. I kept a writing journal, noting my word count and timings of writing sessions. I know I’m best before noon and after seven pm. I definitely can write in the afternoon if I need to, but it’s like walking uphill through snow, exhausting and unpleasant, and it definitely takes up a lot more time to hit the same word count. I have learnt to schedule other things for the afternoon.

– if you’re sleepy after dinner and that’s when your prime writing time is, it might be helpful to move your carbs and dairy to other meal times.

– it’s tempting to try to write in the living room with the TV on, so you can still be part of family time together. But you will keep losing focus, and you will write slower. Getting writing out of the way in a few focused sessions might leave you with more time to share with your loved ones.

– no editing. Editing is banned for the duration of NaNoWriMo. Even if you hate the sentence as soon as you type it, don’t delete it. If you already know a better one, write it next. This isn’t just about boosting the word count. It’s actually amazing how often we end up going to the first version of our text through subsequent edits. Our gut usually gives us more or less what we need the first time. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t necessarily mean this is the sentence that needs to change. It could be the one before or after it. Leave it all in for when your editor hat is on.

– no stopping, no thinking. We’re not crafting good prose. This is about getting our ideas down. All the ideas about this story, vague and detailed, conflicting and alternative, in the order in which they come to us as we work. That’s the first speedy draft that will eventually grow into a beautiful, polished and coherent whole. It doesn’t have to be now.

– no rereading. You’ll be rereading this word soup soon enough. Don’t do it now, there’s absolutely no merit in doing so. Will you forget what you’ve done already and write the same scene twice? Perhaps, but some of the iterations might be real winners. It might even create an interesting cyclic narrative. If you end up writing the same scene again, there will generally be a reason for it.

– a loose outline can really help. If you’re not the kind of person who can just pull the thoughts out of your head, if you feel sometimes there’s literally nothing left in your head and you can only sit and glare at the empty screen in despair, don’t try for prose. Just type a few words about what should happen next, or what the story should be leading toward from here. Once that scaffolding is in place, the actual sentences might come.

– don’t be tempted to push it and keep going for longer sessions. It’s a marathon, we don’t want to burn out.

– and most importantly, try to share this mad journey with understanding friends! Friends make everything better.

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