4th November 2014

NaNoWriMo, Pots by the Pound and Just Getting It Done


I’m drinking coffee this morning – not something I normally do. I don’t really like the taste, I get unpleasant heart flutters after a couple of cups and after three, I actually start to feel a bit sick. Tea is far more my thing, but I’m feeling really, really tired this morning.

It’s all self-inflicted. I got up at stupid o’clock yesterday and then followed it up by burning the midnight oil – really burning the candle at both ends, and all for something I don’t actually have to do.

I’m writing a novel in 30 days – a stupid idea if I ever heard one. Well, at 50,000 words it’s more of a novella really, but a mammoth undertaking anyway, once you pile it on top of the day job.

NaNoWriMo, for those of you who don’t know, has been happening every November since 2006. It is a month long dash to write 50,000 words. The efforts of aspiring novelists are supported by writing coaches, who are just at the other end of an email; local groups, who put on face to face events and maintain forums; and by a great website, full of resources and inspiration. The whole kit and kaboodle is largely supported by donations. To read reasons why you should donate and to give, go here.

On the face of it, NaNoWriMo has a focus on quantity, rather than quality, and seems an odd way to go about trying to produce a piece of creative work, but I believe that it has two massive strengths. It actually has a great number of strengths, social support, a feeling of community, a hard deadline and so on, but the two stand-out benefits for me are:-

  • The Power of Habit
  • Relentless Practice

Of these two, the latter is of supreme importance. How do people get to be good at something? The novel I am writing at the moment is in all honestly, not very good. The plot is a bit shaky, I haven’t planned adequately and the dialogue is definitely not zinging. My long hours yesterday were due to a stomach lurching writer’s block, brought on by allowing my inner editor to get a look at what I had already written. With the NaNoWriMo schedule though, I had to shake it off and just keep writing. It was excruciating. It’s very hard to carry on writing when your inner editor is shouting “This is bollocks” in your ear every two or three minutes. But carry on I had too. The alternative was to pack it in and admit defeat on day three – DAY THREE!!! of my challenge.

Pots by the pound

It reminds me of a story I once heard about a ceramics tutor. At the beginning of the course he split his class into two groups. Those on the right hand side of the room would be assessed on the quality of the work they produced. Their workload was light. They only had to produce one pot all term, but it must be perfect, sublime, to earn them a top grade. Those on the left would be assessed on the quantity of work produced. Grade boundaries were simple. 50 pounds of pots would get an A grade, 40 a B and so on.

At the end of the term, the tutor brought in his scales, and his discerning eye for quality, but a singular thing emerged. The group who had been producing simply with quantity in mind had also produced more beautiful, higher quality work, while those who had agonised and theorised about principles of perfection and beauty all term, had produced much inferior work.

I’m not sure if this story is true. It is hard to imagine that a tutor would carry out such an experiment, detrimental as it was to half the cohort, but the point of the tale holds. Those who had been focusing on turning out a high volume of pots had been working relentlessly, making errors and learning from them, refining their techniques and improving their output. Those who had only produced one pot had simply not had enough practice to get good at it.

So, I’m sticking at NaNoWriMo and (trying to) focus on just getting it done. I’ve never written a novel before; huge piles of short stories, yes, but never a novel. The challenge of maintaining plot, and creating characters rounded enough to sustain interest for more than a couple of thousand words had always seemed too daunting.

I hope (and expect) that by November 30th, I will be somewhat better at those two things, just as long as I keep on grinding out the words.

Habit and streaks

The second powerful feature of NaNoWri is habit. I am not a full-time writer of fiction. I have limited time in which to do this challenge. I have kids and a day job. There is NO WAY that I will complete the 50,000 words before the deadline unless I write Every Single Day in November.

This has forced me to make a habit of writing. I cannot wait until ‘inspiration’ comes or until I feel like it. If the Muse doesn’t show up today, or even for the whole month, I will have to carry on writing without her assistance.

This is the trick for getting anything done, especially if it is difficult or if you don’t like it. You just have to show up and do it. There are stats on the site which show me my daily output, and also, importantly, shows me that I have shown up everyday and done ‘something’. As long as you do that, you will always be moving closer to your goal.

Jerry Seinfeld recognised this and created his Habit Streak system, to make sure he wrote everyday. The simple act of putting a red cross on a calendar and seeing the unbroken sequence of crosses grow day by day, is a mighty motivator.

The bit that links back to my business

Thank you for reading up to here. Here is the bit where I talk about the project I am doing which relates to the above. I am shortly going to be launching a Kickstarter because I have designed a product to help people get things done, to achieve goals and to make or break habits. It’s a funky little tracking app which is also an engaging artificial life game. It features both of the above in its arsenal of tools to help you to get to where you want to be – and a host of other stuff.

I’m not a born plugger (no kidding, I hear you say), so I find this kind of stuff quite intimidating, but if you’d like to know more, then here is a link to my home page where you can sign up to opt in to my newsletter.

I’d love to tell you more about it, because, well, obviously, I’m launching a Kickstarter. I’d also really like to hear from you if you’re in the personal achievement business yourself. Version 2.0 of the app will have a co-authoring (and profit sharing) feature to allow experts to create ‘modules’ for use with the game. You know the sort of thing – “Run a marathon in six month’s time”, “Write a novel in 30 days” etc..

WriMos you may have heard of

Just in case you are not yet convinced that the ‘grind out the words’ approach can produce great books, here are a few of the more well known published works which started out as WriMos. There are dozens more.

Cal Amistead – Being Henry David

Erin Morgenstern – The Night Circus

James R Strickland – Looking Glass

and 3 books by Anne Lyle published by Angry Robot – absolutely the best sci-fi and dark fantasy imprint out there at the moment

Image by Drew Coffman from Flickr under Creative Commons – with thanks


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