The Energy of Groups
Every November thousands upon thousands of writers commit themselves to “Thirty Days and Nights of Literary Abandon” or, as it is more commonly known, NaNoWriMo. The rules for National Novel Writing Month are simple. Although you can spend as much time as you like on outlines, character sketches, world-building, and basic research, you cannot begin the actual writing of the manuscript itself until November 1st. The goal is to finish the month with 50,000 words or a complete draft.
The support and energy surrounding this event often spur many writers to the highest word count per day of their lives. People share their daily and running totals on social media platforms and offer encouragement, congratulations, and commiserations to others. Even those who don’t hit either target walk away with more scenes than they would have accumulated in an ordinary month despite the Thanksgiving holiday.
Confessions of a NaNoWriMo Dropout
This experiment in fast drafting may not work for everyone. In fact, I myself am a NaNoWriMo dropout. I followed directions with respect to preparations and waited for November 1st. Once I began, I managed to produce about 11,000 words in two weeks, which actually would have been a fabulous amount compared to my usual plodding pace if I hadn’t felt like I was thrashing around in the thorny hedge of my story with no way for me or my characters to escape. While I am a person who has never abandoned a novel when I’ve been horribly stuck, I quit. It took me a couple of months to untangle everything that I’d written, and I realized that I would have come out ahead by proceeding with my normal approach.
Despite that, I still embrace the start of NaNoWriMo every year. I can feel the energy of all those people who have committed to spending some quality time with their stories and their keyboards. And somehow, I always manage to eke out a few more words than I would have otherwise in November. But there are many ways throughout the year to embrace accountability and the energy of groups in order to enhance productivity.
The Art and Science Of Café Writing
Natalie Goldberg goes into great depth on the techniques she developed for café writing in her book called Writing Down the Bones. While I would definitely recommend buying or borrowing it, here’s the short version. You go into a coffee shop and “rent” a table through buying some kind of snack or beverage. That place is now your office. The random conversations will blend together in the background along with the grinding of beans and the foaming of milk. Pick up your pencil and start writing. Keep the hand moving at all times. Don’t go back and edit. In fact, you should turn off your internal editor altogether. There are those who can use this method while typing on a computer instead of scribbling, but I’m one of those who sinks deeper into her story while using the scientifically documented hand/mind connection.
This technique works well whether you’re by yourself or with others. It might seem counterintuitive, but I’ve always been able to produce twice as many words on the days that I’d drive 90 minutes to meet one of my writer groups in Lansing for a write-in. With my friends sitting at the table with me, I have an easier time staying away from social media and various other time-wasters. Moreover, if I tell them that I’m hoping to finish a scene before hopping in my car for that 90-minute drive home, I usually will. Instead of getting stuck on various sentences, I’m more likely to insert a short phrase in capital letters: Something brilliant goes here. It serves as a signpost and a promise.
Even in the days before the pandemic, sometimes it could be easier to schedule an online get-together with other writers. Before the advent of Zoom, I was part of a small group with members in three out of the four U.S. time zones. We met at a certain start time on a Facebook chat and shared our goals before embarking on a “stampede” for the next half hour. Our check-ins were usually set for the quarter hour with a notation of X:15 or X:30. The regularity made it easier to remember. There was no judgment if another writer didn’t make the goal, only support and encouragement.
While dedicating a few hours a week to various kinds of group writing can help you propel your novel’s action forward, there’s nothing like a retreat. So many sites host them around the nation, but you don’t need to travel to the Adirondacks, Ozarks, or Big Sur.
When I was about to start my current WIP (work-in-progress), one of my friends was planning a small private retreat at her cabin overlooking Grand Traverse Bay on Michigan’s Leelanau Peninsula. I decided to take a NaNoWriMo approach and not write a word of the manuscript itself until I arrived. Instead, I worked on research, character sketches and world-building. We wrote all day, took turns making dinner in the evening, and read each other freshly created bedtime stories at night from our works-in-progress. I returned home with thousands of words and plenty of forward momentum. So did my friends.
Your colleagues and your competitors are out there working. It’s time to join them.
On your marks. Get set. Write!
Kristin Wolden Nitz has had sixteen different addresses in eight different states since graduating from college. When she tells friends and family that she’s not moving again, they laugh. Kristin splits her time between writing novels and serving as one of our instructors. Kirkus described her novel Suspect as “intriguing, suspenseful fun.”