I made a commitment with almost two hundred thousand other writers all over the globe to do something crazy in November – write a novel (or at least fifty thousand words of one) in just thirty days. A novel in a month sounded pretty insane, but in an amazing, I-dare-you sort of way. I couldn’t pass up the challenge. So I joined a crowd of strangers and small group of friends and plunged ahead into a ice-cold lake of uncertainty, as we let the water shock our systems into producing something in a high-intensity, high-pressure endeavor.
I worked on outlines and character analyses for over a month beforehand, preparing as well as I could. I warned my family and friends that my other activities would be scanty for the month and not to worry if they didn’t hear from me for a while. I prepared myself for high levels of stress and writing roadblocks along the way. And then at Midnight on November 1st, I held my nose and jumped overboard.
But nothing could have prepared me for one thing: how much fun I was going to have! The honeymoon period, that first week, was like a high for me. To spread 50,000 words out over a month, the daily goal is 1667 words and by the end of day one I was well on my way with 3705. At the end of the week, I had a whopping 16,090 words, passing the goal of 11,667 by a huge margin. And I felt amazing – unstoppable.
Writing Under Pressure
Initially I was worried about what having to write under pressure might do to my mental state. I typically spend about three hours each evening (after my kids go to bed) writing on the computer. In the past, my daily goal has been around 1000 words and sometimes it’s like pulling teeth just to get 500. So I was a little nervous about the quota. Where in my day am I going to get the extra hours required to reach 1667…let alone get ahead? I wondered. Time is the most dear currency, of which I have very little. And I was determined that my family wouldn’t suffer because of my project.
But once I entered the much-dreaded, much-anticipated November, something amazing happened. I found that with the monster called “Pressure” breathing down my neck, I ended up meeting my daily quota in just a few hours. I did a word sprint (more on that in a bit) and wrote 952 words in just thirty minutes!
I learned a valuable lesson from that. For me – maybe for you as well – when there’s a lack of pressure, there’s often a lack of motivation too. On a normal day, what does it really matter if I don’t get a thousand words in – or if I don’t write at all, for that matter. There’s always tomorrow, right? It’s that kind of thinking that kills half-finished stories, murdering them viciously in their sleep.
Sure, you can try to create pressure on your own, but it’s really a matter of tricking yourself – and I’m not very good at that. Real pressure comes when you feel the force of other people – like two hundred thousand of them.
How About Some Good-Natured Competition?
There might be several reasons for record-breaking progress at the beginning of such an overwhelming venture but the one I credit the most is: competition. My friend Aaron Pogue (author of Unstressed Syllables site and Gods Tomorrow novel) created a spreadsheet for our small group of writers as a Google Doc where we could all update our word counts daily. Initially a handy reference tool, it soon turned into a means for racing with each other. I found myself opening the document just to check where other writers were in word count, and then getting motivated to push ahead so I could be in the lead for the day. (Can you tell I’m a highly competitive person? ;))
The other venues I found for boosting my word count quickly were through Twitter: word sprints (@NaNoWordSprints) and word wars (#wordwar). A word sprint is when, at a set time (like at the half-hour), anyone who’s willing and available writes as fast as they can for a set amount of time (say, twenty minutes). When the clock stops, you compare word counts to see how well you did. Sprinting is a good way to compete with yourself – in other words, you can try to beat your best word count. Word wars are when two or more individuals agree to sprint together to see who can get the most words in a set period of time. I won some and lost some, but either way, I came out ahead when I realized how much I’d been able to write in such a short period of time.
Competition isn’t a drive for everyone – for some it’s a deterrent. But if you’re one that can handle the pressure and you’re stuck in a writing funk, try rounding up a friend or two for some good-natured rivalry – it just might help you both.