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NaNoWriMo and other temporary power-ups
Why I like things like NaNoWriMo and Inktober
There’s a lot of this is how you do it floating around at the moment. Emphasis on the grind and the hustle. So remember the core thing: there’s no right or wrong way to write, and ignore anyone who is being overly prescriptive. As long as you’re writing, in whatever way works for you, it’s all good.put it nicely last month:
All that said, what if you’re not doing the writing? What if you’re struggling to get started, or to finish anything? What then?
I was in that position in the mid-2000s, forever starting projects and abandoning them almost immediately. Then, in 2009, I decided to give NaNoWriMo a go.
Going for it…briefly
Being consistently productive is really useful to a creative person, but is also extremely difficult for a myriad of reasons. In a lot of cases it’s simply not possible, due to unavoidable responsibilities, time constraints, financial obligations, health restrictions or a million other things.
That’s the beauty of short-term events like NaNoWriMo, which is taking place next month, or Inktober, which I’m doing right now. It’s an excuse to put other things to the side for a month and focus on your craft in an intensive manner, but armed with the knowledge that it’ll be over soon1. It’s a way to test a particular way of working, without it having to be a long-term commitment.
NaNoWriMo challenges you to write 50,000 words in the month of November. That means writing an average of 1,666 words per day. That target almost guarantees that they won’t be good words, but then that isn’t the point. NaNoWriMo isn’t about quality, but quantity. Which is weird way of flipping the normal priorities. It’s permission, for one month only, to really hammer out those words and just see what happens. Forget about perfection. It doesn’t have to be good, it just has to exist.
The secret to NaNoWriMo is recognising that it’s all entirely optional. It’s a community-supported motivation exercise in which nobody is going to tell you off for missing the target. It could turn out that you really hate writing under that kind of pressure. Or it might unlock new levels of productivity. Or you’ll land somewhere in the middle. Regardless, it’ll be interesting to find out, and you’ll have more words at the end than you did at the start.
In other words, it’s just the right amount of pressure.
It is the year 2009…
That first time I tried NaNoWriMo in 2009 was a lot of fun. I knocked out a very basic adventure novella about giant rock monsters living in Northumberland. It was silly, and the writing was not good, but it was a hugely satisfying experience. Crucially, I completed the manuscript. Rough as it was, it was the first time I’d written a complete, long-form story within a useful period of time.
The previous book I’d written, Evinden2, had taken me a decade to write and turned out to be a bit rubbish. If I’d kept going at that pace, I’d never have got anywhere with my writing. 10 years-per-bad-book? Aside from anything else, I wouldn’t improve fast enough to create anything decent before I was well into my 60s or beyond.
Of Rock and Earth3 wasn’t very good either, but NaNoWriMo had helped me write it in a month. That was the first inkling I had that I might be able to write faster, or at least more consistently. I created it quickly, which meant I was able to learn from the experience quickly.
That said, it took another five years for me to figure out the details. It was 2015 when I started writing weekly serial fiction on Wattpad, and I haven’t looked back since. The way I write now, via this newsletter, is nothing like NaNoWriMo (which is why I don’t even attempt NaNo these days), but without that initial 2009 endeavour I don’t think I’d be where I am now. It was a vital stepping stone.
If you’re feeling frustrated like I was in the mid-2000s, it might be worth giving it a try. But do it on your own terms, and don’t feel you need to stick to the rules: it’s only worth doing if it helps.
Trying Inktober & Mermay
Remembering how useful NaNoWriMo was for kickstarting my writing habit, this year I’ve been trying the same thing with my drawing. I’ve long been a frustrated comic creator: I’ve written a few scripts, but have always lacked the skill to illustrate.
Thing is, that’s always going to be the case if I don’t draw regularly, which is why this year I’ve embarked on a couple of drawing challenges. They remind me of NaNoWriMo, in that they run for a month and bring me back to the page every day, and are nicely contained.
Back in May I took part in Mermay, having heard about it from. An entire month of drawing mermaids, having never drawn any mermaids. It was very difficult, especially in the second half when I was really starting to struggle with new ideas, but I ended up completing the month with a new sense of confidence in my drawings. It felt like I’d genuinely improved, as I’d been forced to try out new techniques along the way.
Here’s a selection from the month, all of which were drawn in Clip Studio Paint:
Right now I’m nearing the end of Inktober, a much broader art challenge which focuses on ink drawings and has daily prompts but no overall theme. Again, it’s forced me to try new things - in this case, drawing entirely by hand, on paper, without any digital tools.
Here’s some highlights so far, drawn using a Pigma Micron 12 (I have no idea if this is a good pen - but it feels good!):
Both of the art challenges have been great fun. I also feel like they’ve moved me on a few steps - I’m still in the very beginner stages, but it feels like I’ve moved a little closer to that dream of illustrating my own comic. Or, rather, it no longer feels like an impossibility. And that wouldn’t have happened without doing some drawings.
It’s useful to be pushed outside of our creative comfort zones. It’s also useful for those challenges to be time-limited and manageable. NaNoWriMo, Inktober and Mermay have all been fantastically useful and inspirational for me, and hopefully you’ll find something similar for what you do. But do it in a way that is kind to yourself.
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Thanks for reading.
This week I read a piece bywhich made me pause and reflect. Do check it out, and be sure to dive into the comments as well:
Reflecting on ‘success’, and what that means, is always useful. I’ve noticed a steady uptick in paid subscribers to this newsletter over the last couple of months. Huge thanks to all of you - and to everyone who reads for free, as well. As someone who always dreamt of being a writer when I was a kid, the idea that I’m able to write and be read by people all over the world never stops being exciting.
That said, it’s also very tempting to focus in on those subscriber numbers, and the paid conversions. Subtly, slyly, those metrics get under your skin and become the reason you write. That’s what I’ve been battling for the last year: that push and pull between numeric success and artistic authenticity.
The Substack for Beginners video series, for example. Part of me thinks I should make those videos paid-only, at least the later videos I have planned which are more strategic. Another part of me rebels against that very notion. Preventing people from being able to access learning - especially writers, very few of whom are going to be making money from their work - seems needlessly restrictive.
Then again, the reason so few of us writers make any money from our work is because we do so much for free. It’s a classic catch-22.
What I would observe, though, and something I find endlessly encouraging, is that I’ve always had the most significant paid subscriber growth when I’ve made my writing available for free. I don’t think I need to use paywalls in order to create a sense of worth. Sometimes people can see the inherent value of a thing, without it needing a price tag.
This is as important for those around you as it is you. Knowing that it’s only for a month makes it much easier for other people in your family or house to cut you a bit of slack so you can focus, and without it feeling like you’re taking the piss.
I rewrote this one into The Mechanical Crown, which I serialised back in 2016 over on Wattpad. As a completely rewritten story, it turned out pretty good. I’ve been trying to figure out how to serialise it here for a while - maybe I’ll make a revised version what I do after Triverse wraps up?
The setup for this book was a bunch of rock monsters from thousands of years ago suddenly awakening. One of them makes friends with a young teenage boy, and the first half of the book is a kind of classic adventure. The second half morphs into something much bigger, with the arrival of more rock creatures including BADDIE rock creatures. Turns out they’ve been having a war for millennia. They all had names based on rock types. It was fun. It was also a kind of loose re-skin of The Transformers with rocks instead of robots. Imagine Spike making friends with Bumblebee, except Bumblebee is a rock. It was weird, but fun. I was young.