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Thursday, 1 September 2016

National Novel Writing Month - Being Prepared.

As you may already be aware, each year there is a challenge to write 50,000 words of a novel, in the month of November. It's called National Novel Writing Month or NaNoWriMo. 
Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month
I've managed to complete the challenge and make my target a few times, so I shall give it another go this year. However, this year, I'm hoping to exceed my target (I'd like to hit 80,000).

In order to have the very best chance of succeeding, it's important to be thoroughly prepared, and I have decided to share my experience, and plans for this year, on my blog.

This post was written in advance and scheduled to be posted on 1st September 2016
So, first piece of advice for anyone wanting to have a go at NaNoWriMo is to register on the NaNoWriMo website and have a good read through. That link should open in a new window, but the blog post will still be here when you've had a browse. There's a wealth of information on the site, from motivational talks from experts, to a forum where you can find advice on pretty much any subject, and you can find your region. It will have it's own forum, for local Wrimos to communicate with each other, a Municipal Liaison (someone who knows what's going on, can answer questions and gives out stickers... I know!), and to arrange write-ins, where local wrimos get together and write or socialise.

Anyway, to business... How to have a successful NaNoWriMo:

Whilst I would love to ignore the rest of the universe every November and just write all day everyday, I still have things to do. For a start, I have a job, and I don't need to ask my boss if I can have the whole of November off, still keep my annual leave and be paid, to know that he'd probably die laughing. I still have a family, I still have to do housework, run errands and keep up with my regular monthly events (book club, cake club, you get the idea).

It's entirely possibly to burn out during November (I've done that), but with a little bit of preparation and a few time-saving habits, it's possible to knock out 50,000 words of a novel (or more - I've done that too) and still have a life.

Non-Writing NaNo Prep
I'm not promising that all of this is going to be fun, but if you can prepare some things now, it'll free up more writing time in November.

Plan and Organise. I'm not talking about the plot of your novel (I'll discuss that next time). I plan to spend most of my free time writing during November, and I would like to free up some extra free time. It's possible, even if you're busy, but you need to put a little bit of planning time in, in advance. Here's how I do it:

Diary. Whether it's the calendar in your phone, an online calendar that syncs between devices or my trusty filofax, make a list of everything that is going on in your life. Not just for November, we're about to reschedule things, so make sure everything is in there. Any appointments in November that can be rescheduled (6 month check up at the dentist?) rearrange. Bring it forward if you can, December is usually busy enough.

If you can't reschedule it (Auntie Beryl's 60th birthday bash?), plan around it. Work out your daily word count taking non-writing days into account from the start, buy the card and present in advance and put them somewhere visible so you can find them on the day, but not somewhere they'll get damaged.

Purchase or create a daily planner, even if only for November. I found one on the internet ages ago and saved a copy, but can't now find the website I downloaded it from (apologies, if it was yours, message me and I'll add a link) but I have recreated it to more closely suit my needs. Mine has spaces for to do lists for both work and home, it also has a fairly sizable space dedicated to appointments, mainly because my job currently involves numerous conference calls. I have space for my step count, my word count, making a note of how much water I've had to drink, what I've eaten, and it's small, I print 4 copies of on one side of A4, but only because I've never found one I can buy which suits me. Spend a little bit of time working out what you need on yours, have a look at the copious published planners available for sale, and if nothing suits, make your own! The important thing is to actually use it. Print enough for the whole month, and (at the end of October) spend half an hour or so writing any important things in for the month. You can add, edit or remove things as the month goes on, but birthdays, anniversaries, important events you can't miss, even bill payment dates should go on at the start of the month. 

Starting in September
Develop good habits. I know, it's easier said than done, but if you google "How long does it take to form a habit?" I found two answers, 21 days, or 66... however, television and gossip to the rescue, according to a television report about diet and exercise, it has been claimed that changing your routine takes on average 6 weeks for both your body and your mind to realise you've made a change and adapt to it. So, if you want to get into good habits for NaNo, you really need to start in September. Having tried it earlier in the year, I can confirm that this seems to work, alas, it takes about 1 week to undo all your hard work.

Exercise. I know that I will want to spend as much time writing as possible, but having burned out previously, I know that skipping exercise isn't helpful. NHS guidelines suggest 30 minutes, three times per week, but the internet suggests that people who exercise for 30 minutes first thing every morning are more productive for the entire day. So, my plan is to walk/run for 30 minutes every morning. Now, I'm lucky enough to have a treadmill and so whilst it's all very well for me to say "wear a coat" or "take a brolly", I know how offputting it can be to get up in the dark and rainy November morning and face the prospect of leaving the house. Instead, may I recommend the multitude of online resources promising exercise routines you can do at home with no equipment? I'd swerve the ones that have you running up and down the stairs over, and over again though, apart from risking injury if you slip, you'll wake everyone else up. Personally, I enjoy the pilates ones, but if you can get a walk in (maybe at lunchtime when you get the added benefit of actual daylight) give it a go, even if you need welly boots and a pac-a-mac (or a duffle coat).

Get things ready the night before. I know this one sounds obvious, but I know myself how often I hit bedtime and just think, nah. However, the stubbed toes from trying to fish out clean running clothes in the pitch dark so I don't wake Beloved should have taught me better by now! Seriously though, if you can rock up some sandwiches for lunch, lay out your workout and then work clothes and put a clean towel near the shower, the half hour you would waste faffing in the dark can be better utilised getting a head start on your daily word count target. If I can make it a habit, I will try to keep it up after November, but we'll see.

Start to reduce internet usage. It's a first draft, no-one will ever read it, much less find out that you didn't know that women weren't police officers until 1918, there were still women working with the police prior to that, make her a member of the NUWW in the second draft, you don't need to look it up. Social media and games especially, are black holes that free time vanishes into, and also very addictive. Make a point of reducing your sitting around reading webcomics time now, and be used to the new reduced rations by the time you really need to crank out another thousand words before bed.

Christmas. Don't pull that face at me, yes I saw you roll your eyes... Seriously, if you have friends/relatives overseas, the last posting date for some countries (to send a parcel surface mail) is in September anyway. This also has more benefits than just not making you think about what to buy Granny for Christmas when you should be filling in plot holes and figuring out whodunit because who you thought it was went and died in a freak horse riding accident (yes, that happened to my plot one year). Many people (and I used to be one of them) leave their Christmas shopping until after work on Christmas Eve, give out cards on Boxing day (or later) when they just go straight in the recycling bin, and spend their entire December paypacket (which they received early because of the bank holidays) buying gifts for their dog-sitter, and then have the five week lentil-fest that is January, because we've run out of funds by New Years Day. Seriously, write the cards out (you don't have to post them yet) and start at least working out what to buy folk. If you can, start actually buying them. A lot of places have some decent special offers on early doors. Just get it done and then have that smug glow... in the weeks before Christmas when people ask if you've started, on Christmas Eve when you're kicking back in the pub watching panicking shoppers rush round like mad-heads, and in January, when you can still afford to buy food...

October
It's getting closer, keep up the good work you've started in September, and build on it.

Spring Clean - not just for Spring! No, really, a good deep clean in October will make housework in November a breeze. Unless you have a cleaner, which can be pricey, you're not going to get away with a whole month of no housework, but a deep clean before hand can make the required cleaning a lot easier. While you're cleaning, take the time to have a sort out as well. Everything you keep should have a 'home' and if you can label drawers and cupboards to list the contents, you will not only save time looking for things in November, but by putting everything away, you will create a zen-like workspace in which to create your literary masterpiece!

Install updates... you know those little pop-ups you ignore on your laptop/pc/tablet etc... yes, those. Allocate some time in October to letting your laptop do it's thing to ensure it doesn't crash, stall or decide it's waited long enough and it's installing them anyway... at ten to midnight on 30th November as you're desperately trying to validate your wordcount! It can take a bit of time, and it will most likely require a restart, but seriously, better now than in November. While you're doing IT stuff...

Disable push notifications. Mainly on your phone, these things notify you when someone likes your Facebook comment on a friend's photo from 2010... But it's not just social media, games (Angry Birds and Candy Crush are my vices) have these reminders too, turn them off, you do not need disturbances like that in November. Take some time out to disable them now, and not only will you be distraction free, but it will preserve your battery life too. While you're at it, tell your phone/tablet to only check for new emails when you actually open and refresh your email application, you'll be amazed how often you check your phone because it's pinged and discover you've been offered free goes on a virtual roulette wheel. Check things once or twice a day and delete the spam en masse.

One more IT related thing... well, for now at least. Make a note of your usernames and passwords for websites you don't use often, but may want to use in November. Looking a user ID/password up takes less time than resetting it, and if you keep the paper copy in your underwear drawer, it's far less likely to be stolen than if you store it electronically on your phone.

Watch Television. Most time saving hints and tips tell you not to watch telly. 'Turn off the TV' is a common refrain, but that's stupid, because we all know you are going to watch it anyway. The big TV channels have no consideration for your NaNo ambitions, and instead of scheduling a few hours each day where, after a discussion by a panel of experts about how to find inspiration and fix plot holes, there is a timer on the screen with BICHOK emblazoned across it (that's Bum in Chair, Hands on Keyboard if you're not sure). Instead they schedule popular 'must-see' shows that not only can you not not-watch them, but you have to watch them on the night so you don't get spoilers merely by existing on a Monday morning! So, use October wisely, clear down that TiVo/Sky Plus/Freeview recorder, save those Mbs of space for taping things in November. Binge watch now... and more helpful telly hints later!

Return your library books, catch up with friends, visit family, tell them you're taking part in NaNoWriMo, then they'll ask how you got on, so you have to do it. They'll also understand if they don't see you for a few weeks. Prepare any bills that will need paying that aren't direct debits, even if you have to wait until payday for the funds, get the payment slip ready and add it to your daily planner.

Batch Cook Food. I sometimes batch cook and then freeze meals, they reduce cooking time, and make sure that you have a supply of easy to re-heat, heathy-ish and filling meals when you may not feel like cooking. Making them yourself in October is cheaper, and the food you make will probably be healthier, than processed ready meals. Some of my favourites include winter vegetable soup, chilli-con-carne, sausage casserole, Mexican chicken stew, various types of pasta bake, fish pie, and chicken curry. For a sweet treat, you can freeze cake too. My absolute favourite is lemon drizzle cake, I bake it in a small loaf tin, and then freeze it in portions, so I can take a portion or two out in the evening ready for the following day. When I portion them up, I keep enough for our family of three, but it would be easy enough to make individual portions, and you could make enough for your lunches too.

Shop online. If you keep reading this, I'm going to tell you not to do this... but that's for November. You're going to need some fresh groceries, even if you've batch cooked and frozen everything. Some things don't freeze well, even if it's mainly bread and milk. You can pre-order and arrange for home delivery from a variety of the most popular supermarkets across most of the UK now, they don't usually take the money out of your bank account until the day of delivery, so even if you are paid weekly, you should still be able to order shopping for up to a month in advance, and make a note of the delivery slots in your daily planner... see how I linked that back?

November
Or, how to create free time, you never knew you had!

Seriously, I can't promise you miracles, and I definitely can't promise that it will be fun or easy, but there's a few things you can do to create extra time.

Commuting. I drive to work, and have no real alternative but to do so, unless I'm working from home. So I use my commute to listen to music or audio books, or the radio, or podcasts, or teach-yourself language courses. Not massively useful for NaNo, but keeps your mind off plot holes, and stops you thinking up strange research ideas. If you take a train or a bus - write. Write on paper if you don't want to pull a laptop out on the bus. It's easy enough to sort out your word count to take it into account for validation.

Get up a little bit earlier. If you get up early to walk/jog/exercise anyway, it only needs to be 15 minutes to half an hour, and spend some time writing before your day starts.

Don't wait. Waiting for the oven to pre-heat? Even if it's not enough time to get any writing done, do another quick chore that can't be avoided, maybe put a load of washing on, or run the hoover over? While your re-heated dinner is actually cooking take twenty minutes and have a word sprint while the oven timer is on. Unavoidable doctors appointment, take something to write on and write while you're waiting to be seen. Even if you are just planning out plot ideas, or creating notes to fill in details you have to type up later.

Don't put off until tomorrow, what you can do in under ten minutes. When you are filling in your daily planner, or filling out your to do list, if a job will take minutes to complete, just do it then. This also works for unpleasant tasks. If there's something you're really not looking forwards to, do it first! Get it over and done with.

Use a timer. Obviously, this is fantastic for word sprints, but you can use a timer to limit procrastination time, they're built into most phones now, so set it going before you go down the rabbit hole that is social media. Challenge yourself to see how fast you can get the ironing done, can you beat last week's score? You can download free apps which have timers for working out, when you shower (challenge, can you shower and get everything clean and groomed within 3 minutes? No, I can't either, but I set the timer for 6 minutes and see how long is left when I get out), you can use it for cleaning too - give yourself five minutes and clean as many bathroom surfaces as you can, ten minutes to sort and fold clean laundry or try and do the whole house in less than an hour? Which leads me to...

Clean as you go. Once you've had your shower and cleaned your teeth in the morning, before you go and get dressed, wipe the shower, sink and toilet down. It'll stop it getting dirty as quickly. You'll still have to give it a more thorough going over, but probably only once a week if you can keep on top of it every day.

Attend write-ins. I know going out seems to take time out from writing, but a good write in will encourage you, compete to see who can get more writing done in your group, it's a dedicated time to writing, in an environment an ML has already scoped out for suitability, it'll probably have food and drink available, almost certainly have toilet facilities, and hopefully a plug (although many other people may want to use it at the same time). You'll be encouraged and cajoled into writing more than you planned/expected/thought that you could and have like-minded wrimos around you to bounce ideas off without sounding like a loon... "Where's the best place to stab someone to get a good, non-fatal, blood spurt, that would allow someone to leave him for dead?" Let's be honest, anywhere else, someone would be calling CrimeStoppers, in a roomful of writers, someones internet search history probably already has that question in it!

Book writing time into your diary. If, like me, you work full time and have a finite number of days leave available that you would like to spend with your family, the weekends will be your friends, so long as you can avoid being invited to parties. The first weekend is usually a good time to get ahead, even this year (2016) when it's 5th & 6th, it's still early enough that you can catch up if you've fallen behind without being utterly demoralised, you've still got week one enthusiasm going for you, and you probably don't hate your plot/protagonist yet. I have managed 10,000 words in one day in the first weekend in previous years, and I'm hoping for 10k a day in weekend one this year.

Keep a notebook and pencil with you at all times. Why a pencil, 2 reasons, less likely to run out or stop working than a pen, and can be rubbed out. My notebook is separated into two very distinct sections. From the front (the traditional, western way, of filling a notebook), make notes. If you suddenly figure out the most awesome plot twist in literary history while you're walking the dog, write it down. 

From the back, forwards, I make a note of all characters and locations I've used, so I don't have to go back and re-read the utter dross that is my first draft to find the information. Did I say he was blonde? How many rooms does the flat have? Did I say the church was nearer the woods than the vicarage? How old was she again? You get the idea. I try and keep that section more organised than the front, and if I know some of the information in the planning stages before November, I make a lovely, neatly scribed, well spaced chart... and then ruin it as the month goes on, but still, I have it if I need it.

Watching Television. I did promise there'd be more on this. I'd love to not watch as much telly in November, but honestly, if you don't watch Strictly on the night, you'll know the result before you get logged on at work on Monday morning. No matter how hard you try to avoid it. However, you don't have to start watching it at the right time. If you start maybe 20 minutes in, you can still fast forward advert breaks, or the obviously scripted VT footage, or the whittering on in between. You can reduce a 90 minute tv show down to around half an hour with practice. You still see the good bits, it's not spoiled by some well meaning friend, and you get over an hour extra to write!

Don't shop online. I warned you about this as well. If you browse for things online you get links to things other people bought, and sucked ever deeper into a world of cheap goods you don't really need, but ooh, pretty. Make a list, go in between appointments so you have limited time and can't browse, and buy only what is on your list. Also, drink water before food shopping, apparently it fools you into thinking you're full, and reduces the chances of impulse buys based on simply being hungry.

Get enough sleep. If you don't sleep well, you'll be tired and lack motivation the next day. This can build up quickly and lead to burn out. It also stops you eating properly, leads to lower productivity, and grumpyness... not just for you, if you disturb Beloved going to bed late, he'll be grumpy too.

Drink more water, yes, you probably will need to go to he loo more, but this is good. remaining seated and still all day is bad for you. Drinking lots of water is therefore good in so many ways; it hydrates you, if you drink two glasses of water shortly before each meal, it helps you to feel full quicker and stop eating sooner, and it makes you walk to the loo more often.

Eat fruit. As well as being part of your five a day, fruit is packed full of natural sugars to give you an energy boost. It has a handy habit of coming in it's own handy packaging (hello bananas), it tastes nice, usually requires no preparation (sorry Pomegranates, not after October) and is quick to eat. 

That's all I've got for you. There are plenty more hints, tips and suggestions, many of which you will read or be told. I'm going to do my best, and fingers crossed, by first of December, I'll have something I can edit. In the meantime, enjoy the experience!

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