A tutorial to conquering your word count 

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Writing a novel is hard. Surely anyone who has ever had an idea and tried to express it by putting pen to paper has felt the reality of this. As one of the many who have struggled time and again writing different drafts of the same stories only to pitch them, and banging my head against the wall in a time-honoured ritual sacrifice of brain cells to bid writer’s block away, I know this plotline all too well. But while the act of writing is challenging enough on its own, writing with passion is even more difficult – especially on a deadline.

Yet that is exactly what 634 Calgarians (and thousands more internationally) set out to do this year during National Novel Writing Month, commonly referred to by its patrons as “NaNoWriMo.” The annual international writing event began on the first of November – as it has done now for 16 years – attracting veteran WriMo writers and newcomers from all around Calgary and surrounding area.

An estimated 180 “Wrimotaurs” – what they call themselves in their periodic email newsletters – conquered the goal of writing 50,000 words in 30 days or under this year, of which 68 were newcomers to the challenge.

Equipped only with an idea, a computer, and sheer force of will, every Wrimotaur’s goal is simply this: to write as much as they possibly can in one month. Whether at home, at school, maybe even for a fleeting moment at work – these participants dedicate themselves to hours of quality time with their computers, typing away whenever and wherever they can, in solidarity and in solitude. It sounds simple enough – sit down and write, right? Yes, at first. But in practice, it is a chaotic pursuit, to be sure.

There’s the plot to consider, the characters, the setting, the details, the subplots, and of course, the eventual sobbing on your part once you come to realize all of these elements you have set in motion, poised to leave you dazed and dizzy to the point of delirium for the impending weeks. Sometimes just the thought of writing is enough to turn me away, let alone the actual act in and of itself! So it’s very understandable why some find the idea of writing 50,000 words in just 30 days a little loopy.

But, for those of us who still deeply desire to finish a novel (and in under a month, no less) after consideration of the above, how exactly are we supposed to see past our own insane inadequacy long enough to complete the task before us?

The Inciting Incident

As newbie NaNo author Ingrid Koehler-Schmidt says, the first thing you have to do is simply sign up. Like most of us, Koehler-Schmidt approached NaNo with a dream in one hand and a pen in the other. An active participant in a lifelong love affair with stories, Koehler-Schmidt knew she had to sign up when she heard about the event on Halloween this year – just hours before kickoff.

NaMo32015 marked the first NaNoWriMo attempt from Cochrane resident Ingrid Koehler-Schmidt. Koehler-Schmidt found out about NaNo the night before it was set to begin, but immediately knew she had to participate.
Photo by Michaela Ritchie

“I realized that almost a full year had flown by since my retirement and that I still hadn’t written one word. Crazy as the thought was, I decided then and there that I needed to sign up and actually do something about this amorphous book, rather than just talk about someday writing it. I figured that if I signed up and committed to this challenge I would have a concrete deadline. Then, I announced to my Facebook friends that I was participating in NaNoWriMo. The responses I got back from some of them were inspiring, and I rolled up my sleeves and dove in.”

Like most of my own novel drafts, this narrative has played out in hundreds of other ways for thousands of different writers across the globe. Though some approach the contest with years of writing experience, others bring nothing more than a pipe dream, a goal, a sudden desire to succeed – but we all start right here.

“But 50,000 words sounds like a lot of words when you’re looking at it for the first time. Actually, it’s a lot of words no matter how many times you look at it,” says seasoned NaNo pro Danni Menard. She has completed six years with the contest, and over the course of them has amassed close to one and half million words. However, after all her years, she admits every approaching November still gives her shivers of nervous anticipation. That’s why signing up, validating her project with the site, and getting involved in the NaNo community is so important, she says.

“There’s nothing quite like sitting in a room full of people who all have the same goal, and you’re all typing furiously to try and hit that goal. It’s incredibly motivating,” Menard says. “The community is incredibly supportive, whether it’s November or not, and I think that’s what brings all of us back year after year. Making use of the community support really helps drive your word count higher than you could have ever thought. Even when you think you’re done and you’re not going to get your words, they remind you that it’s still possible. You can hear it from anyone, of course, but there’s just nothing quite like hearing it from someone who knows what you’re going through.”

This is especially true in Calgary, says the area’s Municipal Liaison Candice Robinson-Horejsi, who together with her co-ML Josiah Rose Ditoro organize and host a variety of live and online meet-ups and writing events for the city’s creative community throughout the year as well as during NaNo.

“Everyone is very supportive of each other’s writing efforts and they never let a writer who’s really trying down. While it’s absolutely possible to complete NaNo successfully without coming to any events, it’s nowhere near as fun. I’ve been told time and time again that people who come to our events feel welcome and included,” says Robinson-Horejsi.

“I realized that almost a full year had flown by since my retirement and I still hadn’t written one word. Crazy as the thought was, I decided then and there that I needed to sign up and actually do something about this amorphous book.” – Ingrid Koehler-Schmidt

It’s a clear first step in the process of taking your novelling effort seriously – surround yourself with likeminded folks that can help you build up not only your craft, but your belief in yourself as well.

Rising Action

However, breaking into the community is only the first step. Now that you’ve discovered and began to cultivate a suitable area wherein to grow your crop, as it were, the real work begins.

The NaNo community is not just useful as a source of support, of course, but also as a tool to expand your imagination. As Picasso said, “inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.” So, it’s time to start planning your novel.

The process is different for every writer where planning is concerned. Some require a detailed outline of every paragraph, scene, and chapter before they dive in. Others need only know the names of their characters and their motivations, electing to let those entities take them along for a ride. The faintest idea of a conflict, or even just the image of a setting, can provoke the most fascinating of worlds into being.

For Koehler-Schmidt, the planning of her novel was both exciting and overwhelming. She didn’t go into the November event with a clear plan in mind, as some more experienced players do. She spent Halloween night googling Alberta’s history, electing to write a period piece surrounding the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway, and her outline developed as she wrote.

NaMoMunicipal Liaison Candice Robinson-Horejsi has been guiding Calgary Wrimotaurs towards victory for the past six years, all while steadily working on her own collection of Sci-Fi and Fantasy novels. Pictured here with her husband Mark, fellow writer and proud Wrimotaur.
Photo by Michaela Ritchie

“The details from the research suddenly gelled into a vague storyline, and on Nov. 1, I started to write. I had absolutely no idea where this story was going, let alone how it was going to get there, and those were almost the first words I used in my central character’s story! From there, the book has almost written itself! I seem to be writing as though I were reading a book. The characters are telling me their story, and I simply have the fingers and the means to put their words down.”

Indeed, all Wrimotaurs, regardless of skill or style, agree, it is imperative to maintain some level of organization as you look at the month ahead – keeping all your ducks in a row will save you precious time and effort down the road. Some participants go so far as to cook and freeze a few weeks of simple meals in advance of their quest in order to cut down time doing unnecessarily complex and time consuming activities, like cooking!

Of course, life gets in the way and slows us down, and no amount of planning can counteract that, says Robinson-Horejsi. However, regardless of how little control we can exercise over our external world, as writers, we still have a say in how our internal world is managed.

When it comes to the one thing we can predict and manipulate, in designing our modus operandi for the next month, it’s important to block out not just the story itself, but how we’re going to execute our writing. Set a schedule and stick to it, suggest some writers. Create a spreadsheet, Koehler-Schmidt advises. Menard agrees, keeping track of your elements using Excel, Scrivener, Microsoft Word (or Pages for Mac users), or other digital filing systems is essential. Setting up a distraction-free workspace for yourself to operate in for the month by making use of free productivity apps like SelfControl will also help you stay in the zone when the time comes.

And when it does, don’t be afraid to deviate from the path you’ve set out for yourself, if indeed you’ve made any plan at all. Even the most foolproof plans are only that. In the end, it’s the product you create from them that counts!

Says Menard of her process, which has been in constant evolution since she discovered writing, and the contest, “I’d love to tell you that I prepare for months for NaNo, and I go in knowing that I’ll survive the month. I don’t even really plan my novels. I make sure I have a basic idea of where I’m going with my stories before I dive in. I’m not sure there is a specific step-by-step process for being a successful writer. I think maybe the only step that a writer needs to take is to keep writing.”

The Climax

This, of course, is the goal of NaNoWriMo at its core – to keep going, keep writing, no matter what, until you hit your mark. The contest does not hinge on the idea of participants writing without pause for the entirety of the month. Indeed, even Menard says she too requires days off in order to keep her cool throughout. But maintaining a creative momentum, even on break days, is what will ultimately get you over and above 50,000 words.

In light of that, Koehler-Schmidt says it is important to keep your eye on the prize at all times even when you aren’t writing. Try to think about the project and get a few paragraphs out whenever you can. Suss out your natural creative rhythms and play to them. Do you have five minutes between classes to write a paragraph? Do it. Are you waiting in the car for a friend, and have your phone open to a fresh page? Write it up! Do you write more coherently in the day or the night? Find your strengths and play to them – that way, you won’t be fighting a battle against yourself and the clock at the same time. This will help maintain the ebb and flow of your creative juices that is necessary to hold up your personal investment in the story as the month wears on.

NaMo2The Fish Creek division of the Calgary Public Library hosted one of the last write-ins of the month, organized by Calgary’s dual NaNo MLs, on Nov. 28.
Photo by Michaela Ritchie.

Short of limiting ourselves by over-planning or blocking ourselves into a time-sensitive real world calendar that sucks up all of our writing time, very little can stomp out a writer’s spirit quite like dwelling on the possibility (indeed, the probability) that the work we’re slaving tirelessly away to crank out just isn’t good enough. It’s certainly easier to be satisfied loving the idea of a novel than it is to pour the time and energy into writing something worthy of our adoration. This particular brand of perfectionism has the power to suffocate even the most novel of creative ideas by crippling the artist. However, one benefit of using NaNo to focus on the work is its aim to remove that thought from the equation.

“The benefit NaNo gives us as writers is that because there are so many words during the month, that it actually gives us permission to let our words suck, which sounds weird, but sometimes it’s easier to just get through the words and let them suck rather than writing slower and making sure those words are good words. That’s what makes people stop writing,” says Menard, having been through hundreds of thousands of less-than-perfect words in order to find her diamonds in the rough.

“Embrace the awkward rambling confusion of the first draft,” says Robinson-Horejsi. “Let it take you to interesting new places and don’t sweat it if it doesn’t seem to be coming together or make any sense. You can make it better, but you can’t edit a blank page.”

Fifty thousand is a rather large number for any mortal wordsmith – it’s not going to happen in a day, and that’s what makes it so special a goal to reach when one does. But if you’re going to summit Word Count Mountain, you’re going to need to climb with care.

“My usual NaNo process,” says Robinson-Horejsi, “is to start strong and get ahead, then fall behind when life gets hard, as it inevitably does around week two. Then I catch up at our marathon write-in (when all the writers gather together in one place) and usually stay more-or-less on track for the rest of the month.”

The write-ins also help participants maintain a strong connection to their fellows during the month, a source of continued encouragement. Take breaks when you need them, and push through when you can. It’s all about finding your own rhythm.

That ties into perhaps the most frustrating part of writing: not.

“Knowing when to stop is probably the hardest part of being a writer,” says Menard. “At some point – and I do believe that point is different for every writer out there – you have to acknowledge that you’re doing more harm than good. That the story is where it needs to be and you have to take that step back.”

Stepping back could mean a variety of things in terms of writing, but when it comes to NaNo, ultimately, it amounts to giving up for some. Maybe that means giving up on the writing to tend to more pressing matters, like work, family struggles, or your health.

As with all things in life, you can’t do your best when you aren’t at your best. Take a sick day or a self-care day whenever you need it, or just slow it down if you want to keep going. Sometimes we need a break. We have to always remember that, while achieving our goal is important to us, our personal well-being always comes first. Don’t stress out if you haven’t written enough today, or if it wasn’t quite as you had hoped.

{modal http://calgaryjournal.ca/images/NamoWriMo.pdf|title=How To NaNoWriMo} NanoWriMo smallClick image to open the full infographic {/modal}“Knowing how to balance the writing with the rest of your life really helps, and knowing when to stop. Be able to recognize when you’ve bitten off more than you can chew. Because, as fantastic as it is to finish that writing goal and know that you did it, your health is the most important thing. So, as far as I’m concerned, the only way to maintain that sanity is to know that NaNo isn’t a must do. Be happy with what you can do.”

Falling Action

One way or another, the end of NaNoWriMo comes just as you expect it to as the hands strike midnight each Dec. 1. The pens are put down, and the keyboards stop clicking. Some have reached 50,000 words, if only just. Others have not. But in the quest to stay relatively sane throughout the process, participants have to remember that no matter their final word count, it’s more than they had to begin with.

Ingrid Koehler-Schmidt, who finished the race with just over 60,000 words under her belt, describes winning as more a victory over her heart than her novel.

“I did get a congratulatory e-mail, and I did have a sense of accomplishment at having achieved that goal, but much more than that was knowing how much more of the story is waiting to be told, and that I have the ability to do it! Now, I look forward to writing every day!”

For Danni Menard, who managed to reach her personal goal of 200,000 words during this year’s run by just eight words, she says she has long superseded a notion that beating even the most extravagant personal goals is synonymous to a win.

“I think that every writer who attempts NaNo is successful. The only requirement, in my opinion, is to take that plunge and sign up for this experience. Whether you get one thousand or one million words, it takes effort. It takes courage. And it teaches you something about yourself.”

Quantifiably, beyond the competition, the fact is that a much larger goal lay in wait for many of the participating writers: getting published. Though the creation of the art is the end justifying the means for many who compete, numerous participants hope that their work can one day affect change and motivate others to pursue their own dreams on a larger scale. At least nine popular fiction novels have been traditionally published out of NaNoWriMo origins over the last decade.


“My biggest dream as a writer is to have one reader get so mad at one of my books that they throw it across the room,” says Menard, “This is something I’ve done as a reader. I would get so angry at something that happened that I would just throw (the book). I guess I just want to affect people. I want my readers to love my characters, and care about what happens, just like I care when I’m reading.”

It’s difficult now for Koehler-Schmidt to think back to a time before NaNo took over her mind, her words, and her computer – she is certain she’s never written so much in her entire life.

“Over the years, I would write poetry with my kids, brainstorm stories with them, and occasionally I would try writing stories on my own. These never amounted to much and fizzled out within a couple of pages, oftentimes in the middle of a sentence. I could create the most amazing storylines in my mind in the middle of the night, thinking I should write them down, only to fall asleep and never getting around to actually putting them on paper.”

And though she says she’s not holding her breath, Koehler-Schmidt admits it would be “an absolute thrill” to one day see this year’s NaNo project on the shelf, once she’s done playing with it. One thing’s for sure, there will be more to come from this NaNo newbie.

“There’s a lot more lurking in this brain of mine,” she says, “I hope that this novel gets the chance to be published – I have another two or three books worth of story to tell!”

“I’ve grown as a writer. I have discovered that I can make people see or feel what I want them to – that I can write in such a way that they want to turn the page, that they want to know more. I would love to participate in NaNo again!”

“I’m sure you’ve heard of the runner’s high,” says ML Candice Robinson-Horejsi. “Finishing a book, or meeting an insane goal like 50,000 words in 30 days, is kind of like getting your second wind while running. When it happens, you feel like you could keep going forever.”

Though the end of NaNoWriMo brings with it a plethora of laughter, tears, excitement, and even sadness in some cases, the overarching theme always seems to be relief. The wrap-up event isn’t called a ‘Thank God It’s Over’ party for nothing!

November marks the end of the marathon, but through their regional organizers, NaNoWriMo hosts a variety of other events, namely the Night of Writing Dangerously, and Camp NaNoWrimo, throughout the year.

Each January and February also mark the months of NaNo withdrawal, appropriately nicknamed collectively, “What Now?” wherein esteemed authors post pep talks through the site to guide Wrimotaurs through the editing and publication process, and continue coaching those still tempestuously typing away at their masterpieces. So you see, NaNoWriMo becomes less an event in itself than it is an introduction – both to a world, and a way of life.

Indeed, writing is hard, but it is worth it. You start to forget there was a finish line to worry about, when there is suddenly so much more story to be told. Once you’ve started, it becomes more about feeding your own curiosity than simply a word count.

After all, beginnings are always so much more exciting than endings.

It’s never too early to embark on your next great adventure! Sign up for next year’s NaNoWriMo at www.nanowrimo.org.


Thumbnail by Michaela Ritchie.

This editor responsible for this article is Kelsey Solway, ksolway@cjournal.ca 

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