Word count hacks for NaNoWriMo

There’s so much enthusiasm that comes with starting a new novel from scratch. For me, NaNoWriMo always begins like the perfect first day of a trek: the weather is beautiful, the terrain is level, and the miles fly by. At the end of the day, I’ve got a selection of delicious food and a clean change of clothes, and I’ve still got all of my tent pegs.

And then, about ten days in, I find myself lost in the woods, clothes muddy and socks wet, trying to start a fire (with my last remaining tent peg and a rock that looks like it might be flint if you squint hard enough) before the night wolves come.

Joseph Campbell calls this “The Belly of the Whale,” that stage of the mono-myth journey where the hero has left the trappings of the ordinary world behind and must adapt to radical new circumstances or die.

By which I mean, this is the stage of NaNoWriMo where I lose my way: my game plan sputters out, my energy flags and all my good intentions evaporate. If I’m “pantsing,” [1] I’ve exhausted the initial reservoir of enthusiasm that carried me giddily through the first few days. If I’m working from an outline, I discover there’s no second act. This is the point at which I’m most tempted to quit, or, worse, abandon the project for a sexy new idea I just thought of. But the answer is to just keep writing.

Here are some word-count hacks to help you hit your quota, if you should hit a lull:

Skipping ahead—If you’re stuck on a section because either you don’t know what should happen, or you don’t know how to write it, or you just find it boring … skip it. Skip ahead to the next bit you know has to be in the book, or that you know how to write, or that you’re excited about. You can always come back to that other section later, when you’re not under the word-count gun. [2]

Pomodoros—I love pomodoros. I don’t even consider them “hacks” anymore, they’re just how I work.  You set a 25-minute timer, put your head down and write. When the timer goes off, you take a five-minute break. Rinse and repeat. The idea is increase your focus by bringing it to bear for a shorter period of time. If you’re stuck, forcing yourself to write on a deadline can sometimes get you to a solution, when just thinking without a time limit will get you nothing. [3]

Sprints — Like pomodoros, but briefer and wilder, sprints are brief bursts of non-stop writing, five or ten minutes max. No pausing to correct your typos, no matter how egregious. No pausing to think. Just. Write. If you can touch type at all, you should be able to knock out 400 words in a ten-minute sprint, almost a quarter of your daily quota. In ten minutes! Sure, they’ll be shitty words, but remember, you’re just trying to write your way out of the woods before night falls. And who knows? Maybe you’ll stumble on treasure.

Word wars — These are in-person, competitive sprints, fueled by adrenaline and desperation. Popular at write-ins and online via Skype, Messenger or what have you. Vomiting out one or two pages faster than you can think is a good way to break through any mental log jam you might be experiencing. Even if that doesn’t pan out, at least you’ve racked up some word count.

Journals — So you’re completely stumped, and it’s thirty minutes till midnight? Give your main character a journal, and let them reflect on their day or free associate about their hopes and dreams or speculate about the future. You might gain some insight into your character, or ammunition for your next sprint. If you’ve got Scrivener, you can stash all your journal entries in a separate file, making them easy to dispose of when it comes time to edit. [4]

To-do lists — Forgot to make an outline? Have your main character do it for you by creating a to-do list, easily good for five hundred words of “what am I doing with my life?” And if your main character, like you, obsesses about their specific tools—which brand of pencil and notebook, which particular app—that’s good for another five hundred. Sorry, not like you. Like me. (Maybe like you too.)

Letters — Epistolary novels have a rich tradition, but unless you’ve planned to go that route from the jump, you’re probably not going to advance your plot much in a letter.  But a letter, like a journal entry, affords you a the opportunity to bust out some words in a self-contained, easily-excised sandbox. You can explore a character’s relationship with another character without disrupting your main narrative, knowing that any insight you achieve can be ripped out wholesale or reworked, if you like it.

NOTE: If you find yourself resorting to these or other hacks, it doesn’t mean you’re failing at NaNo. The opposite, in fact. While it might be nice to effortlessly turn out 1,600 smooth words of prose each day, if you could do that, you wouldn’t need NaNo. The event is designed to push you, to expand your limits. If you never stumble, you haven’t really tested them.

1. Nanos divides themselves roughly into “plotters” and “pantsers,” those who write with a detailed outline and extensive prep, and those who just fly by the seat of their pants.

2. Or not. If a scene is boring to write, it likely won’t be that interesting to read. Maybe you can find a creative way to write around it in the editing phase.

3. “Pomodoro” is Italian for “tomato.” The guy who first developed the technique used a kitchen timer in the shape of a tomato.

4. I don’t have enough time to tell you about Scrivener, but it’s a fantastic tool for writers that makes it much easier to track collateral documents (outline, research, character bios, etc.) and drafts. There’s almost always a free trial on offer during NaNo.

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