November is well in our rearview, but if your social media feed looks anything like mine, your writerly friends still post the occasional update about the fruits of last year’s NaNoWriMo. I often scroll these posts with a mixture of longing and resentment—what’s this strange magic that allows my friends to emerge with a draft after 30 days, and why can’t I tap into it?
The answer is a mix of personality and plotting. For one thing, I don’t always write well under pressure. I also enjoy sitting with ideas, drafting as many times as I want, getting to know my characters, and working through the ins and outs of a story at my own pace. In short, I need (or just want) more time.
Does this predicament sound familiar? Good news, reader: we’re going to figure this out together. I want 2019 to be the year I finally see where the wish to write takes me—and if you want to finally transfer that itch to write from your head to your hands without overloading on 50,000 words in a single month, I’m here to help. Here are some tips that will help all of us finally write that first draft this year.
Tip #1: Nip Writer’s Block in the Bud
NaNoWriMo is the perfect tool to cut writer’s block out of the novel-writing equation. Since the goal is to get a 50,000-word draft down on paper, you don’t have time to snag on plot holes or agonize over snippets of dialogue.
In contrast, knowing you’re about to spend a whole year writing is an open invitation for writer’s block to take up residence in your brain. So before you even begin, start shoring up against the writer’s block that will definitely hit once (or twice…) this year.
One of my favorite blogs to dodge writer’s block is Oopsprompts, which offers dialogue that can help you spur conversations between characters you’ve already created or give you ideas for new characters. Another favorite source is Deep Water Prompts, which showcases dialogue and single-sentence story ideas. Both blogs accept prompt submissions and will create prompts based on story- and character-specific queries.
Similarly, Writer’s Digest has prompts plus advice on everything from perfecting your dialogue to finding an agent to making your horror novel scarier than ever. Check out the most recent issue from your local library or subscribe to the free Writer’s Digest newsletter for perks like character development worksheets and poetry prompts.
If apps and games are more your speed, check out the Writing Challenge App. This app offers thousands of prompts, helps you set writing goals, and turns prompts into games so you and your friends can practice creating stories at your own pace.
#2: Craft Your Own Writing Schedule
Many writers live by the adage that the only way to learn to write well or to finish a novel is to write every day. Haruki Murakami purportedly writes in six-hour stretches when he’s working on a novel while Stephen King aims for six polished pages a day; meanwhile, Khaled Hosseini advises aspiring writers to write every day, even (or especially) when they don’t feel like it.
While writing is a practice that requires you to write a certain number of words or hours for proficiency, writing every single day doesn’t work for everyone—and that’s okay.
My favorite writing schedule advice comes from YA fantasy writer Daniel José Older, who says:
Shame, and the resulting paralysis, are what happen when the whole world drills into you that you should be writing every day and you’re not. Every writer has their rhythm. It seems basic, but clearly it must be said: There is no one way. Finding our path through the complex landscape of craft, process, and different versions of success is a deeply personal, often painful journey. It is a very real example of making the road by walking.
Early in January, decide how you’re going to write. Do you want to set aside time each day—say, between six and seven every morning—to write? Would you rather set a weekly word count you can chip away at throughout the week, writing an hour on Monday and three on Friday? Whatever you do, ensure your schedule isn’t overwhelming and counterproductive.
If you’re not sure what works, try out different writers’ strategies for the first month or so, then alternate every week until you hit your stride. If you find a combination of techniques works best for you, that’s great too!
#3: Map Out the Writing Year
Next, start thinking a little bigger than a daily or weekly writing schedule. Do you want to complete a chapter a month? Do you want to dedicate winter to brainstorming, spring to writing, and summer to revising?
Create a rough timetable that will get you through the year, and feel free to reevaluate as needed. Don’t forget to schedule a set time in June to assess and adjust the goalposts as necessary.
If you’d like, create a physical or digital calendar you can reference frequently to stay on track. I like to either hang a yearlong calendar near my desk with goals marked on each page or get a monthly desk calendar where I can chart my progress. Remember that what you establish in January isn’t set forever; you can adjust your goals to ensure you’re happily writing all year long.
#4: Ask for Help
No one can write your novel but you; the bulk of writing is done alone at your desk, typing and plotting and deleting and rewriting. But writing isn’t a solitary task—at least, it doesn’t have to be.
Want help sticking to deadlines? Reach out to family and friends; let them know your goals and calendar and ask for help reminding you to finish. Looking for feedback on a draft? Turn to writing friends you trust or find your own writerly community online. Holly Black recommends the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror or Critters™ Workshop for science fiction/fantasy writers, but you can find workshopping communities in all genres across the web.
Many local libraries, community centers, and coffee shops host workshops and communities for writers. A writing group can offer feedback on drafts, encourage you to stick to a year-long novel-writing schedule, and help you work through writer’s block.
I’m not one for New Year’s resolutions. In fact, reader, I hate them. The first time I make a mistake, I abandon the attempt. I do the same thing with writing—I start, mess up, write something I don’t like, forget to write a day or two in a row, and then give up in despair.
But if you do this, you’ll never finish your book.
It’s okay to be frustrated! Pause, step away, work on something else. Let the idea sit fallow—and then come back to it. The only way to write is to write, revise, and forgive yourself for (and learn from!) the mistakes you make along the way. Daniel José Older again offers some of my favorite advice on the subject:
For me, writing always begins with self-forgiveness. I don’t sit down and rush headlong into the blank page. I make coffee. I put on a song I like. I drink the coffee, listen to the song. I don’t write. Beginning with forgiveness revolutionizes the writing process, returns it to being a journey of creativity rather than an exercise in self-flagellation. I forgive myself for not sitting down to write sooner, for taking yesterday off, for living my life. That shame? I release it. My body unclenches; a new lightness takes over once that burden has floated off. There is room, now, for story, idea, life.
So stand up. Dance around the room. Decorate your space, bounce ideas off your friends, talk and live and make space for yourself—and make this year the one you finish your book.
Which strategies will you try this year? Or, what are your go-to tactics for establishing writing success? We’d love to hear your experiences in the comments!