Four years ago, Jasmine Guillory was an aspiring novelist with an idea and an outline, but she was stuck in a creative rut. When a friend asked if she would be up for a writing challenge of putting 50,000 words down in one month, she immediately said yes.
Guillory used the month to complete half of a book draft and three years later published her best-selling debut, “The Wedding Date.” “Having someone help push me into the pool really helped me,” she said, “like, ‘All right, I’m going to start swimming now.’”
Guillory, who has since written three sequels, is one of the success stories of NaNoWriMo, the nonprofit that organizes an annual writing marathon every November called National Novel Writing Month. Founded in 1999 by the writer Chris Baty, the event, often also called NaNoWriMo, started with 20 or so of Baty’s friends, but since then millions have participated. The organization also operates virtual camps throughout the year and programming for teenagers.
In addition to Guillory, writers such as Sara Gruen (“Water for Elephants”), Rainbow Rowell (“Eleanor & Park”) and the National Book Award winner Elizabeth Acevedo (“With the Fire on High”) have written partial drafts of their books during the challenge.
NaNoWriMo enlists professional writers like Guillory and Rowell to write pep talks for participants. It also organizes in-person events and encourages people to connect on Twitter or the website’s forums. NaNoWriMo’s executive director, Grant Faulkner, describes it as “one part writing boot camp, one part rollicking party.”
[Ready to write? Here are the digital tools to help you make a go of NaNoWriMo.]
The goal of NaNoWriMo is to finish the month with a 50,000-word draft, which breaks down to roughly 1,667 words a day. For some people, that makes the process feel more manageable, but even so, pushing through the fear of failure or lack of discipline isn’t easy.
According to James Clear, the author of “Atomic Habits: An Easy and Proven Way to Build Good Habits and Break Bad Ones,” writer’s block is a form of procrastination, which is generally rooted in the avoidance of negative emotions. “The pain of not doing, it has not yet become greater than the pain of doing it,” he said.
Clear suggests scaling down the first action so that you can’t say no — even if it means writing only one sentence per day to start. He also suggests prepping your environment to encourage the habit, such as leaving a blank document open at night to make it easier to get started in the morning.
Some authors consider writer’s block a myth, one that romanticizes the creative process, but Faulkner said he does think that “writers can be shut down by trauma or depression or horrible experiences.”
It can also result from a lack of practice. Anna Borges, who has been participating on and off since high school and now works as an editor and writer, said she had a hard time coming up with a new project this year. “It’s the first time in a while that I’ve worked on something that’s so completely new, which I think is just asking for writer’s block to take over,” she said.
Borges is revising a young adult novel she wrote a few years ago and has another book, “The More or Less Definitive Guide to Self-Care,” out this month, but took up a new project for NaNoWriMo this month. “Part of still doing NaNoWriMo is just constantly trying to tap back into how much joy I got out of writing as a kid before it was my day job,” she said, “coming up with stories just to see what would happen.”
And it helps that the draft is “allowed to suck,” she said.
Clear said the best way to approach NaNoWriMo is to make writing a habit. “The real goal is not to write a book,” he said, “it’s to become a writer.”
Faulkner agreed that the word goal isn’t the most salient part of the experience. (Only about 15 percent of participants end up writing 50,000 words.) Instead, he said, it’s a way of “training people to show up,” making them feel their stories are valid and providing encouragement through community.
“I like to think that we are part of a movement that is making writing and publishing less exclusionary, that is opening it up to diverse voices,” he said.
Guillory said when she was doing the challenge, she was excited to come home every day to get to work. Now she does mini NaNoWriMos on her own throughout the year when she wants to immerse herself.
Both Guillory and Borges said they were motivated by the word-count demands to squeeze in short writing sessions throughout the day — sometimes during lunch breaks or while they rode the subway.
Ultimately, the challenge is about getting people to start and worry about the rest later. “You have to write,” Borges said. “For all the advice out there, it boils down to, You have to write, and it’ll either get better or worse, but you have to do it.”
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