I just completed my first full-sized novel draft and now I want to help you to do the same. It took quite a bit out of me, however, so I want to make sure that you don’t suffer the pain of almost failing at it.
Some back-story: after a few years of NaNoWriMo, I took on my first out-of-season novel challenge this year and came out at the other end with over 120,000 words before typing out “The End”. This accomplishment arrived despite – or perhaps because of – a full-time job and other project work filling up every day’s schedule. How did this inexperienced author accomplish this feat in the space of less than four months?
Upon review, a few necessary conditions stuck out at me. These broke down along the lines of training, environment, preparation, and inspiration. Today’s retrospective of that productive route, though, takes us off of that beaten path.
My experience with NaNoWriMo matters because it set the standard for my daily goals. Knocking out 2,000 words each day made the full-length novel’s daily goal of 1,000 words into a relative cake-walk. I had over-trained all of my writing muscles before the “main event”. What might have happened if I had started right away with four months of daily word-count goals? I fear that the burn-out from such a workload would have crushed me. Even with that practice, though, I only survived thanks to a few days spent off of the race track, which brings us to the point of this post.
Breaks make a huge difference. They might make all of the difference when paced well. Back in NaNoWriMo, I would schedule days where I contributed exactly zero to my word count. That practice slipped my mind during the full-sized novel project, somehow, when I managed to write for nearly every single one of those almost 120 days. The latter attempt at unceasing work nearly doomed the entire endeavor when it collided with other sources of exhaustion.
On one already quite-busy day (at a convention) half-way through the writing run, I found that not a single finger could find itself onto the keyboard. Mild terror ran through me upon the realization, tempered only by a body and mind too exhausted to appreciate it, and my mental protests failed to stir one creative word. I felt emptied of all literary content despite all of the geekery that surrounded me on that trip. What had happened? I took a deliberate, conscious break after that.
What resulted from that break? My laptop stayed back in the hotel room and saw nothing of me for over sixteen hours. Even the strongest marathon runner can only complete a finite number of laps, after all, and I had passed my threshold. By the time I returned to that computer, I wanted to tear it open.
The words came pouring out of the keyboard. The break had freed my mind up to take in new ideas instead of synthesizing them into fiction, like lungs tired of expelling carbon dioxide and desperate to inhale fresh air. That break did the trick and put me back on track to writing most every day after that. I made a point of taking a similar but longer break after finishing the entire novel, which came with its own break-related lessons.
Learning one lesson from the novel marathon, I switched my schedule up to focus on other projects. This included a dialing-down of the fiction work to just a new short story but it also excluded sancrosanct placeholders for breaks. I ended up trying to work through Saturdays (my preferred day of rest) and paid the price.
At first, working on Saturdays sounded like a great plan. How better to play catch-up on work that had external time tables, right? I felt more than ready to tackle the work, too, and gave it my best shot. Can you guess what happened next?
I skirted the precipice of burn-out. Other factors (including relationship ones) contributed, but the subjectivity of my perceived capacities re-asserted itself when I found myself with no other choice than to take another break day. After that, I re-learned and retained the lesson that I want to pass onto you below.
On a recent Saturday, I felt more than ready to catch up on a lot of work. My brain insisted on typing out stories like nobody’s business. By now, though, you can guess how much I worked that day. Yes, not a bit. I enjoyed the pre-arranged company of friends and family (an essential part of The Now Habit’s unschedule), relaxed with special treats, and generally lounged about. I felt anxious all that day, having seemed to “skip out” on work, but I felt just as ready to get back to it that next day, and the day after that, and on every non-break day since. At this point, I find myself putting a cap on my daily word-count just so I can leave time for other projects.
I hope you enjoyed this review of one of the most important elements of a sustainable, long-term writing regimen. If you practice at writing more than you think you can while taking breaks before you crash, then I believe that you, too, can write that full-length novel waiting inside of you.
If you feel ready to begin your training session, then you can participate in Camp NaNoWriMo this summer or test yourself against the original NaNoWriMo in November. Either way, you can download my NaNoWriMo Prep Worksheet in order to start the month off on the right foot. Good luck!
- Post written by James Holder