Surviving NaNoWriMo

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National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is just around the corner. For those of you unfamiliar with the event, it is a month during which novelists and aspiring novelists write a body of work that will be the major part of a completed novel. The goal is to write 50,000 words during the month of November. To read more about how it works, how you can join, see the website.

Don’t make a mistake and think that you will come through it with a novel ready to publish, but you will have a first draft of something that is too large a chunk of writing to abandon, and a solid start on a novel, leaving the editing and polishing to be done later.

According to the rules, you may plan and/or outline your novel before November 1, but all the writing must be done within the month. Believe me, it’s a daunting task and requires long hours at the computer.

We all know that sitting long hours without changing position is not healthy. So how does one survive the month?

The cardinal rule is take frequent breaks. Don’t be afraid that breaks will slow your writing. Many studies have shown that you are actually more productive if you take breaks. How many breaks? How long? There may be as many rules of thumb as there are thumbs on the internet. Here are just a few:

  • One rule of thumb is to get up and walk for 5 minutes every 40 minutes at the computer. Others recommend stopping every 30 minutes. This does not have to involve putting on shoes and coats and going outdoors. I walk the length of my house for miles. Since I don’t have to look for cars or puddles or other tripping obstacles, I can concentrate on planning the next scene or fine tuning the dialogue I’m writing at the moment.
  • Another rule is the 20/20/20 rule that says to focus your eyes on something at least 20 feet away for 20 seconds every 20 minutes at the computer. One of the problems with prolonged computer use is the slower blink rate. This makes your eyes dry and can cause eye strain.
  • Stand up and type for a few minutes. I have a small plastic step stool that my toddler grandson stands on to use the wash basin when he visits. I keep it under my desk, sometimes resting my feet on it to change my sitting position. I put it on top of my dest and use it for my keyboard. That does two things: it allows me to keep typing and stand or even march in place, and the screen I now slightly below eye level, reducing glare. (I do not recommend trying to type in a prone position like our little image, but never say never. If it works for you, go for it!)
  • On one or more of your trips to another room, pause in a doorway. Place your fingertips on the top of the doorway, or as high on the sides as you can reach. Push your body forward, stretching your arms and shoulders. Then pretend you have pencils taped to your shoulders and “draw” circles in one direction, then in the opposite direction. Windmill your arms a couple of times in each direction. Roll your head in circles to stretch your neck muscles, again switching directions. All of these relieve muscle strain.

“But,” you protest, “I need to type every minute I can to meet my word goals. I can’t stop every 20 minutes to take a break, or even every 40 mintes. I’ll lose my train of thought and have to spend forever getting back in the story.”

Try this: Set a timer for 20 minutes. If it rings and your fingers are going as fast as they can, don’t stop. Just close your eyes for a few seconds and hit repeat on the timer. At the end of the paragraph look as far away as your environment allows for a few more seconds. Continue typing. If it goes off a second time and you are still going strong, BRAVO! Usually, at some point in the second twenty-minute period you will hit a place where you have to regroup your thoughts for the next sprint. Get up and walk as you work it out. Sit down and set the timer anew.

Remember, rules have exceptions. You must listen to your body and make your own decisions.

Question: Do you have any tips on how to combat computer fatigue? Please share.


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About dhallaj

Co-Founder of the Short & Helpful Online Writer Workshops and author of four novels, Dixiane holds a PhD in Literacy and Adult Learning from George Mason University. She lives in rural Northern Virginia with her husband of 55 years and her cat named Dog.
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4 Responses to Surviving NaNoWriMo

  1. lenoragood says:

    I think the bestest thing about becoming a Nano is it all but forces one to turn off the inner editor. It’s hard to write a line, stop, edit, then rewrite, when one needs to write almost 3,000 words per day in order to meet the 50K limit. The second bestest thing is, it’s in November and it gives participants a marvelous excuse to not fix the family dinner for Thanksgiving! 😉 If one is going to become a writer, the family needs to understand these things and the sooner they do, the better! I’ve done it a couple of times, hard work, but fun.


  2. dhallaj says:

    Thanks for the comment. Yes, the hardest part is to keep on moving forward and leave the problem sentences/paragraphs, etc. still sitting on the page. Any hints you have to help that process would be appreciated.


  3. marydemauro says:

    Unpopular opinion time: one could always try doing NaNoWriMo by hand. I often write first drafts by hand because having to stop for the day due to eye strain is such a pain. I’ve estimated that, on an average size piece of notebook paper, I write about 250 words. Of course this will be different from everyone, but once you figure out your average, it’s easy to calculate your (average) word count when writing by hand. Granted, transcription is difficult, but Stephen King calls a fountain pen and paper “the world’s finest word processor.”


    • dhallaj says:

      I appreciate your thoughts. I type much faster than I write, and would get frustrated early in the day writing longhand. About the transcription process: Have you ever tried turning on dictation in Word? That would produce a document with the requisite word count much faster. Yes, there would be more than the usual number of typos, but it should be recognizable, count for NaNo, and be editable into a decent manuscript in the months that follow.
      Good luck with your writing. Hope you win NaNo this year.


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