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Having Self-Discipline All Year (Not Just During NaNo!)

Tuesday, October 29, 2013


By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

As most of you writers know, National Novel Writing Month is coming up. It takes place in November of every year. It's abbreviated NaNoWrMo or NaNo for short. The goal is to complete a full book in the month OR to write at least 50,000 (50K).

Whether you've ever participated or not, the month always generates a lot of enthusiasm for writing. Everyone everywhere is talking about how much they're writing, whether they've met their daily word count goal, the sacrifices they're making to write, and how they're feeling about the whole process.

I've watched from the sidelines and I've also participated. Both ways, I come away from the month inspired.

What I've realized is that NaNo is basically the one time of year when everybody decides to get disciplined about writing.

In some ways that's a really great thing. Most of us just don't have the time and energy to write 50K every month all year long.

On the other hand, I was struck by the realization that for many writers, NaNo is probably one of the only times when they set goals and work really hard to meet them. 

I recently read an article "How to Write Like Nicholas Sparks: 4 Tips" The very first tip was: Write 2,000 Words A Day.

Often when writers see a tip like that they shove it aside and say something like, "I don't have time for that." Or "I don't do well with daily word count goals. The pressure stifles my creativity." Or "I prefer to have weekly page/scene/chapter goals instead of word counts."

I see the validity in each of the above statements. Most people can't carve out 5 hours a day (which is what Nicholas Sparks spends on 2000 words). A lot of writers have a day job and do writing in their "spare" time (like me).

There are some people who freeze when under pressure and literally can't type a word. And there are some writers who can stay on track with chapter goals (versus word count).

But all too often, the above are just excuses. The truth is, keeping a daily word count goal is one of the most effective ways for writers of any level to complete a novel.

In fact the popularity of NaNo testifies to the successfulness of such a method. And it also debunks the myth that writing under pressure stifles creativity. In fact, I believe that writing larger amounts of words in a shorter time actually stimulates the creative part of the brain.

How?

Well, the pressure to produce forces us to shut down that nagging internal editor and give free rein to the story. We just have to write, even if it's crap. We have to push forward, even if the words aren't flowing. And eventually we find that when we persist and persevere, the story starts to flow and come to life in ways we never expected.

So, yes, I believe in daily word count goals. But I would issue three tips of caution for anyone using the method:

1. Set a realistic daily word count goal. Know what you can accomplish, and then set the goal just slightly above that. When I wrote my first published book, The Preacher's Bride, I only wrote 500 words a day. At the time, I had a six month old, a toddler, and three other young children. 500 was a stretch.

Even though I can write more per day now that my kids are older, I can't hit 2000, especially during the school year when I'm teaching. For the book I'm on now, I've set a goal for 1500 a day on weekdays and 2500 on Saturday.

2. Back up your daily goals with a weekly total. I first heard this recommendation from writing guru James Scott Bell. And it's solid advice that's held me in good stead for the past eight or nine books I've written.

Even though I give myself daily goals and I work hard to meet them, there are days where I fall short. Any number of things slow me down–the need for additional research or further plotting. Or life. There are days when I just can't get in the amount of writing time I anticipated.

If I miss hitting my goal one day, I try to make up the words by the end of the week by writing more on another day. For the book I'm currently writing, my weekly goal is 10,000 words.

3. Finally, don't compare yourself to other writers! That's hard during NaNo when everyone is tweeting their word count minute by minute. But for the rest of the year, set your daily goal and don't let what others accomplish intimidate you. Know what YOU can accomplish. Do the best YOU can do.

The important thing is writing consistently. Writing on a consistent basis will keep your creative energy flowing and eventually produce a completed book.

So to all you NaNo writers, I wish you all the best! And I also encourage all of us to look for ways to be self-disciplined all year (and not just during Nano!).

So what do you think about daily word count goals? Any other tips you'd offer? And are you doing NaNo this year?

15 comments:

  1. My writing has had to take a back burner as my husband and I just recently bought a house, moved, and are still in that transition phase. And even though I'm not planning on participating in NaNo I'm hoping the writing buzz will help get me back into the swing of things.

    In the past I have set a writing goal of 500 words a day. A lot of times I find I can write more than this but having a smaller goal isn't so intimidating and as long as I write at least that much every day I find I can be more productive and creative. Getting into a habit is the key. Unfortunately I can't claim to be very consistent. Something in life always seems to come up. But you are right, Jody, we can't make excuses.

    Will you be participating in NaNo this year, Jody?

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    1. Hi Shelly! I think we all have to go through phases of having our writing take a back burner. That's natural. I've had those times too. But for those of us who are in writing mode, I think the key is staying consistent!

      I'm not sure if I'm going to participate! I might! I have a book that I need to finish 50K, but I also have a lot going on in November! So I'm still wavering.

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  2. Jody, your post took me back to when I was doing my English Lit Exams where we feverishly had to produce essays of so many thousand words..no more no less! It was definitely a race against time as the "bulldog" (examiner)swooped down collecting our sterling efforts! That was definitely self disipline for me to finish on time, or lose marks for an incomplete essay!

    I think it is great the way in which you share your information with your peers and it is a learning curve for us. I have nothing but admiration for all of you!
    I just would like to wish all the entrants good luck for NaNo....means we'll have some great books coming on the market! :)

    Blessings from "Down Under!"

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    1. Hi Rosie!
      Self-discipline is SO key to many things in life, isn't it? It's something I'm working on with my children too. I think the older kids are getting it down. I'm proud of them for working hard on their school work most of the time. I know if they establish good habits of self-discipline now, it will carry over into other areas later in their lives. At least that's what I'm hoping for!

      Thanks for stopping by! Take care!

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  3. As a verse novelist and picture book author, word count goals can be discouraging. I aim for hour goals. If I sit with the story and words come, that's good.

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    1. Hi Caroline,
      Yes, I can see that your type of writing as a verse novelist wouldn't lend itself to straight word counting. I think it more applies to fiction writers (even over non-fiction and memoir writers too). There's just something that happens to our creativity when we just open the spigot and write! :-)

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    2. Caroline, I agree. Some days I can accomplish more in an hour than I can other days in several. The discipline of working for a specific time period gets me into a routine that feels comfortable--and works.

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  4. These are great tips, especially James Scott Bell's. I like his nifty 350 and furious 500 word goals that he does first thing in the morning.

    I disagree that NaNoWriMo is the one time of year many writers set goals and work hard to meet them. Regular participators, like me, do this because we know we can. We have the discipline from writing all year. I do NaNo because I love the camaraderie of knowing there are thousands of other writers doing the exact same thing I am. You don't get that the rest of the year because writers are often in different stages: revising, querying, marketing. But in November, we're all writing. We're all starting a new project or continuing one we started earlier. I can't wait to start my new novel with everyone else on Friday!!

    Happy reading and writing! from Laura Marcella @ Wavy Lines

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    1. Hi Laura,

      I realize there are tons of self-disciplined writers out there who do write regularly throughout the year. I was being slightly snarky when I said it's the one time of year writers get serious, because I realize that's not true of everyone! But I do run across a lot of writers who don't write as consistently other times (or at least struggle with hitting the keyboard). And I think it would be great to take the motivation and write with NaNo energy and self-discipline the rest of the year too! :-)

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  5. I never get to do NaNoWriMo because November's a busy month for me during the school year, and I have to work on my other book (my dissertation). But I wish I could participate. I especially like this post, though, because it's definitely important to stay disciplined year-round. Once you make writing a habit, it becomes much easier to get it done on a regular basis.

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    1. November IS a terribly busy month! But I do find it fascinating that amidst such a crazy time of year, SO many writers find time to complete 50K. I guess it shows that if writers can be productive in such a busy month, they should have no excuses during the other less busy months, right? ;-)

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  6. I've participated in NaNoWriMo several times, but not always with the idea of completing a novel. I'm still debating about this year -- I have revisions to do before a requested submission so I may use November to focus on those.

    I write every day, but rarely set a specific word goal. Just being consistent about writing whether I'm inspired or not is a useful objective.

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  7. Loved this post! It is so easy to get caught up in life and push writing to the side, but as writers, we cannot let that happen. Great ideas on developing discipline throughout the year...

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  8. I am for the first time. I'm hanging with Susie and Rachel and the gang over at My Book Therapy for their MBT WriMo. I've had so many big and small crises and distractions over the last couple of years that I've not made the progress in my writing that I hoped. Then I took a blog break in October while so many others were frantically writing every single day. I rested and re-visioned and kind of jumped on the bandwagon in a whim. I don't know if I'll meet the word count goal, but I fully expect to establish a new routine and have fun along the way.

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  9. You are so right Jody… the hardest thing for me is consistency. I cant write for whatever reason turns into weeks without writing a thing (of fiction, at least) and I've made no progress. When I write everyday , even few hundred words, it's easier to continue. Stopping certainly stifles the creative cells.

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