The first request I received was for time management tips. This request came from someone who has a couple of other big projects happening in November, but I expect just about everyone doing NaNo has other things going on. If you have nothing better to do than write 1700 words a day, then you’re a career novelist and more power to you! This post is for everyone else. It addresses both planning your time and using your time effectively.
1. Determine your Writing Time Unit (WTU). A Writing Time Unit is an amount of time sufficient for you to get into the writing mindset, make some words happen, and start to run out of steam. Every writer has a different range of WTUs. My minimum WTU is about 20 minutes and my maximum is about an hour, maybe an hour and a half if I’m really in the groove. For planning purposes, I consider a WTU to be 20 minutes and think of longer bouts in terms of multiple WTUs: if I’ve set aside 45 minutes to write, that’s two 20-minute WTUs with a short break in between.
In order to get the most out of your writing time, you want to schedule enough time to rev up and write but not so much time that you run out of juice and then feel bad about not making the most of the time you’ve set aside. Your bout of writing should end when you’re starting to flag, not when you’re completely done in. So when you’re calculating your WTU, remember that it’s a minimum, not a maximum. If you finish one WTU worth of writing and you’re still raring to go, you can always do another!
Take a moment now to think about your writing habits and calculate a minimum WTU. It could be as short as five or ten minutes, or much longer. An easy way to know whether you’ve found your minimum WTU is to complete this sentence: “If I have less than [quantity of time] I’m just not going to make any real writing progress.” If you’re more likely to have a few long stretches of writing time than a lot of short ones, you may also want to think about how many WTUs you can realistically do in a row.
(Does getting into the writing mindset always take a while? Here are some ideas for writing rituals that will help you to shift gears.)
2. Plan to be done by November 25. Before you have a heart attack, hear me out. Every good plan with a deadline allows for schedule creep. You almost certainly won’t finish by November 25, but if you plan to be done by November 25, that gives you 20% leeway. Aiming for November 30 and getting anxious over every shortfall is a much less enjoyable experience than aiming for November 25 and knowing you have a five-day safety net. Those of you who like dividing numbers by other numbers can also enjoy the nice round numerical goals of 2000 words a day or 14,000 words a week. Just remember that the idea is to make it okay for you to miss a day or fall short one week and not stress over it. Less stress means more productivity and more fun!
3. Block out time. Look at your schedule for November and figure out where you already have (or can make) spaces that writing can fit into. Go through your calendar day by day and ask Is there room for writing here? How much? This is where your WTU comes in. A 20-minute lunch break is enough time for some writers but not for others. A two-hour morning writing session is perfect for some writers and way too long for others. Also make sure it’s at a time of day when your brain is working well enough for writing to happen. Don’t bother setting aside time unless it’s time you can actually use.
Get creative, and enlist assistance! Maybe on Mondays you can fit in a writing sprint while you’re dialed in to a boring phone meeting, or Tuesdays and Wednesdays your partner will handle morning childcare so you can write for an hour. Maybe your Thanksgiving plans involve a plane trip and you can write in the airport or in flight. But be realistic: if you know you’re always too sleepy on your train commute home to get anything done, don’t pretend that that will magically change for the month of November.
Most importantly, block out that time on your calendar, and make sure other people know not to disturb you while you’re writing. If possible, go somewhere quiet and devoid of interruptions. You are making a commitment to yourself to get some writing done. Take it seriously and defend it fiercely.
Once you’ve got all your writing time booked, divide your wordcount goal by the number of WTUs you have scheduled between now and November 25, and you’ll have a rough idea of how much you need to write per session. This is a great time to adjust your goal if you realize you’ve set yourself up to write 4000 words in 40 minutes. (It’s always okay to make accommodations for yourself and choose a different goal or timeline.) And remember to book writing time all the way through to the end of November so you have it if you need it. If you do finish early, you can use that time for reading books, knitting, or basking in your own glory—or for editing your manuscript or starting the next writing project.
4. Don’t expect every day to be the same. The numerical nature of NaNo goals—30 days, 50,000 words—naturally lends itself to ideas about daily writing sprints or daily wordcount goals that inevitably fall apart when they run up against real life. Don’t set yourself up to fail. If your plan is so fragile that a single day of dealing with a work emergency or caring for a sick kid can disrupt it, you need a better plan.
Most of us have fairly regular weekly routines, so it may make sense for you to set up your NaNo writing plan on that basis. For example, Thursday is my long day at the office; I usually work twelve hours or more. When I set up my own modified NaNo plan to write for at least one WTU per calendar day, I thought about that and added “except Thursday.” To balance that out, I’ll aim for two WTUs on a Tuesday or Friday, when I tend to have free time.
If you’re not already a very disciplined butt-in-chair type of writer, and perhaps even if you are, it’s wise to anticipate some pretty big variations in your writing productivity over the course of the month. From what I’ve heard (and I would love to get some hard data on this), the typical NaNoWriMo wordcount curve looks a lot like the Kickstarter funding curve. Expect productivity spikes at the beginning (when you’re excited) and the end (when you’re desperate), and a lull in the middle (when you realize just how much of a challenge you’ve set yourself). Coincidentally, the Kickstarter team determined that 30 days is the optimal duration for a Kickstarter campaign: “sufficient to maximize the burst of activity at the beginning and end, and still have a small trough where you can regroup or allow some momentum to build.” So when you’re in that trough, think about what regrouping and building momentum look like for you. Do you need to revisit your outline? Change your schedule? Reconnect with your early excitement over your concept? Check in with a friend who motivates you, or commiserate with other NaNo participants? Don’t waste time despairing or fretting; have faith that that final productivity spike is coming, and do what you can to prepare for it and encourage it to spike hard and high.
5. Boost your productivity to make the most of your time. NaNo is focused on word generation, so don’t get too caught up in outlining or character sketching or research, but do feel free to spend a couple of your early sessions investing in preparation activities that will genuinely make you more productive later on. Just remember to account for that when setting your intermediate wordcount goals.
Rachel Aaron suggests spending a few minutes at the beginning of each session jotting down notes for the scene you’re going to write next so you’re not slowing yourself down by planning and writing at the same time. Your mini-outline can be as simple as “John and Steve fight, feel bad, and make up” or “The detective interviews three more suspects and starts to follow a red herring.” It’s fine if your eventual writing deviates from that plan; the idea is just to have something to guide and nudge you if you get stuck.
Speaking of getting stuck, there will definitely be times when you hit a wall. If that happens, don’t despair! Try one or two of these five-minute writing-related tasks and see whether that unsticks you. If not, at least you’ll have made some progress on the planning front, and that will make the next session easier.
6. Periodically check in and adjust. In addition to generally staying aware of what’s working and what’s not, and doing more of the former and less of the latter, I recommend doing check-ins on November 5, 15, and 25 to see how your progress compares to your plan. Don’t just look at the numbers; consider the experience of your writing so far, which types of pre-writing prep have been helpful and which have distracted and delayed you, what writing environments have worked well, whether your minimum WTU is what you thought it was, and so on. Then make adjustments to your schedule and expectations.
If you haven’t written on deadline before, one of the things NaNo will teach you is that you can’t lie to yourself about what works for you or doesn’t. The wordcount tells the truth. It may be hard to let go of your idealized notions of how easy it will be to write in a cafe, how much the people in your life will respect your scheduled writing time, or how little planning you need to do before you start to write, but do force yourself to do it. You’ll get much more done and have much more fun if you’re honest about what your conditions for happy writing look like and do your best to create those conditions.
If you’re an old hand at NaNo (or writing fiction on tight deadlines) and have other time management tips, please do share them in the comments. Good luck to everyone doing NaNoWriMo this year!