Thursday, October 21, 2010

Just Write!

by Erin O' Brien

It sounds corny, but it's not an exaggeration to say National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) changed my life.

I participated for the first time in 2002. I'd had an interest in writing fiction for a long time, though most of what I was writing at that time was poetry. I had an idea for a murder mystery, though, and that November seemed like a good time to try it out. I had also just moved to New York, and when other New Yorkers on the official website started talking about meeting, I took the opportunity to go meet them, since I still didn't know many people in the area.

I'm so glad I did. I've met a lot of really wonderful people in the time that I've been participating in NaNoWriMo. Don't get me wrong, I enjoy the writing, too, and I've gotten several worthwhile manuscripts out of my attempts, but it's the people that keep me coming back. I've made some great friends. I became a municipal liaison in 2003, which means I'm sort of an event planner/cheerleader/cat herder for New York City. Last year, I traveled to San Francisco to take part in the Night of Writing Dangerously, a fundraiser for the Young Writer's Program, an offshoot of NaNoWriMo that encourages school-aged kids to start writing. It was my first trip to the west coast. I got to meet the staff at the Office of Letters and Light and had a really great time.

NaNoWriMo has changed the way I approach my writing, too. I think there's something to be said for getting it all out there first and asking questions later. It's one thing to say you're going to write a novel and quite another to just do it, and even if that first draft is completely terrible, at least it's on paper. Making it good is what the editing process is for. I write year-round and tend to employ this approach more often than not, writing as much as I can before going back to edit.

So, now that I've got a few years of experience under my belt, I figured I'd share a few tips with those of you interested in taking on this particular challenge.

1. Just write. I know that seems obvious, but I mean it. Just write. Don't look back. Don't re-read. For heaven's sake, don't edit. The only way to get all fifty thousand of those words written is to keep plowing forward. Worry about what you've written in December.

2. Plan accordingly. I mean this in two senses. First, figure out how much planning works for you. In my eight attempts, I failed twice, both because of planning blunders. In the first case, I planned too much; I wrote a really elaborate outline in October and then got to the end of it around November 20th with a mere 35,000 words to show for it. I was out of ideas after that. In the second case, I started on November 1st with nothing, hated everything I'd written by the end of the first week, started over, and then just completely crashed and burned. My experience is not universal, however. I've met writers who spend all of October outlining and making diagrams and sketches and notes and then soar to success in November. I've also met writers who start on November 1 with nothing and still churn out interesting, creative novels in the time allotted. You have to figure out what works for you.

I also mean this in the sense of making time to write. Set aside a little bit of time each day. Don't beat yourself up if you have to miss a day; you can make it up on the next day you have extra time. Tell your friends and family that you're doing this crazy thing so that they understand why you've suddenly become a recluse.

3. Sprint. Set an egg timer for a short interval of time, ten or fifteen minutes, then write as much as you can in that time. At our write-ins, people tend to average about 400 words in a ten-minute sprint, which means you can meet the day's quota in roughly four sprints. That's less than an hour. Pretty amazing, right? Sure, some of it's going to come out garbled, and it'll be riddled with spelling mistakes, but remember what I said about just getting it down? Run spell check in December.

4. Go to write-ins. No, really, do it. I know, meeting strangers is a scary proposition. But I can't tell you how many people have come up to me and said that coming to a write-in made all the difference. These are people who tried NaNoWriMo on their own a few times and failed, but then decided to come out one year and found the encouragement of other writers to be what they needed to finally succeed. And I know for a fact that there are many really great people who regularly attend write-ins in New York City. Plus we usually have stickers. Who doesn't like stickers?

So those are my keys to success. Happy writing!

For more information on NaNoWriMo in New York City, visit, the regional forum or follow" on Twitter.

Erin O'Brien is a Brooklyn-based writer/editor and the NaNoWriMo municipal liaison for New York City. She is also a romance-novel enthusiast and is contemplating writing a romance novel for this year's NaNoWriMo. She can be reached at erinfshk at gmail dot com.


  1. Great advice which can be applied to any writing. Thank you, Erin.

  2. Hi Erin,

    Great to see you in here fshk, thanks for the advice!

    Karen aka Kyah Pearl (NaNo)