Sunday, November 21, 2010

Changing Habits During NaNo

Survey Question 2: Did you start writing on Nov. 1 or before? 

9 students started on Nov. 1
4 students started before Nov. 1 (sometime around Oct. 1)

Are you happy with that decision?

All the students who started on Oct. 1 are happy with that decision. And they are all cruising right along, almost done.

Of the 9 students who started on Nov. 1, five are happy with that decision and four are not. Not surprisingly, the four who are not happy with their decision had the lowest word counts.

In an earlier post, I talked about why I encouraged my students to start NaNoWriMo on October 1 instead of November 1, so I won't rehash that here, except to say that next time I do this project (and I will do this again) I am going to mandate that everyone starts on Oct. 1. It's just more reasonable to ask students to write about 850 words a day than it is to ask them to write 1667 words a day while taking classes, working, etc. 

Besides, writing 50,000 over the course of two months rather than one instills a far more practical lesson in young writers: that it's better and easier and healthier to do a little writing every day.

I'm serious people: doing this NaNo thing as a class activity is very, very enlightening. It forces students to confront their writing process--or lack thereof--in ways that would never happen otherwise. My god, it’s forced ME to confront my writing process—or lack thereof—in ways that should have happened years and years ago. 

I've been teaching craft for years, but I've never really talked with students about time. How much freaking time it takes to write a book. Probably because until recently, I was just like my students, writing without a regimen of any kind. 
In The Writing Habit, David Huddle says:
“The major difficulty a writer must face has nothing to do with language; it is finding or making the circumstances that make writing possible. The first project for a writer is that of constructing a writing life.”
Later on the Survey Monkey survey, I asked my students, “What has been the hardest thing about this process?” The responses were almost unanimous: finding or making the circumstances that make writing possible.

Before NaNo, one of my students said she planned to create that circumstance by finishing all her homework so she could focus solely on her writing. I told her, "I used to think that way, too. But that's a sure way to never write. Because the desk will never be clear. You'll never get all your work done, and besides, even if you do get it all done, you'll be so tired and brain dead, you won't have any energy left to write. Write during your good hours."

Write during your good hours. That’s advice from Huddle, too.
If you’re a would-be writer, what you need to find out is not how someone else works but how you are inclined to work. You have to determine your good hours, the writing tools and the writing environment that best suits you, the limitations you can overcome and the best methods for dealing with the limitation you can’t overcome. You also have to become aware of your inclination toward laziness, dishonesty, glibness, and other personal foibles. You have to become skillful at outwitting those negative aspects of your character.”
Turning my class from a workshop into a writeshop has created the circumstance that makes writing possible for 16 people, myself included. And that's a good thing.

In The Writing Habit, David Huddle describes his “Lake St. Clair Experience,” a few productive months he spent writing in solitude, which “demonstrated to me what it felt like to have a real writing life…I have never been able to duplicate that experience, but because I had it that once, it gave me something to aspire to again.”

Will my students continue writing a little each day even after NaNoWriMo and the semester are over? I don’t know. I hope so. But even if they don’t, I’m glad they’ve had a version of their own Lake St. Clair experience.

Next time: Plotting a novel vs. “pantsing” it


  1. The only thing that kept me motivated in my Writer's Workshop class was that I knew if I showed up to class and hadn't written at least three page, Catie would be disappointed in me.

    It's hard to be self-motivated otherwise.

    I think the two month Nano is definitely the way to go for busy college students. I didn't do Nano this year, but I've tried for the past four years and always give up in the first week. 800 words a day seems like a good and reasonable habit to form.

  2. Thanks, Keri. Next year when I try this again, you should do it too!

  3. This is exactly why my class didn't get 50K-word ambitious. If I had it to do over again, I'd have them start earlier so they could reach 50K. What an accomplishment to graduate with. Next time.