It’s October, which means it’s the month where every writer I know (including myself) is preparing for NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. Just in case you’ve stumbled upon this post and don’t know what NaNoWriMo is, it’s a 30-day writing challenge where everyone tries to write every day for a month with a target goal of writing 50,000 words (or an entire novel).
I love the concept of NaNoWriMo, because I can’t seem to find the discipline to write every single day unless I have an incentive. I’ve never been able to make it a habit, but NaNoWriMo forces me to think seriously about writing and focus on making it happen.
I tried to do NaNoWriMo last year with limited planning beforehand…and I failed miserably. I got about halfway through, but realized my story was going absolutely nowhere and I stopped. This year, I’ve been trying everything in my power not to let that happen. I’ve been planning this story in my head since September and recently I started really planning every scene and chapter out so that I’m not stuck in the same situation as last year.
Obviously there’s no guarantee this will work. There’s always the looming possibility that I will hate my story halfway through or realize it’s just not going the way I want it to. And that’s fine. At the very least, I find NaNoWriMo can be a great learning experience for who you are as a writer and what you need to be successful even if you don’t have a finished book at the end of it.
So from last year’s NaNoWriMo experience and the last couple months of planning, I’ve started to figure out what works for me in terms of staying productive and keeping on track with my goals. I actually made a video about it on my YouTube channel, if you’re interested in checking that out.
In that video, I outline some general tips for productivity and achieving your goals. In this post, I am taking those same tips but applying them more specifically to writing productivity and how it can help you succeed during NaNoWriMo.
So let’s begin!
Create a plan and visualize it
One of the toughest pieces of NaNoWriMo is staying on track and making sure you are writing every single day. It’s so easy to skip a day because you forget or get caught up trying to do other things. I’ve found one of the best ways to stay on track is to create a plan that you can see in as many places as possible.
For me, it’s not enough to just write it down on a post-it note or expect myself to remember. I need to remind myself of this goal in as many places as humanly possible. There are many different types of planners, tools, and lists that you can use. It’s up to you to determine what works best for planning out your to-dos.
Personally, I love to-do lists, planners, and calendar views, and I’ve found that planning out blocks of time in my day doesn’t work for me. I can’t tell myself to write from 9-10pm and that’s it. That stresses me out. I need much more flexibility. Maybe you’re the same, maybe you’re different. But it’s important to figure that out.
Once you do, put it as many places as you can think of. On your phone, your computer, your desk…write it on the back of your hand if you want. Wherever you will consistently see your plan and remember to work on it. Having that constant visual makes the biggest difference in my productivity. It’s so hard to forget when you see literally everywhere that you need to be working on something. It keeps it at the forefront of your mind and you’re less likely to get caught up in other things.
I have a few favorites when it comes to planning. I find that all of these things are fairly flexible and can be altered to fit your personal needs. You can use one, or you can be crazy like me and use them all.
These fancy little planners are awesome for mapping out creative goals. Because they’re designed specifically for creativity, I find they’re much more useful for writing than a regular old daily planner. It has both monthly and weekly pages, as well as a ton of reflective and inspirational exercises to keep you focused on your goals. This is one of those things that can be helpful even beyond NaNoWriMo.
I recently discovered this awesome little tool for creating multiple online to-do lists that you can access both from your computer and through an app on your phone. You can add deadlines to your tasks, color code them, organize them by project, and see it in different views (list, calendar, etc.). It also sends you daily emails of the tasks you have coming up. It literally has everything you need and I love it for putting everything I have going on into a giant calendar where I can see it all in one place.
Not only do I use Google Docs for writing during NaNoWriMo, but I also use it to keep track of ideas, writing notes, and scene lists. The beauty of Google Docs is that it’s just like Word and Excel, but you can access it from anywhere. That’s why it’s my tool of choice for actually writing my story as well as planning it. No matter where I am, I can write my story, take notes, or plan out scenes. It’s like having my computer on the go and makes it much easier to keep everything in one place.
I write this tip with a grain of salt, because I don’t mean for you to sit around and wait for inspiration to strike. That’s the opposite of productivity. What I mean is for you to find the things that trigger your inspiration and start to use them to your advantage.
For example, I am always compiling pictures, quotes, videos, and whatever on Pinterest boards, in my office, and on my phone. I love having these simple little inspirational things on hand to access when I just need a little boost.
When it comes to writing, I like to keep a story board on Pinterest full of pictures, quotes, and whatever else pertains to my story. This is a great thing to look through when you need to refocus your thoughts and inspire yourself to keep working on your story. In my story boards, I keep character photos, personality traits, quotes, and much more.
I also think it’s important to have snippets of writing you love on hand. Particularly writing that sounds like what you’re trying to go for in your book. Maybe it’s what your character’s voice sounds like, maybe it’s just a quote from your favorite book that you’re trying to emulate. Whatever it is, keep it close. You can even use your own writing for this. Whenever I write something that I find particularly encapsulates what I want my story or character to sound like, I print it off and keep it right next to my computer. That way, I am always reading it and using it to inspire the rest of my writing to sound and feel similar.
Books on writing are also incredibly helpful at keeping me inspired. Something about the act of reading about writing makes me really excited to get writing. Stephen King’s On Writing is an obvious favorite, but I also read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic recently and I found that to be a great resource. Any book on writing or creativity in general always makes me feel inspired.
Similarly, there are certain movies or videos that work that way for me. Movies like Stuck in Love or Vlogbrothers videos on YouTube always leave me feeling so inspired. I’m sure you have your own versions of this that work for you. Keep them handy for tip #4.
Get into a routine
Another great way to stay inspired and productive is to get yourself into a regular writing routine. As Picasso said, “Inspiration exists, but it has to find you working.”
We have so many routines without even knowing it, and when we continue with those routines we trigger something in our minds and bodies that tells us how we should act. For example, when you get into bed every night, your brain knows it’s time to go to sleep. I don’t know the science behind it. I’m no scientist. But I’m pretty sure this is science!
So you want to get in a writing habit that triggers your mind to get to work. Think of the things you do when you’re trying to be productive, or when you’re most productive, and build a routine around that. Try and keep all 5 senses in mind while you’re doing this.
For example, I know I am most productive at night. I would love to get into a routine where I was productive at a more convenient time, but for now I have to stick with what I know. When I’m ready to write, I sit down at my desk in front of my computer. I love having a warm cup of tea to keep me relaxed. I often light a specific candle that I have sitting on my desk.
And recently I started listening to music that matches the vibe of what I’m writing. This works so well at putting me into the right frame of mind and emotional state that I’m even considering making story playlists to match specific scenes. I’ll let you know how that goes!
I also think it’s incredibly important to have a good, clean environment to write in. Some people get inspired at different places, but I’m almost sure no one is creative while surrounded by trash and old food. If you are…great. But I am totally not one of those people.
So I have to make sure that my office environment is clean, things are picked up, trash is thrown away, and I only have the bare minimum in front of me when I’m writing. I don’t need books or my phone or bills out to distract me. I just need a computer, a keyboard, my tea, and maybe some pens and paper to scribble on when I need to put down a thought for later. Just the bare necessities.
Now I can’t stop thinking about Jungle Book.
Break it up
So this is where those inspirational books and movies we talked about come into play. There are many ways to stay productive, and I’ve talked about a lot of them. But one way not to be productive is to over-exert yourself.
I would love to sit down and write half of a book in one go. But the reality is our brains just don’t work that way. If yours does, I would love to get some scientific experiments on your brain because HOW?! But most of us can’t stay productive for long periods of time. That’s scientifically proven. We can’t stay focused, so we have to give into that and work our productivity time around that.
Which is why it’s so important to build breaks into your routine. Allow yourself to do things that you enjoy but aren’t necessarily related to your work or goals. Don’t let yourself work like crazy for days and get burned out. Everything is better in moderation.
And to be honest, I think you’ll write a better book that way. Give yourself some space to stop working and get inspired. Your free time doesn’t have to be a waste, because it can be used to clear your mind and open up some space for new inspiration to find its way in.
Go on a walk, take a nap, watch some TV that inspires you or watch some TV that makes your brain sleep for a minute (reality TV, anyone?). It doesn’t matter. Just don’t put too much pressure on yourself.
One thing I do recommend though is to try and get your work done first and reward yourself with breaks after. Once you’ve written your word count for the day, shut off the computer and walk away. Don’t force yourself to keep working longer than you want to. And once you’ve finished, allow yourself to relax and celebrate and prepare for tomorrow.
The reason I say this is because it’s very easy, at least for me, to tell myself I’ll watch one episode of a show on Netflix, and the next thing I know I’m 10 episodes deep and haven’t thought for 2 seconds what I should be writing that day. It’s so easy to get too relaxed and tired and let go of your responsibilities.
This is one reason I hate that I’m most creative in the evening, but I still try to get as much done as I can before I sit down and relax at the end of the night. Relaxing is important, but not until after we’ve done the work.
Break it down
Similar to #4, my last tip is a way to avoid getting overwhelmed in order to stay productive for an extended period of time. The goal here is 30 days, not 1, so whatever routine we get into we have to be able to sustain it for a month. Or even longer, if we’re lucky.
So one way to do this is to take all of your goals and realistically break them down to what you can accomplish in one day or one sitting. NaNoWriMo already kind of does this for us by creating a daily goal of 1,667 words. But maybe your daily goal is different, or you need it to be broken down even further.
For example, maybe you’re most productive in 20 minute increments. Or maybe you like to write in 500 word bursts. Maybe it just makes it easier on your mind to do it that way. This is definitely something I will try if I find writing 1,667 words in one sitting to be too difficult for me.
Another way I am breaking things down is to plan out chapters and scenes for my story. I have everything laid out in a Google spreadsheet so that I always know what I should be writing. Even if the writing is terrible, I will at least be going in the right direction, which will hopefully stop me from stalling or giving up altogether.
Outlining is a great way to break things down, but there are other ways if outlining isn’t for you. The important thing is just to know what works for you, or be willing to figure it out, and go from there. And if you tend to get overwhelmed with tasks, then think about all the ways you can break them down into step-by-step goals instead.
Hopefully these tips are helpful to you in staying productive and dominating NaNoWriMo this year! Another bonus tip is that things are always easier when you have a community to keep you on track and go through it with. So let us know if you’re planning to participate in NaNoWriMo this year, and if you have any productivity tips to keep us on track all month!
And I will hopefully be keeping track of my NaNoWriMo progress in weekly vlogs over on my YouTube channel, so make sure to check that out and keep me updated on your progress! I’m excited to see us all succeed this year.
Good luck and get writing!