Fall is here! The air is getting cooler, leaves are slowly changing, everything is pumpkin spice flavored. And with fall comes National Novel Writing Month, starting on November 1st. In past years, we’ve posted about tips for getting through the month and resources for preparation. This year, we sat down with instructor Ian Randall Wilson who teaches our course specifically designed for NaNoWriMo participants of all levels to ask him about his process, student success, and tips for getting through the thirty day grind.
When did you start the NaNoWriMo course?
We launched the class in 2006 and started out with 15 students. We’ve had as many as 45 students in one class, and last year with the transition to Zoom we had students participate from outside of California [for the first time].
Out of your 377 past students, 88% of students have finished a 50,000 word draft. The overall completion rate among NaNoWriMo participants is only 14%. What is it about your class that leads to so much success?
I’m sure it’s me. I’m a genius!
Really, though, I think it’s the accountability. If you’re doing this by yourself, it’s easy to fall off track. You start to miss days and make excuses. But signing up for the class and having me look at their word count every day keeps them accountable for their progress. If I don’t see movement on the student’s word count, I email them. Going to class every week in an organized fashion with peers also makes students feel competitive, like they have to keep up.
I think the idea of writing without deleting and continuously moving forward is what leads to so much success in the class.
How would you describe your approach?
Whatever I can to get the participants over the 50,000 word finish line, short of writing the piece myself, I’ll do it. I’ve been many things to students: a cheerleader, a parent, a psychologist, a friend. At times I have to be tough and make them tell me their word count in front of everyone to hold them accountable. If that’s what it takes to get you to finish, I’ll do it.
How do you and your students prep for NaNoWriMo?
We spend the first two weeks of the class introducing the concept and discussing the kind of time it’s going to take to finish the novel. It’s really two hours a day. We discuss how to get through this time, and how to deal with friends and family during it. I even encourage students to blow off Thanksgiving if it means getting their project done.
I also try to make them understand that they’re not writing the Great American Novel, and it’s certainly not going to be published immediately – many students go on to take revision courses. What I’m doing is preparing them to lower the bar. I say that because I want them to be more concerned with what they wear to class than with what they write. Everything can be revised later, but during class, all they need to do is get the words on the page.
I do discourage outlining and researching too much beforehand. We’re trying to do everything we can to lower the barriers to completion. The more activities you try to do to prepare, the less likely you’ll actually get to writing the novel. The students need to see that this is an opportunity to play with writing. If they can look at it that way, they can be more successful.
What do you think makes a successful WriMo-er?
Somebody who finishes the draft.
I think it takes some discipline to find the two hours a day. It takes a willingness to try to accept the method that I’m offering, even if you think you should write a different way. Some people that come to class are brand new writers and willing to follow any method, whereas some have experience and prefer a specific writing practice. These students tend to focus too much on revision and re-reading during the draft, which leads to burn-out or running out of time. As long as these students can resist their old patterns and focus only on getting the words on the page, they can be successful in the class.
In my eyes, you don’t have to be a planner or a pantser. I honestly hate the term pantser, it’s demeaning. You’re just writing, taking a journey. You’re seeing where the work will lead you. You just write new ideas down as they come and work them out in the draft, and make notes for later if you want to fix something.
What’s the most common struggle WriMo-ers face? How do you get over that?
What I often see in class is how judgmental we are as a society. Most of that judgement is aimed in our own direction. We tell ourselves things like “I’m not good enough,” or “this draft sucks.” There’s something deeply psychological that happens, and it can be hard to work around. Self-judgement is truly the enemy when it comes to NaNoWriMo, which brings me back to lowering the bar. This makes it sound like I don’t care, but I’ve been writing for decades and I care deeply. I just encourage students to not care for thirty days. It’s not the rest of their lives, just one month. Just try!
For getting around self-judgement, I see two approaches. You can take the zen approach and see that the word you write down may not be the best or the right word, but it is the word in the moment. It’s what came to mind, and what you stick with. You can also take the project moment by moment. Ask yourself, “can I get through this minute?” If you can, you focus on the next. This way, you’re turning off the self-censors and not projecting anxiety into the future. That’s all you can really do to make sure you reach that 50,000 word count.
What advice would you give to a first-time participant?
Turn off the self-censors. In class, we talk about sending the inner editor away and only letting them come back full-force in December when revision begins. Just tape over the backspace bar and go for it. Also, lower the bar. You can’t get too attached or invested to your draft. Just get the words out. You’ll finish at the end of the 30 days that way.
I feel that many writing instructors teach this, but I always tell my students to disrupt the main character, upset their equilibrium. Write about them trying to restore it. Disrupt them over and over. It’s the heart of most writing.
Most of all, you can do it. You’ve told stories all your life, now you’re writing them down.
What do you have to say to anyone who’s interested in taking your class?
If you’ve ever thought of writing a novel, come to the class. If you’re looking for adventure and challenge, give it a try. I think the more novels we put into the world, the better. If you think you’ve got one, come on down and give it a shot.
Thank you so much to Ian for taking the time to share his thoughts with us. Click here to check out our NaNoWriMo course and take your shot at writing a novel in thirty days!
By Alexis Harmon