Making the Most of National Novel Writing Month

by Thaïs Miller

The idea for my novel arrived late one night after playing a game of Trivial Pursuit in the common lounge during my freshman year at American University. I was given the Trivial Pursuit question: Who was the scientist that invented the machine that turned slugs into energy? I didn’t know the answer, but I imagined a scientist putting a live, slimy creature into a metallic box, a flash of lightning, and then a sudden production of energy. I figured, if people knew how to make energy from slugs, what was stopping them from generating energy from human bodies? I had read a great deal of J. G. Ballard and Kurt Vonnegut recently and I became obsessed with the idea of a human energy machine.
Good thing, because National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) was starting on November 1, in just one week. I learned about it through my creative writing professor (Randon Noble), and almost everyone in my creative writing class decided to give NaNoWriMo a try, including me.
On the night of November 1, Edward P. Jones visited American University to read from his book, The Known World. During the Q&A, a student in the crowd told him that this was the first day of NaNoWriMo. When the student asked Mr. Jones if he thought someone could write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days, Mr. Jones said absolutely not and if someone did, it wouldn’t be worth reading. After that book reading, I think half of my creative writing class decided not to participate in NaNoWriMo. 
But I did participate.
One of the highest motivating factors for me was that I always wanted to write a novel. I had been writing shorter works (novellas, stories, poems, plays, and flash fiction) for years but I had never made it to 50,000 words before. To complete NaNoWriMo, I couldn’t focus on the quality of the writing, but I could concentrate on the length and the number of words I wrote per day. NaNoWriMo became an opportunity to write a first draft of a novel that could then be revised over time.
While I participated in NaNoWriMo, I set a daily word count and kept track of my progress on the NaNoWriMo website. I had to write 1,667 words per day before I could go to bed. I lived in a tiny triple dorm room with two roommates I couldn’t stand so I often went to the library or wrote while they were sleeping (which was most of the time). Believe me, writing at one or two in the morning didn’t earn me any brownie points as a roommate. But soon I found that I was writing at least 2,000 words per day and that I could write less on some days.
On the first or second day of NaNoWriMo, I had a fight with one of my roommates and I escaped into the library. I started writing faster and harder than I had ever written before. The first line of my novel became: “A machine was invented that sucked human bodies up like slugs and converted their bodies and their subsequent deaths into energy.” Before I knew it, I was writing a novel about a death machine. Something about the inventiveness of science fiction made the writing easier.
That evening, I remember my roommate walked into the library and interrupted me to say something. I gave her a deadly glare and immediately dove back into writing. Nothing was stopping me.
I started writing my novel longhand, but within the first week, I decided to write exclusively on the computer because I found that I typed quicker. The other students in my creative writing class who did not give up on NaNoWriMo would talk to me about their processes. We created an informal NaNoWriMo support group. Writing a novel in a month was still difficult and when I faced a problem (how to organize disembodied scenes or what to do when the writing wasn’t flowing), I had to create new solutions to get me through the month.
Here’s my advice for completing a 50,000-word novel within 30 days: 
1) Be confident, not critical. NaNoWriMo is about word count, not about perfection or style. Think of this as a first draft. Just produce, produce, produce.
2) Write about an idea you’re obsessed with and can’t get out of your mind. 
3) When you’re tired of writing about that main idea, create subplots to fill pages. When I was sick of writing about the influence of a death machine, I wrote a love story subplot.
4) Write scenes. Scenes with narration, dialogue, action, and description take up more space than expository information.
5) Set a word minimum everyday. Do not set a daily hour minimum because some days you’ll write more quickly than others. Tell yourself that you can’t go to bed until you reach that minimum number of words. Keep track of your word count by checking the number of words in your document at the beginning and end of each day. You can create a word minimum by dividing the length of the novel by the number of days in November: 50,000 words / 30 days = 1,667 words per day. 
6) If you miss a day, then make up those words as soon as possible. Some people prefer to make up those missing words on the weekend when they have more time. Whatever you do, don’t wait until the end of the month.
7) Don’t write linearly. Bounce around, writing scenes that occur at different points in the novel. On one day or during one week, for example, write a scene that takes place at the end, then one that takes place in the middle, and one that takes place in the beginning. This keeps you interested in the material and it prevents you from feeling stuck. Leave markers for areas that you want to come back to and fill in. On days when you feel uninspired, go to these markers and start writing those missing scenes.
8) At some point, at the beginning, in the middle or at the end of the month, create an outline to organize your scenes.
9) Don’t delete anythingunless it’s 100% necessary to make the novel seem cohesive or coherent. Erasure will move you in the opposite direction of where you want to go. Temporarily cut scenes instead and save them in a different file. You never know when an extraneous scene might become useful. If you do delete a scene, then replace it.
10) Find a quiet writing space that you can regularly use like a public library or a bedroom. One of my colleagues even writes in a closet. Try not to piss off your roommates.
NaNoWriMo allowed me to complete the first draft of my first novel in 28 days (two days ahead of schedule). Printing out the NaNoWriMo completion certificate felt gratifying and my roommates were happy to brag about living with an author.
A professor in the Justice, Law, and Society Department heard about the premise of my novel and encouraged me to edit it. He saw the death machine I had created as a metaphor for the death penalty. I spent the next eight months editing the novel and eventually titled it Our Machinery before I submitted it for publication at different presses.
Initially, I thought my professor’s publishing house would release the book but they did not have the funds to support the project. One day in the cafeteria, I picked up a copy of Washington D.C.’s City Paper and read about a press called Brown Paper Publishing. The press was promoting one of their writers (Goodloe Byron) as he traveled around the country distributing his novel for free. I loved the idea of free books so I took the Metro to a coffee shop in Dupont Circle to pick up his novel.
A few days later, I sent Brown Paper Publishing a short email telling them about my novel and asking if they might be interested in reading it. They emailed me back right away saying yes. I sent them my novel, and the following week they asked if they could publish Our Machinery in three parts through their literary magazine Predicate. A few months later, they published my novel as a stand-alone title.
Brown Paper Publishing released Our Machinery in 2008, a few months before my 20th birthday.