NaNoWriMo Prep for Pantsers, Part Three: Making Time

Greetings, programs!  So far in this series on the preparations for NaNoWriMo that have nothing to do with your novel, we’ve started to look at some of the things that will come up in November and methods for tackling them.  Now, it’s time to get to the heart of the issue: making time to write.  Make no mistake, this is the core of NaNoWriMo, and where many if not most will find themselves falling short.  You can have the most detailed outline imaginable, but if you don’t have a reasonable plan for getting the wordage out, it’s just going to stay in your head.

As is my wont, I’ll start by asking you a question.

How long is this going to take, anyway?

If you’re going to clear space in your schedule, you need to make sure it’s the correct amount.  Overestimating won’t hurt, but underestimating just how many hours your ass will have to be in a chair is death.  Death!

Ahem.  For NaNoWriMo, the magic number is 1667, the daily average you’ll need in order to hit 50,000 words in 30 days.  Everyone writes at a different pace, so you need to start by figuring out yours.  If you don’t already have a decent idea of this, take a couple of runs at a current WIP or nice warm-up short stories, and pay attention to the numbers.  Personally, when I’m fully engaged with my word processor of choice and merrily typing away, I can produce roughly 1,000 words per hour.  (Some compose significantly faster, some significantly slower.  It’s all about your style.)  So, in theory, it should take a little over 90 minutes for me to hit my daily quota, which is totally manageable.

In reality, 90 minutes of ass-in-chair does not equate to 90 minutes of productive typing.  Depending on how distracted, tired, or stuck I am, it generally takes me 2-3 hours in front of my keyboard to hit the quota.  Still not impossible, but if I’m only budgeting to clear 90 minutes from my schedule, I’m definitely going to come up short.  Again, overestimate.  If you finish the day’s quota early, it’s a great bonus.

The obvious candidates

Even the busiest of us are likely to have some time currently in our schedules where we’re not really doing anything productive.  Playing video games, watching TV, golfing, bingeing on Buzzfeed…  Leisure time, basically.  It definitely seems like an easy way to cut things out to make time for writing, and in many ways, it is.  You don’t have to cut out all the fun stuff, but for most people, this is where they’re going to start.

It also seems very easy to say you’ll just get up earlier and/or stay up later, but be careful of that.  Sleep is a very important thing, especially if you want to end up with a coherent first draft and not stream-of-consciousness hallucinations.  (Unless, you know, the hallucinations bit is what you’re going for, though I’m not sure I’d advocate going Method as a writer.)  Remember, don’t sacrifice your health and well-being over a silly bragging rights contest.

This is probably the part where I’m supposed to provide some secret magic bullet, some secret guru tip that will be the previously unknown key to a successful career as a writer.  Given my tone, you can probably guess that ain’t gonna happen.  However, there are a few ways you may not have considered to increase your writing time, especially if this is your first NaNo.

There are really two kinds of writing sessions you can squeeze into your schedule: big chunks and little crumbs.  Big chunks tend to be “instead of” time: write instead of watching TV tonight, instead of doing the yardwork this weekend, instead of going to the bar after work.  They’re good for momentum and getting into a certain mindset and groove, and are probably where the bulk of your work is going to be done.

The little crumbs, on the other hand, tend to be “while” time.  Rather than cutting out an activity in favor of writing, you multitask.  This may not necessarily be the most productive output in terms of words per minute, especially if your attention is very divided.  However, you’d be surprised how quickly a few sentences here and there can add up, and each and every word gets you closer to the finish line.

Essential to the little crumb sessions is portability: you need to be able to write wherever you find yourself with a spare moment.  Technology is a beautiful thing, and there are several systems out there (Dropbox, Google Drive, My Writing Spot, Celtx, Yarny, etc) that allow you to work on the same document from whatever screen is handy, retaining your changes between sessions and devices.  You wouldn’t think that writing on your phone is a good idea, but if you find yourself, say, unexpectedly sitting at the side of the road waiting for AAA without any of your other gear (which may be a thing that has happened to me), being able to sneak a few words in feels fantastic.

Perhaps you’re not a techie, or perhaps your writing solution of choice (::cough::Scrivener::cough::) leaves you tied helplessly to a single machine.  But not to fret, you can still take advantage of those little writing crumbs.  When I was in high school, in the pre-laptop, pre-mobile days, I used to keep a printed copy of my work in progress in a folder, and I’d handwrite additional material throughout the day.  Then, when I got home, I would transcribe the day’s progress and keep writing.  New pages got printed out the next morning and added to the folder.  Not the prettiest or most eco-friendly solution, but man, was I productive.  Even if keeping a running hard copy isn’t feasible, you can still keep a notebook on hand and jot down a few sentences as you find a spare moment.

Keeping your eye out for those spare moments is the trick.  Waiting for the water to boil for dinner?  Have your laptop fired up and ready to go.  Boss running late to a meeting?  Pull out the notebook.  Take public transit to work?  That’s solid writing time, baby.  Some people even use dictation software so they can write while driving or at other times when they don’t have their hands free.  Stay prepared for those opportunities, and it will be easier to take advantage of them.

Putting it all together

As I’ve been saying all along, your writing schedule is probably going to consist of combining several of these strategies, rather than taking one and running with it.  All of this stuff is in your schedule for a reason: you want or need to do it, and a writing competition doesn’t change that.  Remember, we’re supposed to be having fun, and sometimes having fun means taking breaks, too.

Also keep in mind that the daily 1667 is an average.  If you find that writing during the week is simply impossible, it’s certainly a feasible strategy to do your entire week’s worth of words on the weekend; there are some people that can finish the entire shebang in just a couple of ridiculous marathon days.  Just recognize that it’s going to be much, much harder.  The further you fall behind, the more words you have to write every day to catch up.

I tend to find it’s better to front-load.  There’s a tremendous amount of energy, support, and enthusiasm in the first 10 days of the month, as everyone is bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.  If you’re a plotter, you’re finally getting to write down words you’ve been mulling over for weeks, months, maybe years!  Everything is new and exciting!  You haven’t had a chance to start hating your characters or write yourself into a corner or just get bored!  If you ride that push and aim high at the beginning (especially if you’re a more experienced writer and have a good idea of what you can manage), you give yourself a nice buffer later on in the month when the novel starts getting harder and the things you’ve been ignoring start calling out to you.  Even if you don’t find yourself needing a lazy day or an entire day off, you can just finish early, which is pretty awesome.

For example…

My own strategy tends to be a couple of big writing sessions each day (one on my lunch break, one before bed).  I occasionally supplement with crumbs, but only as the mood strikes me; I find those spare moments tend to be better for mulling things over and getting ready for the next session.  When possible, I get out to a coffee shop or library, either as part of a write-in (more about those in a couple of weeks) or just on my own.  Housework doesn’t usually get too bad, since it’s only the two of us and my husband is very supportive and generally awesome.  The DVR tends to fill up, but I can stay caught up on The Daily Show and with my G+ and Feedly.  Stuff for my Etsy shop and other crafting and painting probably suffers most, so I try to start early on stocking the shop for Christmas and just accept that my other projects will still be there when the draft is done.

Unless you’re trying to finish very early in the month (like if you know the latter part of November is just going to be impossible), it’s not necessary to be writing constantly.  There’s still plenty of time for other things; though it seems daunting, 2-3 hours out of 24 isn’t that much.  The trick to getting through NaNoWriMo, and to building a good writing habit in general, is ass in chair.  Whether you’re in the mood or not, even when it’s hard, make it a priority.  Writers write.

Since this one got a little long, next week’s post will be a little less stick and a little more carrot.

NaNoWriMo Prep for Pantsers, Part Two: Cleaning House

Greetings, programs!  Last week, we talked about thinking through your plans for coping with NaNoWriMo in November.  This week, we’re going to discuss putting some of those plans into action.  I would move on to exactly how you’re going to schedule in those 1667 words per day, but that’ll be next week.  I figure we need to get today’s topic out of the way as early as possible, so you have more time to get through what needs to be done.

So, let’s get into your standard of living.

Of that mental assessment of your time budget from last week, how much of it went into housework, errands, chores, and so on?  I’m guessing probably a lot of it.  Cooking, cleaning, laundry, shopping… it all adds up to a pretty huge chunk of your week.  This is one of those places that seems non-negotiable, but taking advantage of the time you still have, you can temporarily free up at least a little of that with some preparation and planning.

Set your baseline

Honest, icky question: How bad are you willing to let it get?  If you were to entirely cut out a certain task for a month, would you be able to live like that?  How long do you think you could put off that task before it reached a danger zone?  (Realistically, you’re probably going to be cutting a little bit here and there rather than just ignoring one thing for the whole month.  We’re still in thought exercise territory for now.)

Obviously, a bachelor living alone is going to draw the line in different places than a mother of four hosting Thanksgiving, and things probably aren’t going to hit rock bottom in the relatively short span of thirty days.  But you may find that there are chores that you’d be comfortable with putting off entirely, and it’s very likely you’ll find things that you can do less often (like yard work or laundry) and still keep the place acceptable.  Prioritize what stuff absolutely has to get done and where you’d be okay cutting corners, so you have a better idea of where you can be flexible, especially when you need to make such decisions on the fly.

Work in advance

Even if there are places where you can’t really cut corners during November, like keeping yourself and your family fed, you can still free up time then by preparing now.

Making meals ahead of time is key.  I’m a big fan of cooking up a big casserole, then portioning it out into individual bags and freezing those.  It’s a lot healthier than relying on the processed frozen foods, but requires about the same effort come mealtime.  (Unless you decided that a month of only processed foods fell into the acceptable range, in which case, shine on, you crazy diamond.)  You can also mix up sauces and stocks in advance, and freeze them into ice cube trays, making it easier to defrost only what you need while preserving the rest.  Sides are also good for preparing in big batches and resurrecting later.

If you don’t have a crockpot or slow cooker, consider investing in one or seeing if you can borrow one.  There are tons of recipes out there that let you toss in some ingredients in the morning and come home to deliciousness that’s ready to serve.

One of the things that makes November suck is its proximity to the holidays, and all the decorating, cooking, baking, shopping, and other insanity that those entail.  If you can get any of your Christmahanukkwaanzikahstice stuff out of the way now, it can help take some of the heat off going into December.

No matter where you set your baselines for cleanliness, if you can get things looking their best now, you can buy yourself some time in November.  Maybe a big load of laundry right before kickoff means you can cut out a laundry day later, or maybe if you get your bathroom sparkling clean it can survive most of the month without a revisit.  Even if you aren’t willing or able to cut down on the frequency of certain chores, starting from a clean slate can make them easier and faster, which is time that can be spent writing.

Use your resources

NaNoWriMo is a pretty awesome thing, and chances are that your friends, neighbors, and loved ones will think that you’re pretty awesome for doing it–and will want to help.

Maybe your spouse or kids would be willing to take over certain tasks just for a few weeks.  (Unless they’re participating as well, in which case the other prep stuff is going to be even more necessary!  Yeah, learned that one the hard way.)  Would you be willing to bribe or barter with friends to help out with things like daycare or cooking?  You could maybe offer to watch their kids before or after NaNo if they’ll take them off your hands a time or two during the month, or use your particular talents in thingmakery in exchange for a couple of meals.

If it’s in your budget, there are things you can do to create a cushion while you’re busy writing.  Perhaps planning on having a professional come in and get your house back into tiptop shape will make it easier to cope with the prospect of it getting messy, or can keep it from getting there in the first place.  (Groupon and other social deal sites frequently offer discounts on such services, so keep an eye out.)  The cost of dining out or grabbing takeout can add up quickly, but the time you’re not in the kitchen might be worth it.  Paying for some additional childcare or a night away from home might be a splurge, but can give you a very valuable writing session.

None of these suggestions need be all or nothing propositions, and you certainly don’t have to resign yourself to living in squalor.  But skipping a chore here and outsourcing a meal there can all add up to a significant time savings, and every minute you can clear for writing gets you a few words closer to the finish line.  We’re still 18 days out, so that’s a lot of time for you to pave the way to making your life slightly less crazy in November.

Next week, we’ll be looking at other places where you can free up some time for writing, from the common ones to things you might not have considered.  In the meantime, got some tips of your own for keeping the place acceptable while your head is buried in your word processor?  Some fabulous go-to recipes that can be prepared in bulk or in advance?  Share in the comments below!