It’s that time of year again when thousands of writers worldwide try to crank out 50,000 words (sometimes an entire novel, sometimes a solid foundation for one) in 30 days. I won’t be doing NaNoWriMo this year because I’m not at the drafting part of my writing cycle. I participated in NaNoWriMo 2018, and it’s that experience I’m going to write about, because it was the first year I won NaNoWriMo while working full time.
When NaNoWriMo rolled around last year, I was working a day job – the kind of 9-5, full-time gig I haven’t had in years, and had never seriously tried to write around. I was, honestly, terrified: I’d been hired in May of 2018, and in my first few months on the job had drafted nothing. I’d done work of any kind on a piece of fiction save for a few small copy edits on Shadow Game, my Expansion Universe novella written the year before. I’d dreamed of the stability and focus that having a reliable paycheck could give me, but at the same time I was wondering if I’d made a devil’s bargain: would working full time permanently sap me of the energy and free time I needed to write?
NaNoWriMo would be the acid test. I was due to start work on the third novel in my Expansion series while Alliance of Exiles was with my developmental editor. If I could manage to write the first 50,000 words of that novel in 30 days while working full time, then having the coveted day job didn’t have to mean putting the brakes on my writing career.
The short version? I did it. I’m going to share three strategies that helped me win NaNoWriMo while working full-time.
1) You have to have a plan. As an organization, NaNoWriMo promotes giving in to your unfettered creativity during the month of November and following your draft wherever it takes you. This is great for brainstorming, but not so great for writing a book–even a first draft. To win NaNoWriMo, especially when work and other responsibilities compete for your attention, you have to have a plan.
I started planning my NaNo novel in October, starting with the very basic plot arcs for each major character, and working my way down to outlining scenes in the rough order I planned to write them. I found Dan Harmon’s story circle to be enormously helpful in developing those plot arcs in a short amount of time.
I also planned around the NaNoWriMo challenge itself: I stocked up on tea and snacks, chose some easy, big-batch recipes so I wouldn’t be stuck cooking when I should be writing, and decided what reward I would get for each 10,000-word milestone. I was introduced to the concept of milestone rewards by author and vlogger Rachael Stephen in her invaluable NaNoWriMo prep series. For every 10,000 words I wrote, I’d get myself a little something: a fancy coffee, a game app, a T-shirt I’d been coveting. It was a surprisingly simple way to keep motivated, on track, and accountable during what can sometimes be an interminable slog.
2) Technology is your friend: Expansion Volume 3 was the first novel I wrote entirely in Scrivener, an app designed for writing longform works. It’s no exaggeration to say Scrivener’s powerful organizing and time management tools helped make it possible to do NaNoWriMo while working full time.
Scrivener has three levels of granularity: the binder, where individual scenes are organized and which displays your actual draft; the outline; and the corkboard. Both the outline and the corkboard let you look at your entire work in progress from a bird’s-eye view, while the binder displays your notes and synopsis for any currently open scene. You can even open up notes while staying in Focus Mode. If I needed a reminder of my plan for the scene or a detail I didn’t want to omit, I could open the note to remind myself and then keep on writing without exiting the window.
Scrivener also helped me cut down the time I took to start writing. Rather than creating one long continuous document, like Microsoft Word does, Scrivener creates individual documents for each of your scenes and organizes them in a column on the side of the drafting space. You know how when you close and reopen a document in Word, it takes you back to the beginning? Scrivener’s scene binder structure means you can click on the scene you were last working on and take up where you left off–no scrolling required. I also invested in the Scrivener app for iOS, a lean but still robust mobile version that syncs with the desktop program. Getting the sync to work was a bit of a learning curve, but once I figured it out the Scrivener app was a gamechanger: I’d open it on my phone and write during snippets of free time throughout the day, and then sync that work seamlessly into the draft.
3) You have to be flexible: It helps if you can hold two contradictory thoughts in your brain – plan rigorously, but be willing to change that plan up. You may have to apply this to both your schedule and your draft. I originally planned three writing sprints of 500, 500, and 700 words throughout the day. I was going to get up half an hour early, at 6am, to give myself time in the morning to write, do the next 500 words at lunch, and then the final 600 ish after dinner.
I am not a morning person. After the first 4 days of getting up at 6, I was tired, irritable and having trouble concentrating on both my work and writing. I decided to switch my wake-up schedule back to 6:30 and write more after dinner to make up for losing that initial block of time.
Being flexible can apply to your manuscript, too. I started drafting Expansion #3 while Alliance of Exiles was still in need of developmental edits. As a result, some of the necessary characterization wasn’t in place for the third volume. My editor had shared with me that a particular character needed to be more antagonistic in both the second and third book, but without having done that work in Alliance of Exiles, it was proving impossible for me to write that character in a way that felt realistic, fluid, and like it agreed with what came before. But rather than stall out on the draft, I put that plot thread on pause and worked only on its parallel thread, where the work that came before felt more solid.
For writers like me who have a day job, NaNoWriMo is all the difficulty of making room for creative work distilled into 30 days of pressure-cooker production. By having a plan, making judicious use of technology, and being flexible when my initial plan warranted it, I was able to win NaNoWriMo while working full time, and prove to myself that my day job need not stand in the way of my writing.
Have you participated in NaNoWriMo while working full time? How did it go? What helped you find the time and energy to write? Share your strategies in the comments!