The very first thing I want to say in this post is that it’s absolutely fine if you aren’t able to, or don’t want to, take part in NaNoWriMo this year (or any year!) I bow out of the challenge most years: in fact I wrote a blog post on this topic last November:
The current post explores reasons why you might, or might not, wish to take part, and explores strategies for joining in if you are constrained by parenthood (or other life complications).
Warning: I may have become a bit ‘ranty’ and opinionated in parts of this post: you have been warned!
WHY SHOULD YOU CONSIDER DOING NANOWRIMO?
There are lots of good reasons to consider whether NaNo might be beneficial for you:
Momentum to begin (or complete) a novel idea
Camaraderie with fellow writers
Instil a consistent writing habit, which you can take forward after NaNo
Write more words than you would have done if you hadn't joined (even if you don't hit the 50k target)
Just because you can't join one year, doesn't mean you can't join in other years, depending on your circumstances and inclination at the time
However, writing 50,000 words on a novel in thirty days is a tall order for almost anyone. NaNo doesn’t work for everyone, it may not work for you, and if the thought of it makes you go ‘f*** that, I’d rather go skinny-dipping in my city’s sewer system’, then I understand (sort of), and good luck!
If you’re a writer who is also a parent (or a carer, or living with a long-term health condition, or with a busy and demanding career etc) then NaNoWriMo feels impossible. These restrictions automatically decrease the amount of time we have available for writing. And by the way, if you’re tempted to respond with the ‘we all have the same twenty-fours’ mantra, then just know those words are made of the same stuff that some writers may (or may not) be skinny-dipping in come November.
With two young children to look after, an editing business to run, and a household to manage, I rule out NaNoWriMo most years. However, this year feels different for me. I have more writing time available since my youngest son started nursery school, I have an outline for a novel idea that I haven’t been able to start yet, and (so far) I have a gap in my editing schedule for November.
So this year, in a burst of mindless optimism, I decided to give it a go (insert nervous laughter).
HOW SHOULD YOU TACKLE NANOWRIMO AS A PARENT (OR AS A BUSY PERSON)?
If you decide to take on this challenge, then I can’t stress enough the importance of considering what you need beforehand, and taking as many steps as you can to prepare yourself before the first of November! My fourteen top tips for parent writers (and other busy writers) are listed below:
TIP 1: COFFEE
TIP 2: BE A REBEL
It is possible to write 50,000 words in a month and ‘win’ NaNoWriMo, but for most of us who are juggling parenting responsibilities and other restrictions, that would mean spending thirty days surviving on stale biscuits and getting two hours’ sleep a night. Not exactly conducive to building a realistic long-term writing habit!
If you want to join in with NaNoWriMo (and there are many good reasons to!) then you might want to consider adjusting the word count goal, the task, or the timeframe to suit you. In other words, be a NaNo rebel!
You need to work out a personal goal that is challenging but realistic, and gives you wiggle room in case one of the small humans in your life decides to fall over and give themselves concussion (yes, I speak from experience).
You don’t have to write 50,000 words of a brand-new manuscript if you don’t want to or you’re not at that stage in your novel production schedule. Some writers aim to edit a certain number of chapters or words if they already have a finished draft. Or you might build a detailed outline and character profiles for a new novel during NaNo (depending on where you fall on the architect-gardener spectrum).
You don’t have to write 50,000 words at all! You could set a smaller more manageable word count goal and still join in with the community, set a daily word count goal, and reward yourself when you achieve your goals. I’ve never written 50,000 words in a month in my life: for me, 20,000 words is both achievable and challenging.
This year I’m trying out ‘stepped goals’ for myself:
Target: 20,000 words
Great: 30,000 words
Bloody brilliant: 40,000 words
Hold on tight because a black hole just opened and swallowed the Earth: 50,000 words
TIP 3: PLAN YOUR STORY
This applies whether you’re an ‘architect’ or ‘gardener’, or somewhere in the middle (I hate the word ‘pantser’: it brings about entirely the wrong mental image to those of us who use British English…)
Anyway… you don’t need a 30,000-word outline, or detailed character questionnaires, or a wall covered in multi-coloured scene cards and post-it notes like some kind of TV detective.
Just make sure you have in place all the information about the story that you personally need in order to get started. If that’s a detailed outline, then make sure you prepare that before November starts. If that’s a few sentences scribbled on the back of a muddy, torn picture of a purple unicorn, then great. The key is to do the preparation work beforehand: making sure you have in place everything you need to take part in NaNo, and to hit the ground running on the first (trust me, you’ll need that momentum to get through the ‘murky middle’).
TIP 4: PLAN OUT THE THIRTY DAYS
Thirty days seems like a long time when you say it out loud. However, the only way to properly get a feel for how much time that realistically gives you is to make a chart for 1st-30th November. It can be pretty with coloured pens, stickers and highlighters. It can be scrawled on a spare piece of paper in biro and messy handwriting. It doesn’t matter!
Mark all the days on which you're scheduled to work. Mark any days on which you do (or don’t) have help with childcare. Mark any social events (including holidays). Mark days on which you need to take care of life admin, or days on which you might have to prepare for the dreaded C-word which takes place the following month (if you celebrate it).
Suddenly those thirty days start to look very busy!
Look at where there might be room for adjustments to buy you more writing time (e.g. ask your spouse to drive the kids to after-school clubs). However, be realistic in noting how much writing time you actually have, and how much you might be able to achieve in that time if you challenge yourself.
What is your normal writing pace (if you know this)? What is your writing style (e.g. do you prefer short intense bursts or hour-long blocks?) Are you able to write after a full day of work / childcare, or are you too knackered on those days? What time of day are you naturally most creative?
Although you might be like me: my kids don't sleep and they get up early, so they suck up most of my ‘naturally creative’ hours. At this stage of my life I’m a permanently exhausted morning lark trying to be a night owl but missing many feathers and flying into every lamppost while a mouse watches from the verge and laughs at me. Yes, I milk metaphors.
Unfortunately, I can only help with this so much as the person who knows yourself and your schedule best is you. Challenge yourself but be realistic: blind optimism is great for getting started but it will kick you in the nuts and run away around day ten if you don’t do some planning.
Plan your writing sessions, and stick to them! They are appointments with yourself. If your child gets ill (have I mentioned how often this happens?) then take a deep breath, reset, and be kind to yourself. Some things are outside your control. Be there for your children when you need to be, and keep writing time separate so you can enjoy family time.
Remember: your schedule is there as a tool to help you do the things you want to do, not as a stick to beat yourself over the head for being a human and not a machine. If your kid got up five times during the night then chances are so did you: don’t berate yourself for missing 5am writers’ club on those mornings! Don’t deprive yourself of essential sleep and rest: your gorgeous little cherubs are already doing that for you.
TIP 5: ORGANISE YOUR WORKSPACE
This depends on your at-home arrangement. I’m extremely lucky to have a home office, and this is one part of the house which I always keep tidy and uncluttered. I can’t focus if my workspace is messy or if ‘child items’ start working their way into the room.
Even if your writing space is a shared space, I recommend having a dedicated writing area which can quickly and easily be tidied or transformed into what you need.
I find it helpful to work in coffee shops some of the time. The change in scenery sparks my creativity, I’m less likely to be interrupted by arguments over toy dinosaurs, and paying for a coffee increases my motivation to make the best use of that time! Many libraries have quiet work areas which you can use. Adapt this tip to your own personal circumstances.
TIP 6: FIND WAYS TO BEAT PERFECTIONISM
Confession time: like many writers and editors, I’m a huge perfectionist. My perfectionism has both served me well and hampered me over the years, and I’ve worked really hard to learn when to wield it and when to tell it to f*** off and leave me alone.
When I’ve tried NaNo in the past my perfectionism has always been there: lurking behind a bush, water pistol in-hand, ready to jump out and remind me that my writing’s crap and who the hell do I think I am, anyway?
I’ve learned a few NaNo-relevant techniques to turn the water pistol back against my perfectionism and tell it to quieten down:
Acknowledge its presence: ‘yes I see you peering at me from behind that rhododendron. I know that, ultimately, you’re only trying to look after me and protect me from criticism and harm, but we’ll never finish this novel and make it ‘beautiful’ if we don’t have something ugly to work with first. So go and play in the park for a bit and leave me to it!’
Put notes in square brackets in your manuscript if there’s anything you don’t know yet or anything you need to research. Come back to them during editing: don’t worry about them during drafting.
When you finish a scene, write a summary of what happened in the scene, what the conflicts were, how it progressed the story etc. Also note any changes you would like to make on a future editing pass, so the information is on the page and out of your brain. When drafting, I personally include these scene summaries in the day’s word count.
Speaking as someone who normally likes to edit as they write… if you really can’t move on until you’ve made a change in the previous scene, then make the change (and only that change) and move on. If you must look back over the previous scene, then do light editing only: no point doing a major editing pass on a scene that might drastically change in later drafts anyway.
TIP 7: REWARDS
I might be saying something controversial here, but I don’t think it’s a good idea to take on NaNoWriMo in the same month as making other major changes to your lifestyle, exercise and eating habits. If you’re focusing on your writing habit, then try and stick to that habit! You’re less likely to succeed if you try to make too many major changes in your life at once.
On this same note, use small milestone rewards to encourage you to stick to your writing goals. Rewards can be food, fun activities, watching your favourite film etc: whatever works for you! The purpose of NaNo is to instil a long-term writing habit, but rewards could help you form the habit, and make the challenge more enjoyable (especially on the difficult days).
TIP 8: USE CHILDCARE (IF YOU CAN)
Again, this depends on your personal circumstances. However, if you have access to childcare for your precious angels (school, nursery, lovely lovely grandparents etc) then try to make the most of that time. If you’re able to, look at hiring a babysitter for a couple of nights, or ask your partner (if you have one) to take the kids to the park. Find and use these opportunities!
TIP 9: OUTSOURCE AND ASK FOR HELP
On a related note…
If you’re the primary parent dealing with the majority of household, school, life admin etc tasks (as I am) then see if your partner can take anything off your plate during November (or permanently!)
And if, when you combine the demands of employment, childcare, and household management… if you’re with a partner who isn’t pulling equal weight, then why the hell are you with them?! You need a partner, not an extra child. I said what I said.
Outsource tasks where you can. Batch cook. Shop online. Tell the people in your life that you’re taking part. Don’t reply to messages straightaway (my family always moan at me for this!) Get people gift cards for Christmas (why is everyone always pooing on gift cards? Less stress, and they can buy what they actually want instead of something random they already have five of: win-win).
Say no to non-essential tasks and obligations. Obviously you need to feed your kids, but do you really need to go to the leaving party of a work colleague you barely know? Can you delay your December blog post for a few days? (I will be!)
TIP 10: GET YOUR KIDS INVOLVED
This obviously depends on the ages and personalities of your children. However, it might be possible to get them involved, or at least make them aware of what you’re trying to achieve. Let them know when your writing times are. Let them know what time you’ll be available to play with them, or to take them to the park. Find a nice notebook and pen for them so they can ‘join in’.
As I said, this one depends on the child! I’m going to tell my six-year-old about the challenge and what it is I’m trying to achieve. However, he prefers maths to writing so I doubt he’ll want to write his own story! As for my three-year-old, he doesn’t give a single f*** about any of my needs anyway, so that won’t work! (Think bathroom invasions, eating food off my plate, and sobbing when I go anywhere without him, and you get the idea).
TIP 11: ‘RESET’ IF SOMETHING GOES WRONG
As a parent: the hours are brutal, there are no holidays or sick days, and the bosses are cute but bloody demanding: snacks, play, Minecraft monologues, homework, getting ill (again)… Looking after children (or anyone else) is demanding and unpredictable, and uses up much of your precious sleep, time, and energy. If your kid sleeps badly then so will you, and there’s nothing you can do about it (other than pour yourself a gin and swear continuously under your breath). If your kid is ill (which, let’s face it, is every week) then forget getting anything substantial done!
Even if you send a healthy child to school or childcare there’s a reasonable chance you will get the dreaded phonecall letting you know your kid recreated that scene from The Exorcist, and can you please pick them up (again, I speak from experience). If something wrecks your day, e.g. your kid dislocates their elbow (again, me), or you’re genuinely too knackered to move (also me) then don’t beat yourself up.
Write off that day, take some guilt-free rest, and restart the following day with a re-booted brain and a fresh mindset.
TIP 12: IT’S OKAY IF YOUR HOUSE IS A MESS!
On my bookshelf there is a plaque from a German Christmas market. Roughly translated, it reads ‘our house is clean enough to be healthy and dirty enough to be happy’. I try to remember this whenever I’m feeling stressed about the state of the house. I hate dirt and mess, but since becoming a parent I’ve had no choice but to let my standards slide: otherwise I would’ve said goodbye to my sanity. I could in theory stay up for hours each night cleaning, but I’d never do any writing and I’d be miserable. I have to accept a certain level of dirt, mess and chaos to stay healthy and happy.
Give yourself permission to prioritise your personal ambitions and dreams over the state of the house. Remember: no literary award in the world lists the cleanliness of your bathroom as one of the judging criteria.
TIP 13: SELF CARE!
Yes, try hard to reach your writing goals, but it is no good burning yourself out. Rest and self-care actually increase productivity long-term, as well as being good for your health.
So many writers ‘win’ NaNo but are so burned out by the process that they don’t write a thing for days or weeks afterwards. I would rather write 50,000 words over two or three months and feel healthy and rested (as much as it is possible to feel these things with young kids) than throw all my energy and resources into ‘winning’ NaNo and destroy my health, mind, and relationships in the process.
It is essential to take a long-term standpoint with your writing journey. How will your business succeed if you burn yourself out after months of attacking it at full speed? How will you write and publish books for years to come if you trigger or worsen a long-term health condition because you aren’t sleeping, exercising, or eating healthily? How will you enjoy a long career in a creative pursuit if you’re crippled by depression and anxiety because you never allow yourself any rest or space for reflection?
TIP 14: REMEMBER THE POINT OF NANO
The overt aim of NaNoWriMo is to help writers finish their manuscripts, but it also has a covert (and much more important) aim: to ingrain a consistent writing habit which can be continued after the competition. Fifty thousand words might be unattainable for most writing parents (and other busy writers), but setting up and maintaining a consistent writing habit is not. By setting a goal that is realistic, and putting the schedule and accommodations in place to achieve that goal, then you are helping yourself set up that system for the long term.
Forgetting your goal for a moment (whether the NaNo goal or your own goal): would you have written as many words if you hadn’t been taking part in NaNo? Chances are having the goal increased your word count: even if you didn’t hit your target, you are that many words closer to a completed draft. Any progress is still progress!
Interestingly, my overall feelings haven’t changed since last year’s post, so my conclusions are similar!
There are many benefits to participating, but don’t put pressure on yourself to take part if you know it wouldn’t work for you.
If you do take part, be realistic about what you can achieve, while still being healthy and participating in your loved ones’ lives.
Remember: the underlying goal of NaNo is to instil a writing habit and to help you write more words per month (not necessarily 50,000!) If you win NaNo then fantastic! If you don’t, then I’m willing to bet that you still achieve a lot more than if you hadn’t set the goal in the first place. That is still a win!
It’s also still a win if you decide that NaNo is just not for you. Knowing yourself as a writer, and knowing your preferences and writing style, is half the battle!
Use the link below if you wish to sign up for NaNoWriMo this year. You can still participate even if you don’t do so formally, and set a modified goal for yourself if that works better for you.
My username if you’d like to connect: cbentleywriter
BEFORE YOU GO…
Are you participating in NaNoWriMo this year? Why? Why not? (contact details below).
Please feel free to comment on the article and/or contact me if you have any questions:
Socials: @cbentleywriter on most of them!
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I welcome respectful and friendly discussion on the topics I write about, including if your opinion differs from my own.
Disclaimer: generative AI
I do not use generative AI to produce or inform my blog, my images, or my fiction. All my content is generated by the chaotic firing of my own (human) brain! (I have access to some images through my Wix subscription). I do not consent to the use of my content, images, or fiction to train generative AI models. Please contact me to discuss permission and compensation if you wish to use my content in this way.