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It’s Halloween, which for most people means spooky thrills and candy. Maybe a night out dancing, maybe a night in watching scary movies…or maybe, if you’re planning on writing a novel during National Novel Writing Month, reviewing your notes and wiggling your fingers over the keyboard, itching for the stroke of midnight that will kick off 30 insane days of writing.

I’ve done NaNoWriMo four times (every odd year since 2007), and to be honest, it’s been life-changing. I don’t always play by the rules. Two times, I’ve cranked out short stories by the dozen during November instead of a novel to hit the magic 50,000 word threshold. I don’t always like what I write. My first novel, the one I wrote in 2007, was so horrifically bad that I try to pretend it never existed (and it doesn’t, anymore–I trashed it years ago). Out of the 40 or 50 stories I’ve written between my two short-story themed NaNoWriMo years, maybe 10 were good enough for me to go back to and revise. Maybe.

But I’m actively working on the novel I wrote in 30 days last year, and half my graduate thesis stories began during a November writing frenzy. Good things come out of participating in the wild writing, late nights, and encouraging community that is NaNoWriMo. Here’s a few things I’ve learned:

I can make a lot more time for writing than I often do. It’s easy for me to blame my mood or my schedule, but there’s more downtime (or even wasted time) in my typical day than I notice. When I’m committed to getting 1,667 words out per day, those pockets become magic productivity slots. Now, I am also fortunate enough to have a husband who’s willing to cook (a lot) more and give up some relaxation time to let me meet my goal. Without his enthusiastic support, my NaNoWriMo experience would be a lot different. I also want to point out that I’m not suggesting I could write like I do during NaNoWriMo year-round. It’s too intense. But with that said, discovering how much I can accomplish inspires me to devote more time to writing, even when I don’t feel like it.

The words do come. Writer’s block sucks. It’s a kick in the gut to have bad ideas, or no ideas at all. It rattles your whole sense of self as a creative person. During NaNoWriMo, though, writer’s block isn’t an option. Forums are bursting with challenges, word sprints, and other techniques people share to help each other make the words come even when it feels impossible. Lately, I’ve been sitting down in the mornings with a timer and no distractions allowed. If I don’t write, I tell myself that’s fine, but I can’t do anything else. (I’m borrowing this practice from Ann Patchett, as well as many other writers, doubtless.) You know what? The words have come every single time. Turns out an hour of silence beats my writer’s block every time.

Giving yourself permission to be bad can help you write better. I found the emphasis on quantity over quality during NaNoWriMo (and several forum discussions on silencing the inner editor) helped me loosen up and just go for it. Sure, 80-90% of what comes out is dreck. But some isn’t, and considering the sheer amount I had to write, I end up with more good writing at the end of November than in two or three months of writing when I feel like it.

Now, I’ll admit this is a little strange for me to talk about given that I won’t *technically* be doing NaNoWriMo this year. It’s an even year–I take those off :-P. Between editing my novel and hustling for freelance clients, my writing life is full enough without adding another 50,000-word project into the mix. But I had to write this for anyone who might be on the fence even now: NaNoWriMo, over the years, has changed my writing habits and my writing for the better. If you’re thinking about doing it, if you have a plan or don’t, please try it. And finish it. Push through the slumps and the headaches and the worry that this heap of words is useless, and tilt at the 50K windmill anyway. You’d be surprised by what can happen.

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