Five Ways NaNo can Kickstart Your Creativity
My name is Colin and I am a maths tutor. I’m also a National Novel Writer’s Month veteran – since 2005, my main character (Freeman Moxy, a sort of time-travelling Louis Theroux) has visited five different eras and escaped after a 50,000 word adventure four times*.
National Novel Writer’s Month – NaNoWriMo for short, or NaNo for shorter, is difficult, especially if you care about the quality of the writing. Or spelling. You have to write a 50,000 word story, from scratch, in November. You’re allowed to plan a bit beforehand – I have this year’s first line etched in my head, and a rough idea for the story – but the rough rule I follow is, anything I type before November 1st isn’t allowed in my draft.
NaNo has taught me a lot over the last half-decade – about myself, about how to churn out close to 2,000 words a day without burning out, about how to craft a story. But it’s taught me most of all about creativity.
Here are some of the lessons I’ve picked up.
(1) The best way to get ideas is to require them
The demands of a silly comedy-thriller are that the hero repeatedly get into a pickle, try to get out and land in deeper trouble, and finally extricate himself. The demands of a NaNo are similar, except you repeat that basic plot until your word-counter hits 50,000.
Trouble is… there’s only so many bits of trouble Moxy can easily get into in pre-civil-war Saskatchewan. So, as you go about your everyday life, you’re looking and listening desperately for the germ of an idea you can use to get your quota for the day written.
(2) The more ridiculous the constraint, the harder you work
I mean, seriously, who in their right mind would sign up to write well over 1,600 words a day, every day, for a month? Well, me and about 165,000 others last year, of whom 30,000 or so reached our goals.
Just because a lot of people do it doesn’t make it sensible, though. You wouldn’t say “You’ve got 3 hours to paint the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. Make it gorgeous” – although a) that would be an amazing reality TV show and b) you’d come up with some brilliant ideas on the way.
By taking the stress of “you have to write something good” away, and turning it into the stress of “you have to write something”, you – perversely – often end up with something better than you would have achieved otherwise.
(3) It is hard work
Running a mile isn’t all that hard. Running twenty-six, one after the other? That’s a bit trickier. I have a lot of respect for marathon-runners, no matter how long they take.
I’ve never run a marathon (so far), but I believe NaNo has many things in common with long-distance running. Particularly, you reach a point about halfway through and you start thinking “This sucks. Why did I ever sign up for this?”
Well, no kidding. If it was easy, everyone would do it. You don’t get any credit for saying “I ran 55% of the London Marathon”, so you keep going. At some point, the endorphins kick in and you can start enjoying yourself.
(4) Creativity is addictive
Every year, around September, I say “I don’t know if I’ll do NaNo this year.” And every year my friends call me out on it and say “Of course you will. You said that last year. You always do.”
Rossini once said of Wagner, “he has some great moments but some dreadful quarter hours.” NaNo is much the same: you type away blindly like Sir Clement Freud used to talk on Just A Minute, languidly listing all of the things your character can see, when suddenly, out of nowhere, comes a man with a gun who picks up the plot by the lapels and hurls it bodily into a more entertaining space.
That kind of moment is what I write for.
(5) You sometimes surprise yourself with something embarrassingly good
My first NaNo – “The Charlatans, or One Man’s Fight Against The Forces of Stupidity” – had a handful of great jokes (my favourite was a soothsayer who just said ‘sooth!’) and a huge amount of digressionary drivel. But midway through, my subconscious served up a pearl of a story about Moxy (in his own time) resorting to all kinds of chicanery to avoid cheating on his girlfriend.
It was brutal. I avoided showing it to my then-girlfriend and the girl I was resorting to all kinds of chicanery to avoid cheating on her with, in fear that either of them would recognise herself and hate me forever.
And I read it back just now. It’s better than anything else in the book**.
Unless you’re a genius of the highest order, it’s more or less impossible to write a great work of fiction in a month. What NaNo does is give you the freedom not to. If you’re just trying to write a work of fiction, you’re much more likely to succeed.
And you can edit it into a great work of fiction later, if you’re so inclined.
* He never did figure out what to do with the road pirates who has mistaken bouillon for bullion. It was a bit of a one-joke story, that.
** You can download it here: http://www.flyingcoloursmaths.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/cowden.pdf
Colin Beveridge dreams of a world where everyone is good at maths. He has developed a mathematically precise word-count tool for this year’s NaNo and has recently produced a Little Algebra Book to show that maths doesn’t have to be a boring, black-and-white world. He lives in Poole, England with a guitar, an espresso pot, and nothing to prove.
Previous post: Laura Vanderkam’s 168 Hours: An Interview
Next post: Family Culture and Productivity: How Your Loved Ones Create Your Ideas of Productivity