Jump-start your writing with NaNoWriMo

A country road during autumn

Photo via Visualhunt.

It’s that time of year again where writers everywhere gear up for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo)! I wrote about that last year, which you can find here.

NaNoWriMo prep, part one
Part two: Getting started
Part three: Notes and plans
Part four: What to expect

We’re also thoroughly into the new school year, which includes my new routine of devoting the-kids-are-all-in-school hours to writing as my job. So, how’s it been going?

Not well.

I’ve had a lot come up that made it hard to protect my working hours. My husband started a new job, one of my sons was diagnosed with ADHD (which involves hours spent at various clinics and filling out lots of paperwork), I had the flu, and I had a guest visit for a week (I was SO glad to have her but I didn’t write the entire time she was here). And it didn’t help that I never found an accountability partner, since self-discipline isn’t my strong suit—I work much better when people are counting on me or I’m serving someone else.

It’s enough to discourage even the best of us.

This is why I’m glad it’s time for NaNoWriMo again. It’s just the kick in the pants I need. I will be writing every day this month, including weekends, and I will attend weekly write-ins. Starting is always the hardest part, so I’m hoping once the ball is rolling from NaNo that I’ll be able to keep it going the rest of the school year. If you’ve been unable to make writing a priority, I invite you to join me this November (just a few days away)!

Have you ever fallen off the writing wagon, or have had trouble maintaining a habit that’s important to you? How did you get back on the horse? I find I just need to forgive myself and start again wherever I am, because guilt only slows me down. What’s your method?

Set your accountability partner up for success

Two people at a coffee shop table with a notebook, tablet, and phone on the table

Photo via Visualhunt.

Last week I talked about how accountability is an important tool for writers. It’s second only to being well read and writing a lot. Accountability has three parts: personal accountability, partner accountability, and public accountability. Personal accountability is where you hold yourself to deadlines you’ve set for yourself and you keep track of your output. Public accountability is when you tell others what you’ve committed to and you use that peer pressure to your benefit.

And hopefully I’ve convinced you that getting an accountability partner is a good idea—as well as how to choose a good one (and be one). But too often we think the job entails, “So, how are things going?” and “Good! Good…” as the sole exchange.

This will get you no where.

You know what to look for in an accountability partner. But you can set them up for success by getting a few things out on the table first.

Set your goals

What do you need them to keep you accountable on? What is it you hope to achieve? If you don’t have goals, there isn’t much they can ask you about.

Be specific and have measurable steps. Here’s an example: “I want to write a novel,” isn’t specific enough. “I want to write a novel and be ready to query it in one year. I will take two months to plan and research, four months to write the first draft, and six months to edit, let rest, and edit the manuscript again, repeated as needed. While it rests, I will draft a query letter and make a list of literary agents I can send it to.”

With the former, your accountability partner may ask, “So, when do you start?” or “What are you going to write about?” With the specific goals, they can ask, “You’ve finished planning, so how many chapters into your first draft are you? Is it realistic for you to be able to write the rest of the chapters by Christmas? What do you need to clear from your schedule to ensure this happens?”

See how much more helpful that is?

Write down what it is you want to do, when you want to do it, and then make space for it in your schedule. Your accountability partner can help you stick to that plan. Your plan may simply be to write daily, and they just need to ask, “Did you write today?” But they won’t know the right questions to ask unless you make it clear what you’re trying to achieve.

Make a plan, so they can help you stick to it.

Be clear about your expectations

What is it you want your partner to do? This depends on your goals, which is why we discussed that first.

Do you want them to check in daily? Weekly? What weaknesses do you have that you know they should keep an eye on? Do you need them to employ consequences (you owe them $100 if you don’t meet the next deadline; they’ll watch you do one push up for every minute you were on social media during work hours; etc.) or just be someone to whom you can admit that you fell short? Should they just focus on your list of to-dos, or do you want to discuss your fears, accomplishments, and strategies, too?

Once they know what you need from them, they can better support you. Turn the questions around if you’re their accountability as well, so you can be of support to them too. This can also help both of you decide if you two are a good fit—sometimes you just don’t know until you try it out, but being clear about your expectations can be a helpful preliminary check (one person wants to touch base daily but the other finds that smothering and would rather check in biweekly? Hmm).

Decide when and where you’ll meet

Once you decide how often you want to check in with each other, schedule the time for it. If you leave it to when one of you remembers or to spontaneity, it won’t happen. Write it down and keep the commitment. Though you can touch base less often, I recommend starting with weekly check-ins (daily if it’s a “did or didn’t” accountability, rather than a list of tasks). We tend to fill up the time we have—if we have a month to accomplish something, it takes us a month to finish; if we have a week to do it, it’ll take us a week. Don’t give yourself too much time between check-ins so you can stay focused and productive.

And how will you meet? In this era of technology, meeting in-person isn’t the only option anymore. If you prefer to speak in person, that’s fine! Decide where you’re going to meet (your house? her office? at a local coffee shop?). But if you live far from each other or can’t spare the commute time, maybe you’d both benefit from touching base via Skype, e-mail, or even text. What form of communication feels most natural to you both? That’s what you should go with.

Provide a list of questions

You’ve both made clear your expectations for these meetings, and you’ve decided how often and in what way you’re going to touch base. Now comes the meat of it all: What should they check on you about?

There will be some things they may need to ask you weekly (such as, “How many words did you write this week?”) and some that they need to ask based on what was discussed the week prior (“Last time you said you were going to edit three chapters. Were you able to accomplish that?”). What do you want them to ask?

Think through your weaknesses that you know you need regular guidance on. Think about the tasks you’ve committed yourself to. And then think about the specifics you plan to work on between this time and next time’s check-ins. Here are some examples:

  • Write 8,000 words this week
  • Complete your synopsis and send it to a friend to edit
  • Research a topic (armor, science, food, etc.) relevant to your story
  • Read a book that could be a potential comp to list on your book proposal
  • Edit and submit a short story to that contest you read about
  • Research literary agents you could query

In summary, what did you accomplish since the last meeting, what are you currently working on, and what needs to be accomplished by the next meeting? How are you feeling about it all? Why do you feel that way?

The more specific you are, the more your accountability partner can help you stick to your goals. You should also tell them they have permission to press into you with hard but open-ended questions. If you couldn’t finish something, why not? What can you do to prevent this in the future? Is that realistic for you? How can you improve your process? And so on.

It may not always be fun, but it will stretch you and grow you as a writer. And you’ll get a lot more done! The more we write, the better writers we become, so your accountability partner is helping you to improve yourself even faster than you might have on your own (that snooze button in the morning is so tempting, isn’t it?).

Do you have an accountability partner? What kinds of questions do you ask each other? I have a writing group where we commiserate and laugh with each other, as well as bounce around ideas. That’s helpful in its own way, but I’m still looking for someone who can sharpen my iron even while I sharpen theirs. Cross your fingers for me!

Accountability for writers

Two women discussing a project on a laptop screen

Photo via Visualhunt.

The most common advice given to new writers by veteran writers is to read a lot and write a lot. This is excellent advice! There is no better way to learn than by example (reading) and by getting your hands dirty (writing). A million great ideas isn’t enough—thinking about writing makes you a thinker; actually writing makes you a writer.

But another tool that can really help writers succeed is accountability. There are multiple parts to accountability though, and we’ll be breaking those down today.

Personal accountability

Is it realistic for a building contractor to not track their hours and to charge fees according to what “feels right” instead of the time and supplies spent on the project? Can you imagine a graphic designer who doesn’t know how long it took them to design a logo? Of course not.

So, why wouldn’t you, a writer, keep track of your hours?

You should! As well as track any other details important to you. I touched on this when I described my plan for this fall, when I’ll take on my writing as a job. What you need to know will vary depending on what you find important, but here are some ideas of things you could track:

  • How many words you plan to write today
  • How many words you DID write today
  • What time you started and stopped (how many minutes or hours total?)
  • Your writing location (Coffee shop, home on the couch, the library, at your desk, etc.)
  • Number of words in each chapter
  • Number of chapters you’ve written, and the number you expect to write
  • Number of chapters you’ve edited
  • What stage of the project are you in? (Brainstorm, research, rough draft, first revision, second revision, etc.)
  • How are you feeling? (Sick, didn’t sleep well, energized from exercise this morning, etc.)
  • What could you change or keep the same so you write well next time?

There are many other things you could track as well, to see how they impact your writing. Alternatively, you could just keep it simple: Did I meet my goal for today? Or not? All you’d have to track is what your daily goal is and “yes” or “no.”

You can build your own tracker in your bullet journal or in an Excel spreadsheet, or you can use an online tracker. Since what you track is personalized, what works for me may not work for you. Just try tracking a few things and tweak it as you go; you’ll eventually land on a system that works for you. If you need a suggestion, start with tracking word count and the length of your writing sessions. The rest can come later.

Partner accountability

Sometimes it’s easy to let yourself down because, well, who’s watching? If you snooze that alarm in the morning for an extra hour of sleep instead of writing before you start your day, no one else will know. It’s not hurting anybody, right? Or maybe you really did mean to write this afternoon as planned, but something came up and you decided, “Well, just this once,” and skipped writing. Before you knew it, you hadn’t written anything in over a week.

If this is a temptation for you—as it is for most of us, since those with strong personal drives aren’t commonplace—you would benefit from an accountability partner.

Not just anyone will do. Your biggest fan, a loved one, or even a writer friend isn’t necessarily the best person to hold you accountable. You’re not looking for a cheerleader or someone to commiserate with. You need a partner you can trust to keep you honest and on course.

Look for someone who is RESPONSIBLE, rather than knowledgeable in your field. If they understand the writing process, great! That’s bonus. They’re not the person you’re bouncing ideas off of or asking for feedback from for your story, so they don’t necessarily need to be writers themselves. They are your business partner first; if they also write, that’s second. You need someone who will show up on time and hold your feet to the fire, and they should be able to ask you questions about your productivity without letting you squirm out of admitting mistakes.

Make sure they are TRUSTWORTHY. You should feel safe answering their questions honestly and trust that they will hold you to high standards without making you feel ashamed. This person isn’t here to console you or lecture you. They’re here to keep you honest as you work through your own obstacles.

Pick someone you RESPECT. Don’t waste their time unless you’re committed to growing as a person. If they meet with you weekly and every week you have some excuse, why did you ask them to come? Don’t let them down. Also, the best accountability partners are ones you can support too, even while they support you. Are you able to ask them hard questions about what they’re working on? Can you show up on time and put as much effort into helping them as they are into helping you? Show them the respect you want them to show you.

Next week I’ll be discussing ways to set your accountability partner up for success (that means how they can best help you grow!), so keep an eye open for that.

Public accountability

As a writer you know the power of words. As the famous saying goes, there is a big difference between “lightning” and “lightning bug.” This is true whether you write or speak the words.

So speak power into your life! Tell people what you’re doing. Saying, “I like to write stories for fun,” and “I’m taking a year to write a novel with the intention to publish” are very different.

This may not be true for everyone, but I’ve found that when asked “What do you do?” and I answer, “I’m a writer,” people expect me to justify it as a job. I would find myself leading with the fact that I could earn income writing articles for magazines and online publications—even though that’s not what I intend to do—with a “though I’d like to write novels as well” tacked to the end like an afterthought.

No more. I’m speaking power and truth into my life—I’m a writer, and I write novels. I have a business plan in place to make getting traditionally published a reality. I’m making myself publicly accountable right here on this blog.

How about you? Ready to make yourself accountable to your dreams?

Making public declarations and sticking to them is my weakness. Which form of accountability do you struggle with? With that in mind, what steps can you take to set yourself up for success? Also: Anyone looking for an accountability partner? I’m hiring. ;)

How do you choose what to write?

A narrow tunnel of old stones leading to a bright light

Photo via Visualhunt.

I always find it bewildering when someone asks a novelist “How do you decide what stories to write?” or “Where do you get your ideas?” Can they really be expecting a straightforward answer, as if we run a finger across the spines of books on the library shelves of our minds, stopping to pull a tome from the shelf and declare, “Ah, yes, this will do. This is the story I’ll write about today”?

That’s not how it works.

It’s more like those fantasy stories where a teenager is inexplicably and without warning suddenly sucked from their world and thrust into another one, where they’re called The Chosen One. They have abilities and powers they don’t understand and have never experienced before, and yet are forced by strangers to shoulder an incredible amount of responsibility by saving the kingdom—or worse, the whole world.

They stumble through as best as they can, giving it their all to do what seems right (and maybe just to survive), when all at once it’s over and they’re spat back out of the new world and into their old one. They’ve felt things, seen things, experienced things no one around them could ever believe let alone understand, and yet are expected to carry on as if none of it ever happened.

Writing is a lot like that for me. An idea pops into my head out of nowhere and consumes my thoughts, spiraling forward in plot but preventing me from experiencing my actual reality. Overwhelmed, I spill it all out onto paper, trying to satisfy the foreign world’s demand for a conclusion. When the end is reached and it has no more use of me, I’m left back here on earth, with kids to pick up from school, laundry to wash, and supper to make… my hands trembling and my mind reeling all the while.

As Stephen King in his book On Writing quoted Alfred Bester saying:

“The book is the boss.”

To think we story writers are in control of the birth of a story shows how little the inquirer understands the process. We raise the story until fully grown with the skills we’ve learned in the craft, and then release it into the world. But we don’t choose this baby over that baby before giving birth; it’s just born.

When you write, do you find yourself swept away by your story, too? I think readers can get a taste of what I’m talking about. Book hangover, where you finish the book but now your real life feels weird and you can’t stop thinking about the story you just finished, is a real thing. It’s also the closest thing to what I experience as a storyteller. How do YOU answer the question, “Where do your ideas come from?” or “How do you choose what to write?”