Talking “NaNoWriMo” with U of M
November is National Novel Writing Month. For 30 days, aspiring writers around the world come together in an online community, each hoping to write 50,000 words by the end of the month and inspire others along the way.
Joshua Johnson with the University of Minnesota Morris talks about National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and shares his best advice for aspiring writers.
Q: What is National Novel Writing Month?
Prof. Johnson: NaNoWriMo is a community event for writers that started in 1999 with the goal of encouraging every participant to write a novel-length draft over the month of November. Although only 21 writers participated that first year, it has grown to become a widely popular event that boasts hundreds of thousands of participants producing millions and millions of words. Books like “Water for Elephants,” “Fangirl,” and many more can trace their lineage back to first drafts composed during and for NaNoWriMo. Writing a first draft of a novel on any timeline is a big task. NaNoWriMo promises to make it challenging by doing it all in a single month, yet easier by offering a supportive and excited community to cheer writers along.
Q: How can writers turn an idea into a novel?
Prof. Johnson: The short answer: write a lot! And don’t give up! Writing is hard, first drafts in particular. This isn’t to say writing sessions won’t be fun, but that it can be soul-crushing to have a particularly productive session followed up the next day by an unproductive two hours spent staring at the screen. Writing is about showing up and putting in the work. Sometimes that work goes well and sometimes it doesn’t — it’s your job to be there for it all.
It’s important to read a lot, too. Reading good books and bad ones, weird ones and unexpected ones, poetry and prose, fiction and non-fiction — all of that is the fuel that keeps you writing. When you’re feeling stuck, go read a passage from another book. Go copy down a passage from another book. See how it feels to be the fingers typing the opening lines of your favorite novel. Writers are readers, so be sure you always have your nose in a book — yours or someone else’s.
Q: What strategies do you recommend for aspiring writers participating in NaNoWriMo?
Prof. Johnson: Go easy on yourself, take breaks when needed, switch rooms or locations, snack often, drink lots of water, switch mediums (eg. notebook, whiteboard, computer, etc.), and talk about your work. Bend a friend’s ear when you have writer’s block. Talking through your ideas is a great way to process them.
This is one of the great values of NaNoWriMo; you have a built-in community of people working at the same thing you are. The official NaNoWriMo website is packed with all kinds of support, including pep talks from established writers, information about local meetups with other writers and novel-writing prep courses. Feeling stuck or uninspired? Read one of the pep talks from authors like Erin Morgenstern, Diana Gabaldon, Jeff VanderMeer, Marie Lu, Lemony Snicket and many others. They know what it’s like to feel stuck while drafting, and they might just have the advice you need to get unstuck.
Q: What are the benefits of incorporating writing into everyday life?
Prof. Johnson: I hesitate to say anyone should write every day, but I do think writing consistently, whatever that means for you, is a fantastic way to process and render your experiences of the world in a measured, careful and thoughtful way. We’re often asked to process and respond to stimuli around us in real time, and that’s all good — but I love the chance to let thoughts expand on the page, to shape language, to ponder. Zadie Smith, one of my favorite writers, talks about feeling like her best self when she’s writing, and that’s how I feel. When I speak, I often feel frantic, unable to capture my thoughts in words or pressed for time. But when I write, the me that I’d like to be gets a chance to show up.
Q: What are you and your students writing these days?
Prof. Johnson: I have students writing all sorts of things, from analytical essays to short stories to novels. I’m currently at work revising my debut novel — a story set on a sea of miles-high prairie grasses, featuring pirates and giant, horrifying worms — out January 2021, and drafting its sequel. Like many of my students, I’m hoping to have a productive NaNoWriMo!
Joshua Johnson is an assistant professor of English and director of the Writing Center at the University of Minnesota Morris. His areas of expertise include creative writing, genre writing and speculative fiction.
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