Finding Your Pace: National Novel Writing Month Executive Director Grant Faulkner on How to Make Writing a Priority

It’s that time of year again—no, not Thanksgiving planning prep, it’s National Novel Writing Month (also known as NaNoWriMo). Every November, thousands of writers at all levels of experience and publishing success challenge themselves to write an entire novel—50,000 words—from start to finish, in just 30 days.

Far from a stunt, NaNoWriMo has encouraged many writers to complete novels that were eventually professionally published—not to mention countless others who have self-published their work. But even if the end result is only a sense of accomplishment, it’s still a viable way of instilling the habit of writing—and as most any successful writer will tell you, the one way to learn how to be a better writer is to write. Plus, NaNoWriMo provides added incentive in the form of message boards that offer a supportive and encouraging community to burgeoning authors who might otherwise lack one.

Grant Faulkner has been executive director of NaNoWriMo since taking over from founder Chris Baty in 2012. Faulkner is also the founder of the online literary magazine 100 Word Story and the author of Fissures, a collection of his 100-word short stories; Nothing Short of 100, an anthology of the best stories from 100 Word Story; Pep Talks for Writers and co-author of Brave the Page. He recently took some time from his busy November writing schedule day to chat with us about the power of NaNoWriMo, the advantages of short fiction, and why everyone should probably try to write a novel this year.

You’re best-known for your books on writing and your flash and micro-fiction, but you just finished a novel (The Letters). Have you ever done NaNoWriMo yourself?
Yes! I’ve actually been participating in NaNoWriMo since 2009, before I took on my current position. I did NaNoWriMo because I asked myself if I’d decided on my creative process or if it had decided on me. I was in a creative rut, in short, and NaNoWriMo is a great way to get yourself out of a creative rut, to shake things up and push yourself into new creative directions, because it’s a creative experiment by definition. I participate every year, without fail.

How should writers ideally approach NaNoWriMo in terms of mindset, prep, and expectations?
One thing I would strongly suggest is that you think about the time factor—how are you going to come up with the time you’ll need to write? Think about whether you need to block off big chunks of time on the weekend or if you have nooks and crannies of time throughout your day to dedicate to your novel. I know I need about two hours a day to write 1,667 words. Again, there’s no right way to do it, but it’s important to have a plan, to think about how you’re going to open up time in your life to write and make creativity a priority for a month. The most frequent reason I hear that people say for why they can’t do NaNoWriMo is that they don’t have enough time, but I think most of us can find the time if we analyze what our priorities are and then make a plan to execute them.

Beyond a time management strategy, there are various approaches to preparing to write your story. We have Pantsers, who just charge into the story and write by the seat of their pants, and we have Plotters, who like to map out their story first—and then we have what we call Plantsers, who combine a little bit of plotting and pantsing, or switch back and forth. What’s great about NaNoWriMo is that it’s the perfect time to experiment, to try something new—if you’re a Pantser, for example, why not try Plotting? Me, I used to be a dedicated Pantser, but as I’ve progressed in my writing career I’ve become more of a Plotter. Writers are like a basketball player in that sense—they need to learn how to dribble with both hands, shoot different kinds of shots.

One final bit of advice is to not get lost in your prepping for NaNoWriMo. Don’t focus so much on getting ready that you forget about the story you want to write, or forget to have fun. Also, we have people who sign up for NaNoWriMo just before midnight on October 31st and pants their novel. We also have people who sign up later in November and write furiously to catch up. Honestly, there’s no ‛right’ way to do it. Any way that works for you and your schedule, your writing process, is fine.

Is it true, the saying that everyone has one novel in them, and a very few have two or more? Should everyone write a novel?
There’s a theory that many writers only have one great novel in them, and then they write variations of that novel for the rest of their career. Most writers have a lot of ideas for books, though—more than they can ever get to in their lifetime. I do think that everyone should write a book, though. I recently read that 81% of Americans said they wanted to write a book someday. Someday when everything is perfect. Someday tends not to happen, though, which is why NaNoWriMo exists—to make someday today with the help of a goal and a deadline. One of the great things about NaNoWriMo is that it helps you make your creative dreams a priority.

One of the great things about NaNoWriMo is that it helps you make writing a priority. And there are so many benefits to writing a novel. We are meaning making creatures and our stories are the way we make meaning in the world. Writing is our most effective critical thinking tool. It’s a way to explore ourselves, see the world through others’ eyes, and imagine other universes. Writing stories helps us build empathy and tolerance and connect with others. There’s a saying that the world isn’t made of atoms, it’s made of stories, and there’s some truth to that. So don’t wait to write your story—write it today!

Tell us about 100 Word Story and the Flash Fiction Collective; what does it take to found a lit journal in the modern day?
I’ve had a passion for 100-word stories for a long time. I think I’m addicted to them, honestly. When I started writing them back in 2010, not many publishers were publishing such short fiction, but I thought there was a market for it, so my friend Lynn Mundell and I launched the journal by recruiting our writer friends to contribute stories. Stories began to flood in, though. I can’t believe how much our submissions and readership grows each year. What’s wonderful about starting a literary journal these days is how the Internet helps on all fronts. For example, back in the old days, an established literary magazine might only have a few thousand readers. Today, with social media, we have a huge readership compared to that. Technology has given a journal like ours reach that was impossible before.

What’s really been satisfying is hearing from teachers who are using 100 Word Story in the classroom. The form is accessible to all, and it allows teachers to do focused lessons around 100-word stories in ways that other forms don’t allow because they’re longer. I’ve heard from college professors using it to teach MFA writing classes, teachers using 100-word stories to help prisoners earn their GEDs, and teachers teaching 100-word stories in grades K-12 as well. In fact, a teacher and YA author, Kim Cuthbertson is now writing a book about how to teach 100-word stories in high school. It’s incredible.

Your book Fissures is a collection of 100-word stories. What are the challenges and advantages of extremely short fiction?
There are so many advantages. I always compare a 100-word story to a Rubik’s Cube; you’re constantly turning things around and adjusting the little cubes (or words in the case of a 100-word story) in order to get them all to line up. A 100-word story is always a puzzle. You’re always shaving away words and then adding words and then massaging those words to get the story to exactly 100 words.

Writing within constraints, with brevity, is challenging because most people are taught to write more in their writing instruction, not less. Aslo, I think writers like to flex their writerly muscles by writing more, by putting in those like nice lyrical flourishes into their stories. When I was getting my MFA, for instance, people in workshops would often write in the margins, ‛I want to hear more about this.’ What we forget is that that so much of a story is told through what’s left out.

When writing 100-word stories, I often think of the Hemingway principle of storytelling where he compares a well-crafted story to an iceberg: about 90% of it is under the water and only 10% of it is showing. That’s what you want to do with your short stories—only show the tip. So a story can be told through well-crafted hints that both create suspense and allow the reader to fill in the gaps. As writers, we have to trust the reader’s imagination. It’s their story as much as it is our story. So I think writing 100-word stories is a wonderful exercise to teach you how to write less. It’s as much of an editing exercise as it is a writing exercise, because while you’re writing, you’re always editing at the same time in order to to get the precision that’s required from the form. So just as every writer should do NaNoWriMo to learn how to write with abandon, to write with an improve mindset, every writer should write 100-word stories to learn the art of compression.

A lot of writers, especially young writers, tend to think in terms of long-form, in novels. But the more constrained you are, the more challenging it can be.
Yeah, there’s a famous quote attributed to Mark Twain, who said, ‛I would have written it shorter if I’d only had more time.’ Writing shorter definitely takes more time because fewer words have to do more work. The challenge for the writer is to capture the essence of their story. I love the story of Japanese writer Yasunari Kawabata’s novel Snow Country, which was cited when he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1968. Years later, he re-wrote Snow Country as a short story titled Gleanings from Snow Country, which was only 13 pages. He didn’t summarize the novel, he just captured the essence. That’s the question every short story writer must ask: what is the essence of this story, and how can you tell it in as few words as possible?

What tips would you offer to a writer attempting their first novel? Are there different tips for their first short story or piece of flash fiction?
I think a lot of people hold themselves back from writing because they tell themselves they’re not “real” writers. That’s very unfortunate, because everybody who writes is a real writer in my book. The definition of being a writer is to write, and the way human beings make meaning in the world is through stories, and everyone has stories to tell. So the very fundamental thing is to believe in yourself, believe that you are a creator, believe you’re a writer, and write down your story.

Another big thing to be a writer is commitment—to not wait for those moments of inspiration to strike in order to write, but to set yourself up with a plan and make writing a daily practice if possible. If you aspire to finish a novel or to publish it, it’s going to take a lot of commitment, and you’re going to go through a lot of moments that will feel dark, when you’ll doubt yourself or your story, so you just have to really believe in yourself, and develop a community that will help you believe in yourself, a network of other writers. We break down the mythology of the solitary author in NaNoWriMo by the various ways we provide community, both in person and online.

In the end, the advice for writing a novel and writing a short story is very similar: believe in your story, follow your passions, and listen to what the story is telling you. Don’t think about what you should write but what you want to write. Just trust that in the practice of showing up every day, you will make the story better and better, and you’ll become a better and better writer.

Aside from your own Pep Talks for Writers and Brave the Page (co-authored with Rebecca Stern), what books about writing do you routinely recommend?
I am usually reading a book about writing, so I’ve read plenty of them. I find that just reading about writing on a regular basis helps feed the creative juices.

=But there are three that I turn to the most. One is Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, which is almost like a poem. Stephen King’s On Writing is wonderful because it’s one part memoir, one part writing tips and then he’s just a fabulous storyteller and wise about writing. And the small press Graywolf has this wonderful series called The Art of … and they’ve probably published 15 or 20 short books written by authors on different aspects of writing, such as ‛subtext’ or ‛suspense.’ They read like long essays or meditations. I find them wonderfully inspiring, so I oftentimes turn to those. And Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo, wrote a book called No Plot, No Problem that’s essentially the bible and the instructional guide to NaNoWriMo.

There’s a long list of published novels that began life in NaNoWriMo (The Night Circus, Fangirl, Wool, Water for Elephants, Cinder, to name a few). Are there any lessons for aspiring novelists from these success stories?
There are many lessons. Marissa Meyer has written many of her novels during NaNoWriMo. She told me that now that she has a publishing schedule, she can’t always do NaNoWriMo during November, but what I think is interesting is that she does her own private NaNoWriMo for every one of her novels. She sets aside 30 days and she writes as much as she can, and just gets the rough draft done and then goes on to revise it later. I think that’s a really good lesson—remember that you can make NaNoWriMo your own creative process beyond the events we host.

Erin Morgenstern participated in NaNoWriMo way back in the early 2000s. And one NaNoWriMo, she took a fanciful detour in her novel, and that detour led her to The Night Circus, which she finished in a couple of the following NaNoWriMos. So be open to the detours.

And then Gennifer Albin wrote Crewel during NaNoWriMo, after her husband joked that her obituary would read ‛the author of the most first chapters in the history of the world.’ She was an expert in writing first chapters, but she couldn’t go further, and that’s one of the premises of of NaNoWriMo, to write to the end. Don’t worry about making that first chapter perfect. You’ve got to write the whole novel first, and then you can go back and revise.

On that note, Joyce Carol Oates has this great quote, ‛You can’t know the first sentence until you’ve written the last.’ So it’s not worth spending too much time laboring over the first sentence or the first chapter in the first draft because you’ll go back and change it anyway.

Are you aware of National Novel Editing Month (NaNoEdMo)? Is it a good next stop for folks who succeed at NaNoWriMo?
We actually have an initiative ourselves called I Wrote a Novel, Now What? It takes place in January and February, and we provide a lot of the same things that we do for NaNoWriMo, but focused on editing. We actually have tools on our websites so that you can set revision goals. So, say you wanted to spend 50 hours revising in the month of January, you can set that goal and track your progress to build in accountability and motivation. We also provide a number of editing and publishing resources through webcasts, podcasts, blog posts, conversations in our online forums, and more. We are big believers that rewriting and revising are very important,. The magic of NaNoWriMo is the goal and the deadlines—we say that a goal and a deadline is a creative midwife—and that applies for editing as well. Otherwise, editing and revising can go on forever, just as researching a novel can go on forever and prevent you from actually writing the novel. It helps for people to have really tangible, daily goals in order to stay focused on progress.

What’s next for you in your own writing?
I’ve got a few books in motion. I have a collection of short stories, All the Comfort that Sin Can Provide, that is with a small press right now. I’m nearly finished with my novel The Letters. And I am working on a nonfiction book on rejection, 13 Stories of Rejection, which will include profiles of different notable authors and their stories of rejection—how they faced the crisis of rejection, how they got over it, how they kept believing in themselves, and how they eventually published a book.

13 Stories of Rejection sounds like a very useful book—it’s great sometimes to point out that everybody struggles; everybody faces rejection.
To be an author is to be rejected. And, honestly, the interesting thing is that a lot of those best-selling authors continued to get rejected even after they became successful authors. So you just have to to develop the mindset that rejection is just an ongoing part of being a writer.

If you’re participating in NaNoWriMo—or if you’re a past winner with a story you’re ready to share with the world—B&N Press is the easiest way for you to get your writing into the hands of readers. With a simple interface and customizable options to fit any project, you can take your writing from a text document to a finished ebook or print edition with ease, even if you have no prior experience with self-publishing tools. And within days, your book can be listed for sale right here on the Barnes & Noble website. To find out more about B&N Press, click here, and happy writing!

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