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Post-NaNoWriMo Marching Orders (Whether You Won or Lost)

It’s December 1. The final bell has tolled for National Novel Writing Month 2016. Maybe you sailed past the finish line early in the month or barely eeked out a victory in the 11th hour. Or maybe you wrote a measly 2000 words total over the course of the month. In the 6 years since I’ve been participating in NaNoWriMo, I’ve had both of those kinds of years. Screaming successes and dismal failures. And I’m here to tell you that regardless of how this particular November went for you, December is new month. Full of new possibilities.
First I’ll address the winners, those of you who, one way or another, pulled 50K words from the recesses of your imagination and hit the target. What does December look like for you?

  1. Congratulate yourself. You set a goal and you achieved it. It could just be my enjoyment of celebrating, but I truly believe that you should appreciate each milestone. Live in the moment. You did an amazing thing. Take a second. Buy yourself a coffee or glass of champagne and legitimately celebrate your accomplishment. If we don’t celebrate the victories along the way, we will be consumed in those moments when we miss our mark.
  2. Give yourself a break. The old jingle advertising the Kit-Kat bar is currently playing in my head. Hopefully I’m passing that ear worm to your capable mind. But seriously, you accomplished a big goal. Hopefully you’ve also had a night on the town to celebrate your success. Now give your body and mind a respite. Take a day or six and sleep, go on vacation, bingewatch Scandal or The Affair or Westworld. I’ll tell you a little secret about myself. When I’ve exhausted my own ability to make story, I’ve found that the best way to reboot my brain and creative muse is to listen to other’s stories for a time. Sometimes I need a day of that. Sometimes I need two weeks of completely immersing myself in some other story world so I can escape my own for a little while. Especially after something as intense as National Novel Writing Month. For 30 days, we live, breathe, eat, and sleep our story world. It can be hard to turn it off. Find your way, whatever that way might be, to let go of your world so your mind can relax and reset. Because we all know there’s more work to do. You’ll need your brain and body to cooperate with you for the next step. What I can’t tell you is how much time you will need. That is such a personal thing. It can depend on the pace at which you operated during November. You may have done a slow and steady approach and only need a couple of days of respite before your chomping at the bit to get back to it. You may have worked in big bursts and barely crossed the finish line at midnight. Depending on how much NaNo took out of you, rest for as long as you need. Trust me when I say that if you try to jump back in before your mind is rested, you’ll only find yourself banging your head on the wall of frustration. Whatever time you need, take it.
  3. Assess your situation. Alright, you have celebrated, you have relaxed, and now your brain is itching to get back to work. Where do you begin? Well, it depends, doesn’t it. Some of you only have half a story written at 50K words and some of you got an entire skeleton draft completed in that same 50K. What you do next depends on what your story needs. And now that you’ve had some time away from your story, the NaNo fog has lifted and you can look at your story with clear eyes and see what it needs. It certainly needs something. But what? Does it need more meat? Are you filling out your skeleton now or do you still need to work out your ending? Maybe your ending is in great shape but your beginning is a hot mess. With objective eyes assess what your story needs to become a fully realized novel.
  4. Get to work. Yes, you owned November. But if you want to successfully finish your book, now isn’t the time to rest on your laurels. If we sat around reveling in our past accomplishments, we’d never achieve in our future. Be glad that you rocked November, now commit to rocking this novel. Finish it. Commit to however many drafts may be necessary to get your book in tip-top shape. Secure a fantastic editor, hire a great cover designer. Market your novel like crazy. Writing the book is just the tip of the iceberg. So get cracking. You’ve got a book to finish.

This next bit is for those of you who didn’t hit the coveted 50K target in November. All is not lost. The opposite of winner is not loser. You just haven’t won yet. The reality is that it doesn’t actually matter if you hit your 50K by November 30 or January two years from now. What matters is that you started your work in November and as long as you keep going, you’ll achieve your goal of finishing your novel. This next part isn’t a pep talk for the “runner-up” as though the race is over and you get a consolation prize, but rather I’m offering some tips for the marathoner since you didn’t end up sprinting through November.

  1. Wherever you are, it’s totally okay. That’s the first thing you have to do. Believe that it really is okay. Whatever it is that you accomplished in November, it’s more than what you had in October. You may have a pile of unusable sentences, a directionless story, no plot. But what that amounts to is you know for sure that those pieces don’t work. Using the process of elimination, you’ve learned some things about your story. Sometimes knowing what won’t work is the most important thing to figure out. But you must believe that it really is okay that you are where you are. Until you accept that, you’ll be wasting valuable time beating yourself up or feeling sorry for yourself. It is what it is, folks. Accept it and move on to more productive thoughts.
  2. Commit to the long game. You’ve accepted that November didn’t go the way you’d hoped and that frees you up to decide what to do next. You understand that just because you didn’t sprint through November, it doesn’t mean your book is a lost cause. Remember, writing a book is always about the long game anyway. Whether you busted out a messy complete draft in November or it takes you two years to get through that first draft, a book takes what a book takes. The sooner you can commit to the long haul and accept that the story will take the time it takes, the sooner you can let go of a “hurry up” mentality that could rob you of your productivity. It takes what it takes. It won’t be ready before it’s ready. So relax, settle in for the long, fulfilling ride that is completing a book. Enjoy the adventure. Don’t let the speed of your journey rob you of your joy.
  3. Make a new plan.  Look at what you accomplished in November. Maybe all you worked out was the title, maybe you’ve got a solid concept, but no real plot or maybe your plot is locked in and you got started writing but your characters aren’t quite real in your mind yet. Whatever you’ve done, figure out the next logical step. And the next. Make a game plan. Don’t worry so much about a timeframe for accomplishing these goals, just identify them. Write them down. Make a checklist somewhere to keep yourself on track. After all, marathoners still have to stop to use the bathroom. They need snacks along the way. Just as you will need breaks along the way. When you are ready to hit the road again, you’ll be able to reference this to-do list to remind yourself what milepost you are at.
  4. Get to work. It’s not really a surprise that the final step for both finishers and non-finishers of NaNoWriMo is the same. After all, sitting down with your butt in chair, is the one thing at the end of the day that we all have to do in order to finish our books. You’ve come to grips with the pace of your race. You’ve accepted that you are a marathoner and that Rome wasn’t built in a day. But you can’t live too long in a place of “someday this will be done”. Without the required work, the building of the novel sentence by sentence, the book won’t get written. So don’t let your acceptance of your current position turn into an apathy about your book. You still must do the work.

So however November turned out for you, it’s a new month. Yesterday is over. What are you going to make of today?
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