Do you intend to take on the 2016 National Novel Writing Month challenge? We spoke with Julie Russell, the head of information technology at Medium and a member on the NaNoWriMo board, to pick her brain for advice.
In the past, Russell has written a NaNoWriMo novel. Below, we’ve posted the highlights of our conversation.
This is our second NaNoWriMo Tip of the Day for 2016. As writers around the country join the writing marathon this month, we will share guidance and writing tools to help you work on this daunting project.
Q: You serve as the Head of IT and on the NaNoWriMo board. What’s your secret for juggling these two roles?
A: Well, for starters, I don’t watch television – at all- which certainly frees up more time to work and write. I also make it a priority to get eight to nine hours of sleep a night, which helps me maximize my waking hours with focus and clarity. I have an incredibly supportive family, who is understanding about how important both my professional and my NaNoWriMo commitments are to me, particularly during October-December, when NaNoWriMo occupies significantly more of my time. And I also have a workplace that has made work-life-balance a priority; At Medium we are all expected to get our work done, but we are also encouraged to pursue our passions and share them with the team. I actually have presented about NaNoWriMo at our company all-hands-meeting, and several members of the company have participated in NaNoWriMo and written on the NaNoWriMo publication I started on Medium four years ago. Tons of Medium employees are pretty regular writers on Medium, which creates a great sense of camaraderie.
Q: How did you first become involved with the NaNoWriMo board?
A: A couple years ago, I decided that I wanted to give back to my community and be on a nonprofit board. I knew I wanted to be on the board of an organization that was doing something I felt personally invested in, but I wasn’t quite sure where I would end up. As I was exploring my options, I met Grant Faulkner, the Executive Director of NaNoWriMo, who had taken notice of the NaNoWriMo publication I had started on Medium. He invited me to apply to an open board position – and I got accepted! There’s no doubt in my mind that the publication and my affiliation with Medium helped me get the gig. It was really serendipitous, and ended up being a perfect marriage of my love for writing and my passion for inspiring others to conquer their inner critic and put pen to paper (or more accurately hand to laptop!)
Q: Can you describe your personal experience with tackling the NaNoWriMo challenge?
A: The first time I participated in NaNoWriMo, I was a “NaNoWriMo rebel”, meaning, I didn’t start a new novel, but instead used it as an opportunity to work on a novel I was already 10,000 words into. In addition to getting 50,000 words closer to finishing my novel, I also found a supportive community of fellow writers cheering each other on and empowering one another. NaNoWriMo is all about removing blockers and just taking the writing plunge, and that’s certainly what it was for me. And the best part of the experience was learning I could write a novel, because NaNoWriMo really does build that muscle and discipline. This year will be my fifth NaNoWriMo.
During my second year doing NaNoWriMo, I started the Medium publication, which has grown to a community of nearly 12,000 people across the U.S. The publication is for folks taking part in NaNoWriMo – it’s more about creating community/support/getting the creative juices flowing than actually sharing live writing drafts, but people can do that too. This year I am co-running the publication with Shawn White, who is an avid Medium writer and very involved with the NaNoWriMo community. He and I are providing weekly writing prompts to help get people’s creative juices flowing, and we will both be live-blogging our own NaNoWriMo experiences, as will many others.
I also run a NaNoWriMo group for middle-schoolers, which I started doing last year. I actually have a daughter who is in middle-school, and I’ve found it to be the age when the lack of inhibition and “I can do anything” attitude most kids have start to get replaced with self-doubt and a voice that tells you “no”. I started this group to be a voice of “yes” for these kids, and give them the confidence to be creative and write. This year I have a group of five boys, and I’ve been writing about my work with them.
Q: Once you finished the challenge, what did you do with your manuscript? Do you have any suggestions for participants (past or present) on the next step they should take once November is over?
A: I have been sporadically posting chapters of my first novel on Medium. I decided to do this because I wanted to build an audience and following to gauge interest and crowdsource feedback. Medium has this really robust community of writers and authors, so having access to fellow writers (and editors!) from across the world has been extremely helpful – and empowering!
As for participants – I think it really comes down to what your goal is, and how you feel at the end of the month. If your goal is to publish a novel, then take a few days off (unless you are afraid you will lose momentum!) and then go back and read what you wrote and take stock – sometimes you will find that you wrote 45,000 words of clichéd nonsense, but 5,000 words of pure gold. 50,000 words is rarely enough for a novel, but the advantage of NaNoWriMo is that you spend 30 days spending time with your characters nonstop; start iterating on what you like about them, and get rid of what detracts from their narrative. I like to print up my drafts and edit with a pencil (never a pen!).
For some people, NaNoWriMo isn’t about the novel, but about the act of writing itself. It’s about discovering whether writing – a novel or otherwise – is something you wish to pursue in a serious way. For people like that I recommend reflecting on how it felt throughout the month, and how you feel now that it’s over. Do you feel a sense of accomplishment? Relief that it’s over? Was getting to 50,000 words something you looked forward to, or dreaded? The answers to these questions should tell you a lot about whether this is something worth pursuing.
Also, don’t lose the community you have (hopefully) created throughout the month. Getting an agent and a publisher are undeniably important if you wish to get published, but building a social following matters too. We have actually seen several writers get significant traction on Medium – examples include Sarah Cooper, who just published two books last month, Sara Benincasa, who has five books out, and Tom Farr, who both publishes short stories and provides writing tips on Medium – including the first writing prompt for the NaNoWriMo publication this year! Many authors will also publish their book excerpts in our Galleys section, which has proven to be a great way to build excitement about upcoming books.
Q: How do you think NaNoWriMo will grow in the future (in terms of both the challenge itself and the community that it brings together)?
A: I don’t think the challenge itself will change dramatically – the basic challenge is to write 50,000 words in 30 days, but people are already tailoring it to their own goals and writing needs and I think that’s a net positive. The goal of NaNoWriMo at the end of the day is to enable creativity, which is what the challenge facilitates. What I think will change is the size – and connectivity – of the NaNoWriMo community. We are seeing more and more people taking on the NaNoWriMo challenge every year, and I think a lot of that is because of the national, and even global, support system that has emerged in the past few years. Before we created the Medium publication, most NaNoWriMo chapters were local. Now we have a community of 12,000 people (and growing!) who never would have met each other if not for this publication. It’s created this amazing, cross-country connectedness and empathy.
Q: As a writer, what’s next for you?
A: I’d like to continue building my audience on Medium and also look into publishing the first two books in my young adult series, ‘Anywhere But Here”. I’ve gotten some really positive feedback from the Medium community, which has been very encouraging, but I know that I still have a ways to go in building my following. For NaNoWriMo his year I am hoping to finish my second novel, and will explore whether I’m ready to send out some query letters and get the publishing ball rolling. Working on a novel takes time and iteration, but the writing muscle I’ve built doing NaNoWrimo has helped me push through.
Q: For all the NaNoWriMo participants out there, can you please share your number one tip for completing this challenge?
A: Do not edit at all. I do not edit anything during the month of November. I don’t edit typos, misspellings, and I leave myself a lot of breadcrumbs starting like “TK figure out XXX later.” So many good ideas with great potential get deleted or dismissed, so invite all the good, bad and ugly ideas in, and search for the gems later. I use an app called Typewriter, which actually doesn’t let you hit backspace or go back. Last week when I met with my group of middle schoolers, we did a timed writing exercise for 10 minutes and I told them they should try not to edit, just write. At the end of the 10 minutes, I showed them my draft and they were flabbergasted that I had typos and grammatical errors – but it was also a freeing moment for them. I could see the “voice of no” getting a little bit quieter.