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Writing a novel in thirty days: How a two-time finisher conquers NaNoWriMo

The task of writing a novel in only a month’s time sounds insurmountable for nearly anybody. In actuality, over 200,000 people tackle the challenge each November as part of National Novel Writing Month, a worldwide project encouraging participants to write over 50,000 words in thirty days.

In addition to writing an average of 1,667 words per day, many aspiring novelists taking part in the project have jobs and classes that hold priority, leading one to ask: “How do they do it?”

Zach Bigalke, an Oregon-based cook participating in National Novel Writing Month (referred to as NaNoWriMo for short) for the third consecutive year, has more than a full plate. In addition to working three to five shifts weekly as a cook at a Portland-area pub, the 29-year-old Bigalke is also taking a full course load at Portland State University, searching for his bachelor’s degree a decade after initially completing his freshman year. Bigalke’s passion for writing also finds him as a weekly contributor to the Vanguard, PSU’s campus newspaper, as well as a college football analyst for various websites. “This could be the first year I don’t succeed at reaching 50K [words] during NaNoWriMo,” he laments in an email.

Despite his extensive work as a writer, Bigalke was apprehensive about his ability to pen 50,000 words in a month when his wife urged him to attempt the challenge in 2010. NaNoWriMo’s requirement of only fiction work presented another problem for Bigalke. “I had previously been exclusively a non-fiction writer, rarely read fiction, and never envisioned myself ever succeeding at trying to write fiction,” said Bigalke. Despite his lack of experience, Bigalke finished the project in 2010 and self-published his 2011 creation, “Cosmonaut Kapalev and the Atomic Exiles.”

“Anyone can – and should – dive right into the challenge,” encourages Bigalke, adding that inexperienced typists may struggle to reach daily word quotas. Motivation and creativity, however, can neutralize the shortcomings of a hunt-and-pecker.

The first step for a prospective November novelist is to choose a topic. The idea for “Kapalev” came to Bigalke in April of 2011, a full seven months before the beginning of the challenge. Of course, choosing a topic of interest will make the writing easier for any writer. “I would suggest finding subject matter that has previously interested them and suggest reading more about that subject in the months before the challenge begins,” added Bigalke. “If it is a topic that keeps you engaged, you’re more likely to stick with the story to completion.” Next, Bigalke suggests pondering your plot before November; a prior idea of your plot will add fluidity and coherence to your writing.

During the month of November, Bigalke handed many helpful hints to ensure a completion of NaNoWriMo. Instead of writing only 1,667 words a day – the baseline per-day average for completing 50,000 words in a month – Bigalke says to write 2,000. “I try to make sure I get something down at least six of the seven days in a week; if you can make sure that you get 2000 or so words on 25 days of November, taking breaks can also allow a writer to recharge and find a sense of clarity that can get lost when you’re merely barreling ahead.”

Further, reading-back every freshly penned paragraph will not only hamper your progress, but also be detrimental to your story. “Perfectionism is the enemy of good writing,” says Bigalke. “Save your editing for December.”

With the idea of only creating a first draft, planning a time to write each day is the most important step towards completing a novel in thirty days. “As long as you’re producing something, it can be cleaned up later,” reminds Bigalke.

Other tips are to use WordPress instead of Microsoft Word because of both the on-the-go abilities of WordPress and the stingy word count. “And, most importantly for all those souls embarking on NaNoWriMo – whether for a first time or a fifteenth time – remember to have fun with what you’re writing,” encourages Bigalke. “If you hate doing it, or you hate what you’re creating, why create it?”

After the creation of your masterpiece, Bigalke says to take at least a week off from writing and editing. Printing your manuscript and editing by hand with a red pen, much like a teacher would with a student’s work, is the best way to clean-up your story. Once the editing is completed, the next step would be publishing. Whether self-publishing like Bigalke, submitting your work to a publishing house for review, or giving-up on the text all together, there is still one important challenge to complete. “Take pride in your accomplishment!” says Bigalke.

Bigalke’s 2011 NaNoWriMo creation is available in paperback on Amazon. His 2012 creation, a sequel to his 2011 success, will be posted daily as the word quota is met on Bigalke’s WordPress page. The full question and answer interview with Bigalke can be found on The Writing Warehouse.

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