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Speed Kills—Or Does It?

Day 6 is a critical juncture for National Novel Writing Month competitors. That is the day when we should reach 10,000 words, or 20 percent of our goal, that is, if we are maintaining the pace of 1,667 words per day every day to reach the summit of 50,000 words in 30 days. As I write this, my word count stands at 10,061 words.

There’s a school of thought that warns nothing written that fast could be any good. I recently came across an inspiring Pep Talk on the official NaNo site (one of the benefits we NaNo’ers receive is a daily Pep Talk email from a veteran NaNo competitor). This one was written by author Catherynne M. Valente.

“I discovered NaNoWriMo in its second year and just the notion of it—the challenge, the seeming impossibility—lit a fire under me,” Valente wrote. “I even wrote a little manifesto about it. But it turned out that I couldn’t wait until November to start. And being 22 and thus full of equal parts arrogance, stupidity, and ambition, I decided that 30 days was too easy. I would do it in 10.

“And I did. My first novel, The Labyrinth, was written from October 1 to 11, 2002. I didn’t know I couldn’t do it. So I did. That novel became my first published book,” she wrote. “It was rereleased in a brand-new edition last year and I am still proud of it. Without NaNoWriMo, the lost 22-year-old poet working as a fortune teller in a little shop next to a Starbucks in Rhode Island, the girl with no particular prospects and even less clue how to write something longer than her (admittedly long-winded) poems, might never have figured out how many novels she had waiting inside her.”

Valente writes most of her books in four to 12 weeks, though she adds that the ideas percolate in her head for much longer than that before they get on the page.

“Yes, this is an experiment. Yes, it is difficult and not meant to be the scaffolding of a career. But the fact is, it can be,” Valente said. “A professional, full-time writer quite often writes more than 1,667 words a day for periods longer than a month. Learn how to flex that muscle, and how to build it up so it looks back on the early days of 50,000-words-in-a-month as an easy gig.

“To show up to play, puff out your chest like a damn proud toucan, and get shit done.

“That is, perhaps, the single most important skill of a working life, no matter what that work may be.”

As someone who has won at NaNo two years in a row, I will admit that 1,667 words per day every day for 30 days is an insane pace. I could never keep it up for any sustained length of time. I have a huge advantage over some writers because I cut my teeth as a newspaper reporter. I learned how to write on deadline at an early age and that habit, if maintained, never goes away. Whether you’re covering a city council meeting or a legislative session or a car wreck, your editor is not going to say, “Oh you don’t feel like writing today. That’s okay. File your story tomorrow.” I’ve written stories in as little as ten minutes, because that’s all I had.

The word count isn’t important. The daily habit is. Each writer must find the sweet spot. For me it’s between 500 and 750 good words per day. I can handle that. NaNo is a stretch goal for me, but it proves that a writer can push himself when he needs to get it done on deadline.

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