“The biggest thing separating people from their artistic ambitions…”

The biggest thing separating people from their ambitions ... | Modern Mrs Darcy

” … is not a lack of talent. It’s the lack of a deadline. Give someone an enormous task, a supportive community, and a friendly-yet-firm due date, and miracles will happen.”

So says Chris Baty, in his book No Plot?, No Problem!, also known as the NaNoWriMo handbook.

(NaNoWriMo is short for National Novel Writing Month, which happens each November. Participants commit to writing a 50,000 word rough draft between November 1 and November 30.)

I’m inclined to agree.

NaNoWriMo calls itself a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants approach to writing a novel, so it seems appropriate that I decided at the very last minute to go for it.

In the kitchen Saturday morning, after I’d done my first 1,667 word session, Will asked me what the point was. Why write a novel in a month?

Many people do it for fun; many do it for the community aspect. Many more people seize the opportunity to move another bucket list item from “someday” to “now.”

I can’t speak for everyone, but I know exactly why I want to do it, and it has everything to do with personality.

I’m an INFP, heavy on the “P.” I’m terrific at endlessly generating ideas (or characters, themes, and plot points) but terrible at committing to one course of action and following through. (As the authors of Creative You put it: “I’m an endless lightning storm of ideas, but the bolts don’t often strike the ground.”)

Trying to commit to a single course of action (or, in this case, a single story arc) brings out all my worst perfectionistic tendencies. I get paralyzed with indecision thinking about the infinite possibilities for a first line, an opening scene, an inciting incident.

This is where deadlines come in.

I need deadlines. I love deadlines, because they help me follow through.

The goal of NaNoWriMo isn’t to write a good novel, it’s to write a 50,000 word rough draft in a very short—probably too short—window. My goal isn’t to write something good, it’s to write 50,000 more-or-less coherent words. Most of it will be crap. Knowing that frees me to actually begin.

(I’d be very curious to hear more about why other NaNoWriMo writers’ personalities and why they choose to participate.)

By the way, I read No Plot?, No Problem! in preparation for NaNoWriMo (if you can call skimming it the night before “preparation,” and while it’s known as the NaNo handbook and has some good tips, there are other books on writing I’d recommend with a lot more confidence.

I love Rachel Aaron’s 2k to 10k (65 pages, Kindle only, $0.99), which is aimed at fiction writers but is equally applicable to nonfiction, and Marion Roach’s The Memoir Project, which addresses creative nonfiction but is equally applicable to fiction.

I keep coming back to The Getaway Car, Bird by Bird, and Stephen Pressfield (especially Do the Work). I’d like to be able to recommend On Writing Well by William Zinsser, but I haven’t read it yet. (Don’t worry: I have a deadline for that, and I’ll have it read before the year is out.)

I’d love to hear about your relationship with deadlines, your experience with NaNoWriMo, and your favorite books on writing in comments. 

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  1. Ellen says:

    I’m on the line between INFJ and INTJ. I definitely work best with deadlines… otherwise I imagine all the excellent work I’ll produce, but don’t actually get to producing it. But I doubt I’ll ever participate in NaNoWriMo. It might be the J in me, but I can’t imagine doing that much work for something that will likely never be used/read! That said, I am thoroughly respectful of people who can see the value in the process!

    • Emily says:

      Same here! I’m an INTJ but not a strong J. Your remarks articulate my thoughts so well. I love imagining and thinking about things from a million different angles, but at the end of the day, I want something tangible and something that will stick.

      • I’m a total INTJ, and I’m quite enjoying the NaNoWriMo process. I dislike writing stuff that won’t be used (indeed, I try to find a home eventually for basically everything I write) but the whole upside of NaNoWriMo is that something has to *exist* before it can be used. Done is better than perfect, because perfect can’t even possibly happen before the done part happens. When something’s only in your head, it isn’t tangible. Junk on a page is. Then it can become better junk, and eventually move out of the junk category.

        • Steph says:

          Another INTJ here and I agree. I always get junk on a page as fast as possible. I love having something to edit instead of something still rolling around in my head. I’ve never done NaNoWriMo because I have no current interest in writing a novel (and would have a hard time not having it be used for anything as well). But I think I’d like the process and deadline if I was interested in the project itself. I can definitely see my daughter enjoying the young writer’s program as she gets a bit older. Plus, since she’s a complete and total “P” I think deadlines are going to be very good for her.

  2. Tacy says:

    I am with you on this. Bird by Bird is a fantastic tool. Two books on writing that I love: One Year to a Writing Life: Twelve Lessons to Deepen Every Writer’s Craft by Susan M. Tiberghien includes great advice on op-eds, deadlines, submissions, travel essay, etc. Take Joy: A Writer’s Guide to Loving the Craft by Jane Yolen is also fantastic.. has some great inspiration for writing poetry, and books for children!

  3. Kelty says:

    So, so true. I’m a graphic designer by trade and if a project (personal or professional) doesn’t have a deadline, it might as well not even exist. I’m sure it’s a lot my personality but the quote above, specifically talking about “artistic ambitions” makes me think…I wonder if there’s something about the squishy or fuzzy nature of artistic ambitions that makes them especially susceptible to this. They float in the ether but a deadline pulls them into real time and space.

    P.S. I’m just loving the phrase “artistic ambitions.” That’s such a useful one. 🙂

  4. Anna says:

    I agree about deadlines. Someday I will participate in NaNoWritMo, but the other factor in people not getting things done is having small children, and particularly mothering small children! Parenting 24/7 is taking it out of me! My favorite books on writing, besides Bird by Bird, are Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg and On Writing by Stephen King.

    • I had the same thought when I read the blog post … having small kids is definitely a challenge to writing productivity. One thing that saved me in the early years was that my kids were great nappers. Now that they are a bit older, I actually find that it’s harder to find writing time because there are no more naps, and there are more things I need to keep on top of (helping with homework, fieldtrip permission forms, volunteer hours at their school, etc.)

      I love Bird by Bird, too.

  5. Julie R says:

    I mostly write articles for academic journals, but I have similar problems with completing writing projects – lots of ideas that get started by not necessarily finished. I do much better with deadlines. I’m planning a variation of NaNoWritMo to get an article or two out the door. Same goal, different type of writing.

    My favorite writing books are The War of Art by Steve Pressfield and How to Write a Lot by Paul Silvia. This piece by Donald Miller is helpful too:

  6. Erica M. says:

    Agh! I completely forgot! And I’m pretty sure I said loudly last year that I would do it this year.

    You know what? You’ve inspired me. I’m gonna try this. I’m like you. Having a deadline really gives me incentive. Picture me as Bilbo, running down the path.

    “I’m off to write an adventure!”

  7. I used to love NaNoWriMo, especially in high school when it seemed like my ideas for characters just wouldn’t quit. Inevitably, though, I’d give up halfway through when I got too busy to keep going or the project didn’t hold my interest anymore.

    There’s a definite tipping point for me, usually around days 12 – 16, where the deadline, excitement, and energy of NaNo start to backfire. I start writing absolute crap (not even “bad writing,” but literally adding ridiculous things like ninjas or zombies just to make my word count). Then I get discouraged about the whole story because I realize I’ve mucked it up beyond anything that could ever be saved with revisions. I love having a reason to write every day, but I HATE not being able to take time to slow down if my writing is suffering from the fast pace. If I ever do NaNo again, I think I’ll adjust the word-count goal to something that’s more realistic for me. I want to push myself, but not at the sake of hating—and eventually abandoning—what could have been a great story.

  8. Elysha says:

    Most INFPs are writers. I don’t know how they push through. I am also an INFP and deadlines do work for me (sigh). As far as the best writing books? I really enjoyed Brenda Ueland’s “If You Want To Write”. Published in 1938 (!) it still rings true. It is mostly about getting past the psychological barrier to writing. I think most contemporary books about writing are echoes to Ueland’s book so you won’t find any new ideas there, but you will find the source from which certain ideas originated. 🙂

  9. Hannah says:

    I did Nano last year and it was life changing for me. I’ve spent this year editing, re-thinking some things in my novel, etc. But, in my mind, the story still holds. The biggest piece of advice I could offer is, psych yourself out every, single day by sitting down in front of the computer and saying, ‘This is really fun. I love this. I’m so happy to be able to write.’ Then, start typing and take no prisoners. You have to tell yourself that you love it until you believe it. There has to be joy in there somewhere or you’ll become resentful and give up.

  10. Anne says:

    I love the challenging aspect of 31 Days and NaNoWriMo. Committing to these community events *makes* me write, which I quite enjoy, but I haven’t had experience with either event until this year! I am also fairly excitable by nature; so, I respond to the hype. 😉 I routinely got ENFJ in my twenties, and I find myself getting INFJ in my more mature years, haha. The J is barely there though, like, 1%. The only part of the result that is strongly expressed is the Feeling part. And I get all my books on writing suggestions from you, so I am no help there! 🙂

  11. Tiffany says:

    The times that I’ve done NaNo, I’ve forced myself to stick to the storyline. Doing that has pulled out things I wouldn’t have thought of otherwise and I think it kept it more interesting than writing anything just to get the word count up. One of my favorite writing books is Writing Fiction by Gotham Writers’ Workshop.

  12. Corrie Anne says:

    As a piano teacher, I have to say this is definitely true! A piano lesson helps students set some type of deadline, but eventually if there are no performances or competitions scheduled, students start to lose their motivation. This is especially difficult for adult students so I’m always looking for ways to give them a little (positive) pressure. As a musician myself, I also have a hard time tackling a difficult new piece unless I have a deadline. I gave myself the deadline of my birthday this year to learn a Chopin Nocturne, and it mostly worked.

    • liz n. says:

      This is an interesting comment…when my two older kids were little, they definitely slacked off a bit if they didn’t have a performance coming up, so I would challenge them to learn a piece to play for Uncle Sal’s birthday, their grandparents anniversary, Father’s Day, etc. My two oldest kids definitely needed the push, while my two younger were so happy to play that they didn’t care if they had a performance to prepare for or not! My grandson just started piano lessons, and my daughter plans to do the same with him if he shows the same tendency to procrastinate as she did.

    • So interesting! I recently (March) started Spanish dancing again after 20 years and I did one exam in June, and another is coming up in two weeks. Those exams definitely push me to stop faffing around and learn the stuff 🙂

  13. Victoria says:

    I heard about it a few years ago and I really do want to take part…I just never have. I signed up this year. Maybe I’ll stick it out!

    I’m an ENFJ which is terrible punishment for a writer. To write, I need to be alone. I mostly despise being alone though!

  14. Best of luck! Hope that NaNoWriMo works for you this year! I’m helping out with write-ins at my local library. Not committing this year, but I am using the time to work on my writing and blog growth.

  15. Jeannie says:

    The point about deadlines is very true. I did NaNo a few years ago; I’m still revising that project, so I’m very pokey — but I wouldn’t even have had 50,000 words to revise if I hadn’t set myself that goal. I find nowadays that my writers’ group, which meets every 2nd Monday evening, is my best motivator for getting writing done; we often joke about how productive we are on Monday afternoons.

  16. Melodee says:

    I’ve finished Nanowrimo once. It was a great experience for me and it taught me two things: I can NEVER use the excuse “I don’t have time to write” again. I didn’t have time during Nanowrimo either, but I MADE time. And second, the only way for me to get anything written is to shut off my inner critic. I’ve read too much great fiction to be happy with any rough draft I write!

    After the fact I think I’ve learned another lesson, though–I don’t have the drive to be a writer. I think my novel actually has real potential – I didn’t get off track from my story just to meet word count, etc, but stuck to it and it’s a great start. But it needs to be rewritten at least 2 times before I could imagine even thinking about publishing it. And I’ve decided that is something I probably never will do, and that I don’t mind that at all. I always thought I wanted to be a novelist…until I realized that I didn’t. 🙂

    • Anne says:

      “I always thought I wanted to be a novelist…until I realized that I didn’t.”

      I’m guessing that realization was worth the entire experience.

  17. Beth Anne says:

    I love the idea of this and your post! Deadlines are essential for me. I’m just like you in generating a million ideas but having great difficulty getting any of them to land on the ground.

    I’ve never wanted to write a novel, but Sarah and I have set a deadline on a current big project. It really does make me just sit down and produce content versus letting things float around in my head or allow perfectionism to prevent me from starting.

    Sarah and I had a firm deadline when we launched our Podcast – June 10th. It made sense for a variety of reasons, and we knew we had to just do it and launch. In April, my husband came home from a 9 month deployment. In May, we took a family vacation to Spain, and Sarah and her husband re-did their entire kitchen.

    It was really stressful, and we didn’t know what we didn’t know about podcasting, but the deadline made the difference. Miraculous things really do happen with a deadline. I encourage everyone I know to have a firm deadline and also someone to hold them accountable.

    Best wishes to you on this endeavor, Anne! I can’t wait to hear more about your progress.

  18. Minnie says:

    I did NaNoWriMo a few years ago – actually during the month of June. I got the idea when I read Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project. She compared it to running a marathon for writer types. I reflect on it much the same way. I don’t think I’d even want to publish the novel I wrote. It was an experience that forced me to push myself. I’d like to do it again, though much like an aging runner, I’m not sure I’ll be able to. Hang in there! You’ll be so proud when its done!

  19. Deadlines definitely motivate me. I once had to write 92 short reflections in two months’ time. After a day or two of utter panic, I buckled down and got to work. It helped that it wasn’t during the school year (I’m an English teacher, and grading can take a lot out of you).

    I think a lot of it goes back to something Virginia Woolf wrote in an essay, something along the lines of “the world doesn’t ask you to write fiction.” We create the need ourselves, I guess, and it can be easy to be demoralized when the writing isn’t going well. So when you feel like someone outside yourself is counting on you to produce something, it’s energizing and affirming and makes it easier to say No to “Frasier” rereuns when you should be writing. 🙂

  20. Danielle says:

    I am an ENFP…so totally get the whole lightening bolts without striking ground thing! Deadlines equally stress me out and give me fire. I HATE feeling boxed in to something, but love a little pressure to get things done! So…I love a good deadline…mostly!

  21. I just did 31 days… it was my 3rd time, but I didn’t do them in consecutive years for various reasons. And it was GREAT when I finished. I felt so accomplished.

    Oh, I’m an ESTJ so I love the planning out and then the getting things done. I’m putting my 31 days into a book which I’m giving out to a few people and then I may Kindle-ise it 🙂

  22. Leslie Lee says:

    This is 1000% percent true for me. Deadlines are what make my world go round. At work, I LOVE working with a handful of major projects, all with hard and fast, looming deadlines. I get so much more done that way. And at home, without deadlines like people coming to visit or events we’ll be hosting, our house would never get clean or decorated!!
    Also, so exciting that you’re doing NaNoWriMo!!!

    • Anne says:

      “And at home, without deadlines like people coming to visit or events we’ll be hosting, our house would never get clean or decorated!!”

      ME. 🙂

  23. Mama Rachael says:

    Total ENFP here. I’m not a writer, though I blog some (unless I’m too busy!), and I despise deadlines. But I do get my best work done when I have a due date. Otherwise, whatever the task is, it just gets put off until I “feel” like it. Like the baby blanket that was a baby shower gift 2 months ago and baby born last month that I just need to add the edging to. :::sigh::: you’d think the baby’s due date would keep me on my toes, but alas, it didn’t.

    I’m also not any good at imposing the deadlines on myself. The Hubby-man is pretty good at just getting the task done, whatever it is (ISTJ, I think), and he works well with self-imposed deadlines. Not me. Sometimes I think I’m too easy on myself. I think I need to give myself a reward for finishing, and I lose part of it for every day I’m late on it. Not sure what would truly motivate me, though. Gotta think on that.

  24. Jess Townes says:

    I’m a year late to the party! Just linked my way here from your post on National Novel Reading Month, which I’ll be bookmarking for next year.

    I’m an ENFP, and totally identify with lightening bolts that don’t strike ground. This year, I’m participating in a NaNoWriMo spin off, Picture Book Idea Month. The goal is one picture book idea a day, but I’m challenging myself to a draft a week of one the best idea of that week. It’s day ten and I’ve already written seven drafts, and I actually like three of them! We won’t talk about the other four. It’s been incredibly motivating, causing me to take tangible steps like joining an online webinar on query letters, becoming a member at SCBWI and scheduling a meeting with a critique partner.

    I love the idea of novel sharing and am eager to read your recommendations.

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