Back in the day, I used to work for one of NaNoWriMo’s sponsors. We were encouraged to sign up for NaNoWriMo and try to participate so we understood what the event was about when customers came to us with questions. I dutifully signed up and joked about writing a novel in a month with co-workers but never wrote so much as a word year after year.
But 2007 was different. While the process of signing up wasn’t any different than any past year, it felt different to me because this time I was really going to write 50,000 words in 30 days, no matter what. I’d made a commitment to my story.
It still didn’t feel real enough, though. I needed a way to set this year apart from all the others. To take this mental commitment out of my mind and into the real world.
While the design has changed since then, back in 2007, this was one of the Spread the Word flyers you could print out.
It spoke to me. I printed out a copy on my little black and white printer and hung it on the door of my office at home on the first day of November. After the first day of writing, I wrote my word count for the day on a small sticky note and pasted it on the white space between Leonard’s quote and the url. This was a purely symbolic gesture as guests never ventured upstairs and no one ever went in my office but me but tacking it up there like that made it feel real in a way the challenge never had before.
At the end of every day, I’d update the sticky note with my current word count. I was only doing it for me but I was doing the whole dang challenge for me anyway so it didn’t feel silly. It was very satisfying to change that little note every day with bigger and bigger numbers each time and I stayed on track with the challenge for the first time ever.
Then I woke up after one incredibly productive night where I’d upped my count by 10,000 words and discovered a surprise. There was a second sticky note on my door, just under the one with my word count, with a little shocked face: :‑O One I sure as heck hadn’t put there.
Completely unbeknownst to me, my husband had been checking the poster every morning to see what my count was. At first, this was strangely embarrassing because I hadn’t even told him I was posting my count on my door every night. But then it only added power to the gesture. On the days I wanted to quit, I wrote anyway, not wanting him to see yesterday’s sticky still up the next day. That stupid little paper made me feel accountable in a tangible way a mental commitment alone hadn’t.
And for the first time ever, after dozens of sign-ups and failures, I passed 50,000 words and finished an entire book for the very first time in my life. And since that date, I have never looked back. I’ve won a dozen NaNoWriMo, Camp NaNoWriMo and Script Frenzy challenges and amassed a pile of finished and published works all of which would not have been possible if I hadn’t undertaken that very first challenge and slay my own personal writing dragons.
But while that first NaNoWriMo victory taught me an absolute ton about writing as craft and process both personally and professionally, the most important thing I learned was that a goal has to be real before you can achieve it. A mental commitment is truly more than half the battle, but taking that dream out of your head space and into the physical world is essential. After all, the real world is where you’ll actually be doing the writing and no matter how rich an inner world you’ve built for your story, you’ve got to bring it out here to achieve the next steps.
Do you truly want to reach your goal? Make the commitment. Then make it real.
Tell your friends. Shout about it on social media. Make a financial wager. Post a symbol of your goal somewhere. Do whatever it takes to make sure this time is different.
This time your world outside your head is as committed as the inside.