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Contrarian Strategies for Your Memoir’s First Draft

For the past 20+ years, November has meant National Novel Writing Month for an intrepid bunch who commit to the seemingly impossible: writing a book in 30 days.

In this case, “book” is defined as a minimum of 50,000 words. That’s a lot—especially for the month that contains both Thanksgiving and Black Friday. Fortunately, the folks behind NaNoWriMo stipulate that the finished product doesn’t have to be great, or even good, or even finished. It just has to be written.

WriMo folks need to create at least 1600 words a day to reach their goal. However they do the math, participants need serious strategies to even attempt such an extreme exercise.

As memoirists, we might balk at what feels like a stunt. We’re telling the stories of our lives! Shouldn’t we view this as a sacred process? Shouldn’t we wait for flashes of insight? Shouldn’t we use our grandfathers’ fountain pens for inspiration?

If that approach works for you, great. But if you’re having trouble starting, or if your project is stalled, you might be willing to do just about anything to get that all-important first draft in the rearview mirror.

As the clock ticks down for NaNoWriMo participants—and if that’s you, for goodness sake, get back to writing!—let’s assess their contrarian advice.

Get the adrenaline flowing

Writing a first draft on a deadline (even a fake deadline) will naturally start to feel like an emergency. Use that panic! The writing process will become less about art and more about saving lives (or at least your sanity).

  • Have a clear goal, and be decisive about it. Repeat after us: You are writing a book, and you will have that first draft done on schedule, whether in 30 days or three months. Record your daily word count, check off each writing day on a calendar—just do something concrete to record your progress.

  • Triage means knowing what’s important and what to let go. Word count is important, moving forward is important, typing “The End” is important. Lovingly crafted prose, complex story lines, hours of research? Not important—at least not now.

  • Plan for failure. Things will not always go according to plan, so have a Plan B. At some point, your sacrosanct writing schedule will have to take a back seat to reality. Instead of giving up, get creative. Do all your writing on the weekends; set your alarm for 5 a.m. (just for a month!); ask for extra babysitting once a week.

Think “Work,” not “Art”

Advice from famous writers is bad advice, if it doesn’t work for you. You don’t have to be a great artist to write a first draft. Know yourself, stick to your plan, and unapologetically make your own writing rules.

  • Maybe you need a solid outline before you can write, or maybe outlines make you cry. We’re all different, and your process should make sense for you, no matter how weird to others.

  • It’s just a story! Don’t spend a second on introspection, not a minute on editing. Set a timer, start typing, and don’t stop (not even for typos!) until that timer goes off. Concentrate on actually telling the story. Imagine that you're addressing an imaginary interviewer, if that helps you focus.

  • You don’t have to write your story in order. Jump around, or write your ending first. Whatever you’re most excited to get on the page—well, that’s what you should be writing today. Your work might even be better for that sense of passion.

Be a writing machine

There’s something to be said for pretending that your first draft is a to-do list. Be mechanical and consistent in your work ethic. After all, the first rule of all serious writers is: Put butt firmly in chair.

  • Treat your daily writing quota with thoughtless regularity, like brushing your teeth. If you’ve committed to writing every day, then even 15 minutes of messy nonsense at the end of an exhausting Wednesday counts—whether or not you met your word count.

  • Start writing in the middle of things, where the action really develops, with no explanation or background. Think in terms of scenes, and sketch them out using big, memorable strokes. You can always go back and fill in the details at a later stage.

  • The hardest part is starting, so set yourself up for success. At the end of every writing session, leave off by writing the first phrase of the next paragraph. When you sit down the following day, it will be much easier to start up again.

Bonus: Remember your vision

If the above sounds too much like a slog, schedule a few minutes of imagination into each writing day. Envision what it will feel like to have that first draft of your life story completed: the pride in accomplishment, the wonder at having written a book! Hold onto that idea. When the going gets tough, you’ll need it.

November may be almost over, but it’s always the right time to start a writing project. As always, if you’re planning a memoir or family history—or any kind of personal history—we’re here to help. Ready, set, write!


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