At the music school where my kids take lessons, every February brings the start of something their teachers call 100 Days of Practice. Each kid is given a chart and pledges to practice every day for 100 days and check off each day on the chart (or decorate with a sticker!) In May, there's a pizza party to celebrate.
It's a simple idea that encourages goal-setting and accountability and in the decade or so that I've been watching my kids participate, I've come to believe it really works. They always make huge leaps in learning during the 100 Days stretches and the charts motivate them to remember to play their instruments every day. The daily practice also makes music a habit, which is the point.
I first tried National Novel Writing Month -- or NaNoWriMo -- six or so years ago. The idea is that aspiring novelists commit to finishing a 55,000 word manuscript during the month of November. You can register with the organization online or create your own accountability group. I had four published novels under my belt at that point, but my daily writing habit had been sacrificed at the altar (or exhaustion) of new parenthood and I needed a jumpstart. It was an utter failure. I didn't sign up with the organization or really tell anyone I was doing it and when life got busy in mid-November, as it always does, I stopped working on the nebulous project I'd resolved to start. Not only did I not have a novel on December 1st, I had a heavy cloak of guilt and shame that I wore around for the next few months.
But a couple of years ago, I decided to try again and I have since settled into an annual tradition that works well for me: Chapter-A-Day-November. Instead of shooting for about 1,600 words a day (the most common NaNoWriMo goal) I aim to write a chapter of a new book a day.
A rough, incomplete, and embarrassing chapter that will undergo much revision, just to be clear.
This method works for me because it forces me to reckon with the structure of the novel and allows me to answer the big questions about where my story is going and who my characters are sooner than I would if I spent too much time bogged down in early chapters that will be gone by draft number four or five. My method is informed by my instinct that I (and I'm only speaking for myself) cannot write a novel in a month. What I can do is to blurt my story out onto the page and create a structure and scaffolding on which I'll hang my many, many revisions.
For a lot of first-time novelists I know, though, the emphasis on word count has helped them to get over the psychological barriers to becoming novelists, the fear about the sheer number of sentences you have to write to write a book. However you NaNoWriMo, the key thing is the Wri.
And you can give yourself a head start by doing some (or a lot) of the thinking and planning and research before November 1st. There are tons of resources online and at nanowrimo.org. Authors KJ Dell'Antonia and Jessica Lahey have put together a great list of recommendations for new NaNoWriMo writers in their Facebook group #AmWriting. They use stickers to mark progress on daily writing goals and gave me the inspiration to use the method myself this November.
Today, I will sit down to write Chapter One of a new novel (yesterday, November 1st, I wrote a prologue) and put another sticker on my chart. If you're writing this month, good luck and keep writing!