Besides certain award ceremonies and niche genre celebrations, there are few events in the writer’s calendar that make as big a splash each year as NaNoWriMo does.
As you might be aware, 2017 marks AutoCrit’s debut as a sponsor for the festivities – and to help celebrate that fact, we grabbed hold of NaNoWriMo’s Executive Director and asked him to tell us what it’s all about, what it means to him… and what it means for you, the writer.
October being the month to really fire up your planning if you’re participating in this year’s NaNoWriMo, we also tasked him with producing some of his most effective productivity and participation tips – so get ready for some lengthy discussion, and some helpful insight, from our very special guest.
Please welcome to AutoCrit… Grant Faulkner!
AutoCrit: To begin, can you share some of your personal history in the writing sphere? When did you catch the literary bug, and what kind of stuff do you like to write today?
Grant Faulkner: When I was a kid and I’d go to the grocery store with my mom, she would always find me in the aisle where they stocked paper and pens and notebooks and stuff. I feel like it was almost predetermined that I was going to be a writer. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a writer or wasn’t interested in being a writer.
But I made that formal decision when I was 20 years old. I was doing a study abroad program in France and I was a sophomore in college. I was deciding between an Economics major and an English major, and I basically spent the whole semester reading novels and writing… and it was pretty clear that was my path. I wouldn’t have been a good economist!
I came back from that experience and lived on my grandparents’ farm for a summer. I wrote all summer long in this renovated chicken coop – like a little one-room cabin my grandmother had made, and I never stopped. I graduated from college and had no other designs on life but to be a writer.
Later in my 20s I went to get my MFA in Writing at San Francisco State University, and when I graduated I taught writing, I worked as a journalist, I kept writing fiction, and one thing led to another. I worked in Communications with the National Writing Project, which is a non-profit just down the street from us, dedicated to helping teachers to teach writing better… and that led me to NaNoWriMo.
But to answer your question about writing: I never quit writing. I always explored it in many different forms – the novel, short stories, flash fiction. Where I am now, I work on a number of different projects. I have a book called Creativity Essays, nonfiction, coming out with Chronicle Books in October. I also have a novel and a collection of short stories with my agent that she’s in the process of selling.
My side job – it’s not really a job, but it’s my side project – is managing this magazine called 100 Word Story. We publish stories that are exactly 100 words long. I had a collection of those, my collection, called Fissures, come out a couple of years ago – 100 100-word stories – and we’re actually doing a collection of the best pieces we’ve published in the last 6 years. That’s coming out in the Spring from Outpost 19.
I juggle a number of different projects at once. I’m focused right now on a novel that I just started in July, but I also plan to squeeze in the occasional essay, article or short fiction piece.
AutoCrit: With such an eclectic variety of work, do you have a specific personal taste? Is there anything you’d prefer to write, genre-wise, over another?
Grant Faulkner: I like the variety. Sometimes I question whether I’m jumping around between projects too much, but I find that I’m refining my skills in a different way with each form I work in.
For instance, the short stuff – flash fiction, which is defined as stories under a thousand words – is a different type of writing than writing a novel, so I learn things. One thing that’s different when you’re writing short pieces is that you’re leaving a lot of the story out. You’re having to communicate the story through hints to the reader, and the reader is really filling in the gaps. So I’ve found that by writing short fiction like that, even writing poems, it really influences my longer pieces – my novel writing, even my essays – in really great ways.
I think there’s a principle of creativity, and everybody has to define this for themselves, but distractions can be good for creativity. These books aren’t exactly distractions, but I am jumping between projects. Distractions can be important for creativity because you’re collecting a lot of different thoughts or images or ideas, lots of different moments of stimulation, so they kind of go into the crazy cauldron of your brain and influence each other.
You don’t want to be too distracted – immersion is a good thing for creativity also. I try to strike a balancing act between all the different types of writing I do.
I think writers always have to be doing self-evaluation, of how they’re creating the environment for their writing and what works best for them… and there’s no one rule.
AutoCrit: I know you were introduced to NaNoWriMo by its founder, Chris Baty. Are you guys good friends?
Grant Faulkner: Chris is just an amazing individual, founding an organization like this that helps so many people realize their creative potential. Chris is still very present; he doesn’t work here but his voice is present in everything we do because he’s such a naturally inspiring and charismatic person. He’s a person who believes that everyone should shoot for their dreams. Fundamentally, that’s what we should do as human beings.
Too often we close the door on our dreams, telling ourselves that other people are writers. [At NaNoWriMo] we tell people that you’ve got a story to tell and your story matters. It’s best not to wait until later to write it but to do it today, to act on your dreams today. Chris has been very supportive of me since day one. He supports the organization in a variety of ways.
He always jokes that he accidentally founded NaNoWriMo, and in many ways that’s true. He woke up one day and wanted to write a novel, and he hadn’t taken writing classes in college. He looked over to his bookshelf and took out several books about the length of Catcher in the Rye and estimated they were about 50,000 words. So he got the idea like hey, this is doable, you can write 50,000 words in a month. Over 30 days, it’s about 1700 words a day. He recruited 20 of his friends to join him, and it really began there. They did it just on a lark, and they thought they were doing it just for one year, but then it was so meaningful to them and they had such a sense of gratification and satisfaction because they DID do what their dream was – to write a novel.
And so they gathered the next year, and word spread and 150 people showed up to write. The next year, they put a little website online and got 5,000 people who heard about it in mysterious ways. And now we’ve got 500,000 people who sign up for our programs every year. So I think Chris unwittingly tapped into this deep human need.
AutoCrit: What made you take the leap from initial participant to Executive Director?
Grant Faulkner: Well, that’s an interesting story. I joined the NaNoWriMo board a year before I became Executive Director, and at the time I was just captivated by the organization and the work it does. I also wanted to deepen my own non-profit management skills and knowledge. So I wasn’t EXACTLY looking to be Executive Director. When I joined the board, Chris said ‘welcome to the board… oh and by the way, I’m going to step down next year and I think you should apply for the job.’
So Chris and I started talking about it and he convinced me it would be a good idea. There were other candidates, though – I wasn’t hand-selected by Chris. It went through a whole process with the board.
I think it’s just that unique proposition – I actually don’t desire to be Executive Director of any other organization. This is a very particular organization and it speaks to my heart in such a way, and we do have so much impact in the world. Those 500,000 people who show up to write novels – it’s not just about them writing novels and trying to get them published. A big part of it is just igniting their creativity, and we believe when you ignite people’s creativity, they go out into the world and they’re better people. They’re better bosses, they’re better employees, they’re better parents, they’re better students, and they’re better teachers.
So I view it as one part helping people write, and realize their dreams of publication or something else, but it’s also bigger than that – and we really hear this in so many testimonials from people. They’ll write and tell us how they’ve realized the big things they can accomplish in life. Sometimes people will get out of dysfunctional or abusive relationships, they’ll go back to college, they’ll get PhDs… they’ll realize their dreams in other ways.
AutoCrit: Are you surprised to have seen NaNoWriMo grow into what it is today?
Grant Faulkner: It’s definitely surprising, and [the growth] certainly was at first. But I think it really speaks to what I was saying earlier in that people too easily shut the door on their creativity, or they don’t make it enough of a priority. We are really an empowerment and encouragement organization. We tell people that they can do it, that other people aren’t writers, that they’re writers. I think what I recognize is that 500,000 might be a small number, actually, so it might be an unsurprising number – I think there are probably thousands and thousands of other people out there that we need to help.
AutoCrit: Sponsorship is obviously a big part of NaNoWriMo today, with some of the biggest and most popular names that service writers now being regular sponsors. Was it a difficult challenge to raise it to that commercial level?
Grant Faulkner: The sponsorship program itself started before I came here, but one of the great things about living in this era – as opposed to when I was 20 and writing with pen and paper and typewriters – is the number of services that can help writers.
[It wasn’t really a challenge] because companies like AutoCrit, that provide writing services or tools, realize that there’s an amazing number of people who not only want to write but to go on the whole path of the writing journey. That path keeps changing because of technology and because of trends in the industry, and services like AutoCrit.
Because we get so many different authors and types of writers on the whole spectrum of writing, I think it’s just a natural for us to work with good companies and provide pathways from the page to other places people can go to take their writing journey further.
AutoCrit: What’s your favorite part of the festivities? You have in-person events, the whole online and social element etc. Is there any part you enjoy the most?
Grant Faulkner: I’ve never ranked my levels of enjoyment, but every day I’ll pop on Twitter and look at the hashtag NaNoWriMo, and see where people are in their writing. That’s one great way for me to connect with people daily, and also inspiring.
You’re right when you say festival. It is a festival – I mean, that’s why it’s effective for so many people. It can feel like the whole world is doing it along with you. So that’s one thing I like, that feeling that it’s this movement, thousands and thousands of people all writing together. I would say it’s one part event, but it’s really mostly about the community.
So I would say [I most love] the community and all the different forms that it takes. I love dipping in the forums on the website because then I can get into deeper conversations. I love popping in at write-ins and having that mysterious feeling of enhanced creativity just because you’re writing next to somebody.
If you’re looking for one event, it’s really the Night of Writing Dangerously, which happens every year. This year it’s November 19, but it’s our big sort of gala celebration of NaNoWriMo and about 250 people come to San Francisco to write together, and it’s the most interesting and unique writing party in the world.
When I first came to it, I was just thinking of it as a normal gala where you have a nice dinner and great cocktails and get entertained by speakers, but this is different. People do all that, but they sit down and write, also. People get to come up on stage and ring a bell when they hit 50,000 words and a lot of people time their novel so they can be there and ring that bell.
AutoCrit: What would your top tips be, in terms of productivity and success, for writers taking part in NaNoWriMo? Obviously it can be a bit daunting for some, so how what would you recommend they do to stay on track?
Grant Faulkner: I think it’s good to reflect on that before November starts.
One, we have this constant conversation between those who plan – how to best plan your novel – and those who pants, who literally start from scratch. I think everybody has to find their answer about what works for them on that continuum. Are you the kind of person who needs to outline every single scene and go deep into it, or are you the person who can just open up your computer and go every day?
I recommend people experiment with that spectrum. I recommend for them to do some thinking about their novel, whether that’s just taking casual notes. I like to take the month of October to do what I call marinate on the novel and let my ideas percolate. I don’t like to have it totally planned because I feel like I’m backed into a corner and not as creative as I could be.
So I think it’s a combination of finding that right way to plan a novel, whatever that means, and the right way to let your creativity dash out of you. One of the things we say is that it’s a month of writing with abandon, and the reason we believe in that is that when writing with abandon, you are exercising your creative muscles in a different way and it will lead to enhanced creativity.
I think another big thing is that when writing the first draft of a novel, you’re just not writing the best prose in the world. It can feel like you’re a really bad writer – so people need to banish what we call their inner editor. It’s best to realize that with every single novel, ever, in history, the first draft was crap.
It doesn’t matter if it’s Shakespeare or Herman Melville, every first draft is rough. That’s why it’s called a rough draft. So you really need to toss your ideas of perfection out the window. You really need to quit measuring yourself against your favorite author’s book and just get it on the page because you can’t edit a blank page.
I think another thing that’s crucial is time. We’re all busy people – and so I think people need to go on what I call a time hunt, and really think about how long it would take them to write 1700 words a day. What are they going to have to do to adjust their life to make that happen?
I think that’s a really good exercise for all creators beyond November. If it takes you 2 hours to write 1700 words, then really excavate your life and think about when that is going to happen. Is it an hour in the morning and an hour in the evening? Do you need to give up social media? Do you need to quit watching Netflix series? Are there things that are happening or coming up in November that maybe you could say no to and open up time? Can you write on your lunch break?
I think you really need to think about your life and plan it in order to win NaNoWriMo.
Next, I’d say there’s nothing like establishing a system of accountability. For instance, I would advise people to tell others that you’re doing NaNoWriMo. That you’re planning to write 50,000 words, that you’re planning to win. They say one of the best ways to do things like quit smoking is to tell people – because if they see you light a cigarette they’ll question whether you’re still wanting to quit smoking.
So people will ask you about your novel. It’s one of the benefits of peer pressure. (laughs)
We advise people to announce it on Facebook, let the world know, and then it’s just a tool to hold yourself accountable. Building on that, one of the reasons we have such a strong community program, volunteers who organize live write-ins, more than a thousand libraries who also host writing gatherings, and forums on our website is to support our community. People on social media also find community… so I would engage with people. It’s amazing what writing alongside people at our write-ins can do to move your novel forward.
AutoCrit: For measuring or controlling time, would you recommend something like the Pomodoro Technique?
I think the Pomodoro Technique is great. It’s like doing sprints or something. My techniques… I don’t really, maybe just because I’ve written for so long and I know my pace. I mean, I do things – I don’t structure them as formally as the Pomodoro Technique – but I’ll do my own word sprints like ‘okay I’ve gotta write a thousand words faster than normal today because I don’t have much time.’
Per the Pomodoro Technique, word sprints are one of the things that are part of our writing culture. So when you go to these write-ins, there’ll be word sprints. That’s for instance when one of our municipal liaisons will give a prompt and ask people to write as much as they can within the next 5 minutes or the next 10 minutes, so it becomes kind of like a competition. That also happens on Twitter throughout the month of November, and we have a word sprint on our site, too.
I participate in those sometimes, and it’s always very interesting for me – kind of like physical training, but by writing fast instead of slow it’s interesting what comes out. Words always come out! (laughs)
When you write words, it creates a momentum for more words—and you’re writing for quantity at that point. You’re writing to write fast, and it’s magical what comes out.
AutoCrit: Can you share some of your favorite NaNo success stories or participant feedback?
Grant Faulkner: Following the hashtag NaNoWriMo – it’s amazing to follow on Twitter, especially in the last few days because you see these people heroically climbing that mountain. They might be 10,000 or 15,000 words behind where they’re supposed to be. They might have a cold or have a tough week at work, but they’ll tell the story of their heroic attempt to win and it’s amazing when they cross that finish line – just to view that online and see the support our community offers.
That persistence, that resilience, and grit that it takes to [finish] during those final days… I love when people don’t give up, you know? It’s so easy to give up. It’s so easy to say I don’t have the time to write, or I’ve got so much to do at work today. Those people who don’t accept that, who say winning is really important to me, writing is really important to me – that’s just the most inspirational thing I can imagine.
AutoCrit: If someone was on the fence about taking part – let’s say for example that they don’t have a plan yet, just an idea of their story – what would you say to them to encourage them to get on board?
Grant Faulkner: If you keep saying ‘I’m going to write a novel some day’… I rarely see some day happen for people. That perfect moment in life where you finally get the time and the environment to write – it doesn’t happen. We have busy lives, so don’t wait to write that novel some day. Write it today. This might not be the optimal month for you, but if you have an idea, put it in action.
I think so many people never end up writing their novel because they just keep waiting for that perfect moment, and that’s why we [at NaNoWriMo] exist. We’re like, ignite that creativity today. Write it, you’ll create your own momentum. A story in your mind doesn’t really do anybody any good until you actualize it and bring it into the world. Share it!
AutoCrit: Any final words you’d like to offer for all those writers out there with a story to tell?
Grant Faulkner: I think a lot of people have a hard time saying ‘I am a writer’ – and again it goes back to the notion that other people do this, and they’re more precious or smarter or more creative. I often hear people say ‘I’m not a creative type.’ You’re a creative type if you’re a person. Human beings are creative types by definition.
And I believe that people need to embrace the phrase ‘I am a writer’ because it’s empowering creatively. It will motivate you and push you to produce better writing because you’ll believe in yourself. You are a writer because you write, and I just think people should claim that and embrace it. You don’t have to wait until you’re published or reviewed. You’re a writer because you sit down and do it every day.
What people sometimes don’t realize is that even well-published writers struggle with that, claiming it for themselves. Writing is an activity that’s rife with self-doubt – that’s just a natural part of it. Even if you’ve written 1 or 20 books and maybe even one of them won an award, you still struggle with those words on a page. We’re all in it together.