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What I Learned from NaNoWriMo

Updated: Sep 25, 2020

2016 was my first attempt at NaNoWriMo.  

For the first few days, it rocked!  But then, I hit a snag: I hadn’t had time to outline very much beforehand, so the story got away from me.  It sped off down a crazy detour and then sputtered to a stop completely.   I wasn’t sure anymore whether the premise for the story was working.  I had conflicting ideas about my story’s world, chapters that switched POV every few paragraphs, and even differing descriptions of characters.   Simply put, my story was a mess.

I was stalled out at about 12,000 words, with no clue where I was going.

Then, a friend recommended that I try the Write or Die app to push me past writer’s block.  I tried it.  Not only was it fun (and a little nerve-wracking!), it worked!  I was writing!  But I was still writing rambling paragraphs, because I had no clue where my story was going.   At about 16,000 words, I hit a wall again.   So I took a break from writing for a few days, planning to catch up on my word count by doubling my writing later, and plotted.  Outlined. Free-wrote ideas.  I filled up pages of a spiral notebook with my plans.

After about a week of this — way longer than I had expected it to take — I finally had a grip on where my story was going.  I had sorted out the inconsistencies and ended up with a better version (I hope!) of everything.  And so, I started writing again, building on the end of the scrambled mass of words I had already written.  I could edit that part later.

Things were going better.  I was up to 27,000 words!  However, the problem was that I was now running out of time.  I had only 4 days left, and still 23,000 words to write.

But the thing is, during all that time that I was pushing myself to write, even when I didn’t know where it was going, I realized something:  I can write way faster than I thought.  When properly motivated (like with Write or Die, which doesn’t allow me to daydream and drift off with my fingers sitting lifeless on the keyboard; or like now — when I know I have a deadline looming), I could write 1000 words in 20 minutes!  That’s 3,000 words an hour!  That meant I could complete my NaNoWriMo project with just over 7.5 hours of focused writing time.  That was doable!

But my new problem was that I simply didn’t have 7.5 hours of dedicated writing time.  I have three small kids, and a part-time job, and also a newly-started from-home business.  There was no way I could fit in 7.5 hours of solid writing time over 4 days.  Not unless I just didn’t sleep.

Enter my knight in shining armor, my wonderful husband.  He swooped in to my rescue, offering to keep up with the kids, the errands, and the housework for an entire afternoon and evening.  I still had some other things I had to do, but his help freed me up so much.  (I love how supportive he is of my goals, even if they don’t make sense to him!)   Of course I also wanted/needed to spend time with my family, so I didn’t bury myself at the computer all day (although part of me wanted to).  And I got interrupted by the kids, some phone calls, emails I had to answer — quite a bit of interruptions, actually, despite my husband’s help.  But even so, yesterday I was able to devote a quite a bit of time just to writing, and I ended up with 7,600 new words on the page.  My previous daily record was about 4,000.

So then, there I was, staring at the light at the end of the tunnel.  I had 3 days left, and only a little over 15,000 words to write.   I was realizing , with a little rush of excitement, that it was doable.  I can write 3,000 words an hour, when I’m focused.  So if I stayed up a little late (or get up a little early) the next 3 days and wrote intently for 1 hour and 45 minutes each day, I’d have more than made my word count.    I thought I was going to finish.  I was actually going to finish.  That was exciting.

I did end up finishing -- minutes before the deadline. At just over 50,000 words.

A very messy, very-much-in-need-of-editing 50,000 words, but I did it!

(A note from 2020: that super-messy draft later ended up becoming the first book in my fantasy trilogy! You can read more about that in a guest post I wrote for a different blog here.)

Of course, then I needed to do some major editing, but I was expecting that anyway.

All in all, NaNoWriMo was a really eye-opening experience for me.   

Here are some lessons I learned from my first try at NaNoWriMo:

What I Learned from NaNoWriMo:

1. I can accomplish more than I realized, if I just have the proper motivation.

For me, this meant a combination of reminding myself of why this mattered to me, what my goals were, and then also employing all the techniques in my arsenal for combating Writer’s Block.  It also meant trying out some new tools, like Write or Die, which worked really well for me.

2. I have more support than I realized.

I knew my husband was aware of and supportive of my writing goals, but he’s not a writer, and my writing currently isn’t bringing in a huge income or anything, so I just assumed he viewed it as some kind of hobby.  It’s more than that to me, but, I hadn’t really expressly explained that to him, so I didn’t expect him to go out of his way to help me with this crazy NaNoWriMo thing.  Honestly, I thought he would just tell me that I didn’t have to pressure myself to write on someone else’s timetable.   But instead, he jumped in to help.  He put aside things that he needed and wanted to do — for work, for leisure, etc. — and volunteered to do things he didn’t want to do — like clean the house and run errands for me.  All because he knew this mattered to me and wanted to support me in my crazy goals.  That is huge, and I never would have asked him to do that.  I try not to let my writing create a burden for my family.  I struggle constantly to keep a balance.  But my husband wants me to achieve those goals because he knows they mean something to me, and I love him all the more for it.

3. Sometimes a crazy goal is the perfect motivation.

Writing a novel in one month is, in fact, sort of a crazy goal.  That’s why NaNoWriMo writers also plan to spend major time editing afterwards.  I mean, we know it’s a lot of words to write in one month, and that most of those words will be messy because of it.  But hopefully something beautiful emerges from the mess, and the rest can be sorted out in editing.   What I realized is that since setting myself that lofty goal, rather than feeling overwhelmed, I felt inspired.  Determined.   It was only toward the end when I got so far behind that I started to despair and become unmotivated.  But even then, reminding myself of my larger goals — I mean the bigger goals, the long-term goals, of which NaNoWriMo is only one small piece — helped re-center and focus me.  And then I just broke that huge, crazy goal down into smaller, achievable goals — just sit and write for 20 minutes at a time, take a break to do other things, then squeeze in another 20 minutes — until my daily word counts started to be met again.

This is the same thing I experienced during my time on Wattpad.

Announcing writing projects and knowing I have readers waiting for them has been so incredibly motivating, too.  A few months ago, I was barely writing at all because I was just “too busy,” but now — I’m writing more than I ever have.  It wasn’t really the time, it was just about perspective.  Priorities.  Goals.  So maybe I watch a little less Netflix than before, and sleep a little less, but — I’m writing a book!  So, I think it’s a worthy trade-off.


There are probably other lessons I could pull out from this experience, but these are just my top 3.  I really am so glad I gave NaNoWriMo a try!

Are any of you doing NaNoWriMo?  Or maybe you have another writing project for which you’ve set lofty goals?   If so, I’d love to hear what you’re learning from your experience!   Feel free to post your comments below.  🙂

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