5 Things NaNoWriMo Taught Me

(Logo in header courtesy of National Novel Writing Month).

So it’s October, which means the writing community is in a pre-NaNoWriMo tizzy of planning, anticipation, and hype. If you’re new to NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), it’s a month-long challenge to draft a 50,000-word novel over the 30 days of November.

I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo every year since 2006 and have managed to get at least 50,000 words every year, though I’ve only hit “the end” of my draft a few times during the event.

I cite my first NaNoWriMo as the true beginning of my professional writing journey, though my debut novel wouldn’t publish until almost a decade later. Why? Because NaNo is where I honed the skills I’d need later, such as:

1. Embracing the “rough” in a rough draft.

Before NaNoWriMo, I’d get a few chapters or halfway into a draft, hit that saggy, slipshod middle, and fizzle out. The project would be abandoned for a shiny new idea because the current one was just ugly. Plot holes, inconsistent characterization, sloppy word choice. And it just kept growing more chaotic and awful the further I went, so I’d quit.

But for NaNoWriMo, the emphasis is entirely on quantity, not quality. Write those run-on sentences. Let the plot holes multiply like rabbits as long as you’re putting down words. Revel in the joy of letting it be as hideous as it needs to be. You can fix it all later.

And for the first time, I hit “the end” on a project. It was a garbage fire of a plotless mess that will never see the light of day, but it was DONE. It was my book. If I wanted to, I could revise it and have a real, honest-to-goodness novel.

Turns out, that particular project wasn’t really worth revising, but allowing myself the freedom to accept the monstrosity of a truly rough first draft empowered me to finish. And that was the first step.

2. The importance of a writing habit.

This is probably the most instrumental skill I needed to forge a writing career.

“Butt in the chair, hands on the keyboard.”

– Ancient Writer Proverb

When I was operating on my own wishy-washy “whenever” deadlines, I’d get to a tricky part and procrastinate. Time to make a playlist! Doodle my characters, maybe? Or how about a video game break?

NaNoWriMo forced me to put out words every single day. For many (including myself), this is unsustainable indefinitely, but it did teach me the necessity of making myself write even on days the words weren’t flowing like Niagara Falls. Somedays it’s a slow drip, but I’d get to the computer, squeeze out some words, and call it night.

I didn’t hit the goal of 1,667 words every single day, but those waterfall days helped me catch up for those slower ones. Still, barely forcing out 800 words on a Tuesday was better than waking up Wednesday morning feeling a whole day behind. A half day’s deficit felt more doable.

So I learned to make writing a work habit rather than just a thing I did on a whim, a mindset that’s served me well as I pursue an author career. I don’t write every single day, but I do still write most days.

3. Finding pockets of time.

When you’ve gotta eke out 1,667 words a day, you write whenever you can. Maybe that’s in the morning before the kids get up, or at night after they go to bed. On your phone on the morning commute to work or school.

For me, it was lunch breaks. For my second NaNoWriMo, I bought an ancient, barely-functional laptop for $10 at a garage sale. It ran Windows ME (in 2007), had no wifi capability, and would shut off immediately if not constantly plugged in to an outlet.

But it had an ancient version of Word and a floppy disk drive (and against all odds, a USB port), which was all I needed. 2007 was also the first year I had an office job with a full hour for lunch. I’d lug this hefty laptop to work every day and write during that lunch hour, quickly scarfing a sandwich and some chips while I typed.

The ancient laptop in question, festooned in NaNo stickers, upon the year of its final demise. (I believe that was 2015).

One interesting thing happened as I continued this habit after NaNoWriMo. When I got used to squeezing in these sprints, I spent less time waffling before typing. Minutes were ticking away! I didn’t have time to sit and fret about choosing the perfect words. I needed to just get the thoughts down and finesse them later.

4. The value of a writing community.

I’m lucky to have a fairly active local NaNoWriMo group. Those first few years, there were only a couple of us around on the regional forums, but it’s ballooned into a thriving community with support from the library and local businesses. Regular November write-ins and a killer overnight kickoff party have been an annual highlight for me. This year, these meetings have gone virtual, but I’m still excited to hang out on Zoom and commiserate with other local writers.

Now I also have critique partners, a writing group, and a vibrant network of fellow writer friends online, but those first NaNo get-togethers were the catalyst. Especially if you’re naturally a bit shy around new people or nervous about social interactions, NaNo provides a nice conversation starter and common ground. Plus the write-in environment means it’s perfectly acceptable to pop in some earbuds and zone out typing for a while.

If your region isn’t as chatty or populous, the NaNoWriMo forums and other NaNo events over social media like virtual write-ins (check your NaNo regional forum) and Twitter sprints can be a lot of fun. It’s nice to know you’re not in this alone.

5. The power of a deadline.

This is another skill that I feel will serve me well as I wade into the waters of a hybrid career (self-publishing some projects while seeking traditional publication for others).

When writing becomes a career, time management is crucial. Setting and meeting my own deadlines has been practice for a future in which I’m juggling both my own self-pub timetables and also under contracted deadlines for traditional publishing.

NaNoWriMo also taught me what my average writing speed is, and therefore how many words I can feasibly write on a regular (non-NaNoWriMo) schedule. I can now plan much more accurately how long I’ll need to finish a project. Revision is a bit of a trickier beast, but at least I’ve got drafting schedules pinned down.

Conclusion

I know NaNoWriMo isn’t for everyone. The deadlines and pressure aren’t great on everyone’s mental health. But I do believe that if you intend to pursue writing as a career path, dipping your toe in with NaNoWriMo can help develop some skills that will be crucial in navigating traditional publishing deadlines, or develop the self-motivation needed to maintain a regular self-publishing release schedule.

However, you may not wish to be published. Some writers craft stories for their own pleasure alone or for a small group of friends, without any intent to make a career out of it. You might be sharing a fanfiction series solely for the joy of it on Ao3 or Wattpad. In which case you might never need to submit to the same deadline pressures as an author going into traditional publishing.

There’s no wrong way to write.

But even if you don’t plan on a career as an author, the ability to embrace the messiness of a first draft and complete a book might be the breakthrough you need. Or you may meet a new best friend at a local write-in.

If you’ve considered NaNo before but not taken the plunge, I encourage you to at least give it a try. If the 50k goal seems daunting, you could set a lower personal goal for your first year. Try 20k in a month, or 15k.

If you realize you’re not enjoying the experience or it’s not right for you, it’s perfectly fine to drop it after a week and return to a system that works better for you. But if you feel like you’re in a mental place to give it a shot (which is a bit of an iffy call in 2020), I think it’s always worth giving something new a try.

You never know what you might get out of the experience.

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