What is NaNoWriMo?
NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month, which is the name shared by both a nonprofit charity dedicated to writing and literacy as well as the contest they run. The goal is simple: write 50,000 words in the month of November.
Okay, maybe it’s not that simple.
It’s a big task, but the rules of NaNoWriMo are pretty clear-cut; start writing at 12AM on November 1st, and stop at 11:59:59 on November 30th your local time. Write 50,000 words of a novel, whether a complete novel or the first 50,000. Generate all the planning materials you want, but no words of prose can be written before November 1st.
Of course, there’s plenty of people over on the NaNo forums who delight in breaking those rules. No matter what your writing interest is you can find someone to share it with. The biggest rule (or goal) is 50,000 words in 30 days.
That’s 1,667 words per day.
My NaNoWriMo Story
Somewhere in October of 2016 I walked uphill to Gustavus to chat with a few professors about graduate school. I was starting to feel listless and restless; I wasn’t sure what I wanted or needed in my life, but I knew I wasn’t being productive.
I needed to do something, and going back to school seemed like a good place to start. In a way it had a root in fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of moving, fear of seeking out a way to make some small mark. I am a person who is academically gifted, and who enjoys learning. These are some of my strengths, and I know this.
Graduate school seemed like a great place to put them to use.
At that point I had been dabbling in writing for a few months, and I’d had a story seed or two in my head for some years. Most notable was Jiharel, a grand epic tragedy thing (“Under the Stars” is currently the prologue). I was one of those fantasy geeks who always thought “Oh, I should write the book someday.” I’d known about NaNoWriMo for some years at that point – I think I first heard of it in high school – and so I had a simple plan:
I was going to spend November trying NaNo, and then go to intensive research and writing/re-writing an essay on Plato in December. Come January and February, I’d be ready to apply to graduate programs in philosophy.
That didn’t happen.
I spent the rest of October trying to hammer out an outline for The Rule of Iron. I also scribbled down character notes, setting notes, and other random things. I don’t think I had an actual map of the storyworld until several months after I finished writing it. While Jiharel was my passion idea, I didn’t feel confident enough to tackle it.
To date, as of November 2016, I had written probably about 5k-8k words of fiction as an adult. I remember writing a few fiction things before high school, but don’t remember a thing about them. I had tidbits of Jiharel which I didn’t really like, along with maps and scribblings and three failed outlines.
Going into November I had 3/4ths of an outline, about four pages of notes on characters, and about six pages of notes on everything else about the world of Rule. I had the opening line stuck in my brain – “Smoke stung my eyes as Alder’s Ford burned around me” – and I was rearing to go.
My “Oh shit, I’m doing this!” moment came six or seven days into NaNoWriMo. (Sorry for the language, Mom.) I checked my document’s word count – and I was over 10,000. The Rule of Iron was officially the longest single thing I had ever written, and I wasn’t even past the first week of writing.
If you’ve wanted to write but never have, if you’ve consumed story after story and read all the time, if you’ve spent idle brainpower dreaming up odd situations and settings and then letting those ideas float away, seeing your work there, happening is strange.
It’s surreal. It’s frightening. And I could only find one way to react – keep writing.
That’s not to say that NaNoWriMo was all sunshine and daffodils. Many days it was hard, hard work. Writing at that pace is exhausting, even for experienced and talented authors. I remember coming home from spending a whole day one weekend with my friends, staring at my laptop, and realizing I hadn’t written yet that day.
But that first week was beautifully scary, and I think the sense of accomplishment I felt when I hit “Submit” for The Rule of Iron on November 29th, 2016 at 50,165 words might have been the greatest satisfaction of my life thus far.
I wasn’t done – not by any means – but I knew I was going to finish the book. Shifting gears, going into research and nonfiction and preparing school applications just wasn’t going to happen. I was going to finish my book.
(The complete first draft came out to 68,029 words, and was finished on December 16th. About six weeks.)
Describing something as “a life-changing experience!” is a really stupid cliche, but there’s a sense in which it’s accurate here. I don’t want to claim that everyone will have the same experience with NaNoWriMo that I did, or that it’s guaranteed to be this magical, mystic thing, but writing a book did change my world.
I remember a great time back in high school (or maybe a summer home from college), where my best friend and I were alone for the weekend. We crashed in my parents’ basement with a guitar, a bass, a lousy keyboard, two amps, a mic, and my laptop. No one was home, so we could be as loud as we liked. Over the course of about 36 hours we wrote tidbits of verse and riffs, and recorded two or three covers.
In particular, I remember transcribing and learning “Paranoid” by Ozzy Osbourne in about three hours before my friend woke up. I don’t know what time it was; it didn’t matter. We were creating, and it was good.
That’s the farthest my high school “band” (and I use that word very generously) ever got toward producing music. I remember toward the end of that recording session we sat in the basement slumped on the couch and grinned.
“We’re a thing, Conrad!” my friend said. “We’re a thing.”
I posted those recordings to a Facebook page, and I believe they’re up there somewhere still, if you really want to go hunting for social blackmail. (No, I’m not linking to it.)
That is what it felt like to hold the printed copy of my manuscript for the first time.
How to “Win” NaNoWriMo
“Winning” NaNoWriMo is what the community calls it when you complete your 50,000 words. There’s not really any prize to acquire – the goal is to finish the wordcount. It’s self-fulfilling.
There’s no sure-fire and certain way to get there apart from typing “I have writer’s block” 12,500 times. However, I’d like to share a few tips based on my own experience.
First, write every day. Even a few hundred words helps. It’s so, so easy to fall behind, and very difficult to catch back up. I missed two days in a row during NaNo 2016, and the experience of sitting down knowing you have to write at least 2,000 words instead of your usual count is awful.
Second, write more than you need to every day. At the beginning of November it’s usually easier to get ahead. You’re excited, and the project’s new. I wish I did this right from the get-go instead of later, around mid-month. If you write 1,800 words instead of 1,667, that’s a hundred and fifty words less you can write another day.
Third, don’t be afraid to take a break. Controlling and watching my wordcount was part of my success. There definitely were days I wrote knowing I didn’t have to, but there were also days that I was ahead enough that I could take one off, and put only a little extra on tomorrow-Austin. Being able to take a day off and not freak about it helped me stay sane.
Fourth, you really should do as much prep work as you can. I know discovery-writing is a thing (and pretty much any short story I’ve scribbled down has been discovery-written), but if you’re going to do a marathon like NaNo you can not get bogged down in “Where do I go next?”
Even if you’re a discovery writer (or gardener, in G.R.R.M.’s terminology) you can still do character sketches and explorations which don’t actually go into a novel. No matter if you’re a planner or pantser, you can and should do prep work.
Finally, be aware that it’s a big project, and will eat a lot of time. For me, writing The Rule of Iron took about three or four hours per day. It was more at the beginning, and less in the middle. (More at the end too, but that’s because I was excited again and wanted to finish.) I’m an amateur writer, but I think that several hours per day is a reasonable expectation regarding the average person’s pace.
None of this should drive you away from trying NaNoWriMo! I refuse to lie and say that it’s easy, but it is 100% doable. You get in what you put out, and the reward for sitting down every day and throwing words on the page is worth it.
If you’ve ever wanted to write a book, make this the year. Go for it!