Things I Learned Doing NaNoWriMo

With NaNoWriMo 2016 having concluded several weeks ago, I have tucked my keyboard (and my story) away for the month of December. During this most needed stepping-away, I have had ample time to reflect upon the experience and what I’ve learned post-Nano.

On the impossibility of the goal:
Writing 50,000 words in a single month is a daunting task. It’s almost self-defeating to look at it in all its full glory. When midnight strikes and November rolls 30 new days onto your calendar, staring that 50k in the face feels like looking up at Everest. It seems impossible. It seems like it’s something only people without kids can do. It seems like you will have no hope at all if you have a full time job. It seems like if you are successful, you will emerge on the other side a dusty sun-deprived hermit.

Like the ever-wise Vincent Van Gogh once said, “great things are done by a series of small things brought together”, and when you look at NaNoWriMo in the same light, breaking it down into manageable chunks makes it seem doable. A daily word count of 1,667 doesn’t seem so bad, does it?

On inconsistent productivity:
I stumbled and I fell during NaNoWriMo. I didn’t end every single day with my 1,667 words packaged up with a neat little bow of celebratory self-praise. Some days were only a few hundred words, and even getting those out was a struggle. It was easy on these days to want to throw in the towel. That was, until I looked at my total word count up to that point and realized that each day was just a drop in the bucket, and that of course some days would be more or less productive than others. Other days I had over 2,500 words, which more than made up for some of the less productive days.

On unfiltered writing:
My previous writings have come from a place of agonizing perfectionism. The reason I’ve struggled with fiction writing in the past is because I spend so much time refining and perfecting each sentence as I write it, that I essentially never get anywhere.

During the month of November, I struggled to keep my inner-editor turned the other way, so that I could just let the words flow pure onto the page. With a hefty goal of 50,000 words in a month, I couldn’t waste precious time messing around with word choice and bogging myself down in the details. My focus was on getting the story out and recognizing that this was not its final form; that it was okay to be imperfect because that is what the editing stage is for.

It worked. It hurt sometimes to leave a sentence looking like garbage but at least I got the story out, and that was what mattered most.

On letting the story breathe:
I started out NaNoWriMo with a rough outline for what my story was going to be. I knew the genre, I had fleshed out the characters a little, and I had most of a plot skeleton just waiting for me to put meat on its bones.

I spent hours prior to NaNoWriMo planning things out, sure that without a plan of action I would flounder and fail.

It only took about a week for nearly my entire plan to derail as the story took on a life of its own. Most of the little details that I wanted to implement were scrapped as the story unfolded. Antagonists became protagonists, the mechanics of how certain things worked completely flipped, characters took on a life of their own and I was completely at their mercy.

On making yourself write:
One of the biggest questions I’ve seen on forums filled with writers, and one of the biggest questions I’ve stared in the face for most of my writing life is: “How do I make myself write?”.

It’s easy to get caught up in looking for some magical formula to cure what is infamously known as “writer’s block”. It sometimes feels like all the prolific writers of the world have a secret they aren’t telling us, but do you know what I learned? I learned there is no secret; you just have to write. It sounds too simple, and I balked at the same advice before I found it myself to be true.

The only way to write, is to write. You just sit down and you do it. You do it even when you don’t feel like it; even when you are depressed, tired, and sick.  You do it even when you don’t have enough time. Speaking of time…

On having the time to write:
One of my biggest excuses during my non-writing periods in life has been “I don’t have time to write”. If you’re reading this and you’re a writer, I bet you’ve said this a time or two. It’s a cop out. You know it. I know it. We all know it. Now, instead of saying you don’t have time, change your wording. Say, “I’m not making writing a priority.” Feels different, doesn’t it? I bet it rings true though, because I guarantee once you make writing a priority, you’ll find the time.

I spent about an hour a day on my novel during NaNoWriMo. I made getting my word goal a priority and by working on it for a few minutes here and there, I was able to reach it most days.

On keeping your story a secret:
One of my favorite books about writing is the aptly titled On Writing by Stephen King. Whether you love, hate, or are indifferent to his work, one can’t argue with regard to King’s amazing work ethic. One of the biggest take-aways I’ve had from his memoir on the craft of writing is the closed door practice he enforces in his first drafts. That is, writing the first draft with no input from anyone.

This was one thing I was very protective of during my NaNoWriMo experience. It helped that I was, and am still self-conscious of my fiction-writing abilities. Even giving away a small idea of what my story is about has been difficult.

On stepping away:
Writing a novel brings you necessarily close to the work, which is why it’s important to take some time away from it before going back and judging/editing it. You’re still too close to the story to see it objectively right after completion. I decided to take a month away from my story to work on other things before going back to read it. In January, I will read the entire thing and start making some edits and then write the second draft.

On the experience:
This was the first NaNoWriMo that I ever seriously attempted, and I am both shocked and proud that I was able to complete my goal. The community is incredible. I had so much fun doing word sprints, connecting with other writers, and enjoying all of the positivity surrounding the challenge. I am walking away as a stronger writer with a finished novel that I can now spend time agonizing over and refining until it’s something that I would feel good about publishing.

Don’t be discouraged, either, if you didn’t quite reach the 50,000 words in one month. The great thing about NaNoWriMo is that you can create your own goal. Even if you set a goal that you don’t quite complete, you’ll still have more words than you did when you started, and that is something to celebrate.