Three Lessons NaNoWriMo Taught Me

In December 2009, my nephew posted a challenge on Facebook. “I’m doing NaNoWriMo next year,” he said. “Who’s with me?”

On impulse I replied, “I’m in!”

I had started many novels over the years, but I had never finished one. The challenge to write a novel in one month, combined with my nephew’s go-for-it attitude, inspired me to complete a significant bucket list item.

I was so excited about the idea I didn’t even want to wait. I had a vague concept for my book, something that had come to me during a long drive. Bigfoot is an alien, part of an advanced civilization hidden deep beneath the mountains.

I decided that if I was going to write a SF novel in one month, I needed to do a certain amount of world building and outlining to get myself ready. I bought myself a blank notebook, and began scribbling down notes and ideas, letting my mind to go where ever it wanted. By the time November rolled around, I thirty hand written pages of cool details about the world in which my story would take place.

On November 1st, 2010, I sat down with my MacBook, a can of Diet Coke, and a heart full of enthusiasm. I think I wrote about 150 words before the sad trombone sounded in my head.

Lesson 1: Thirty pages of world building is not a plot.

I hadn’t even thought up a main character! The clock was ticking, and so I plowed forward, making up names on the fly (one was named Beyonce for a long time) and finding out what happened next at the same time my characters did. That first day I wrote north of 10,000 words. The second day 3000, the next day 1200. A pretty easy trend line to graph.

I kept going. On November 14, 2012, almost halfway through NaNoWriMo, I ground to a stop. I was stuck. I ignored the advice to just plow forward and not worry about continuity. I felt that my story was fundamentally broken, so I went back.

I deleted about 10,000 words-at least a third of my manuscript-and got a running start. To that point I’d had a comfortable lead on my goal, but now it was behind. But failure to reach my ultimate word count was not an option. I continue to write every single day, many days watching my total word count remain even despite the fact I was writing thousands of new words.

Lesson 2: Sometimes meeting your daily word count comes at the expense of yesterday’s word count. It can feel like failure, or treading water. But writing is not about how many words you get. It’s about telling a story.
There is a necessary and valuable tension between deadlines and one’s artistic standards. The deadline prods the author forward and provides urgency which lends the writing pace and urgency. And sometimes it forces the brain out of the way so that the muse can operate with less friction.

NaNoWriMo recalibrated my standard of productivity. Prior to participating in NaNoWriMo, my gut instinct told me 50,000 words would take half a year. The goal of doing that in a month seemed ridiculous. And now, having written several more books since then, the NaNo pace seems a bit unambitious.

Lesson 3: To write a novel, learn how to start.

I don’t mean learning how to write the first sentence, or page. Or learning how to sit down on the first day and begin typing. What I mean is learning how to start writing each day. NaNo is like a bootcamp to teach this discipline.

What lessons has NaNoWriMo taught you?

About Eric Edstrom

I'm an author and songwriter from Wisconsin. I've self-pubbed two novels in The Undermountain Saga. I live in a very cool house with my wife, daughter, a Brittany dog named :Lucky (we call him Muchacho though).

4 responses on “Three Lessons NaNoWriMo Taught Me

  1. Clancy Metzger

    I’m not doing NaNo this year as I’m in full blown edit mode, but when I have attempted it in the past what I learned most were 1) write daily …. don’t get a head and think you can take a break or you may not start again. 2) Get plotting, world-building, characterization… all the foundational work done first or you will hit a wall that you likely will not recover from.

    Good post… love your points 🙂

  2. Colette

    I’m doing nanowrimo for the first time this year. In the past, like Clancy, I was always in the middle of edits but now I’m excited to use it as a tool to help me finish my current novel. I’m learning tons, including : how much time I’ve started wasting on fb and email, how much more writing I could get done if I limited my time on those , the best times for my brain to produce good fiction. Because I’m striving for a certain number goal each day, not just over the course of a week or a month, this has really helped me evaluate my writing schedule. And…I’m having fun comparing what I get done to my other writing buddies, some of whom are whipping my butt.

  3. Frank Morin

    I’m sort of doing NaNo this month. I’m working on a new revision to a previously completed manuscript. The edits are pretty extensive, with many entirely new scenes. It’s hard to track, though, since the goal is to end up at roughly the same total word count I started with, so I’m deleting about as much as I’m writing.

    I do enjoy the focus of the NaNo effort, although like you said, once you complete a couple of manuscripts, 50,000 words in a month is not the ‘you’re crazy-insane’ amount I once thought. Still, this has been a great way to focus on getting this rev done, which needs to be completed this month.

    I agree completely – you cannot be successful with a concentrated burst of writing like this unless you’ve prepared in advance. Know what you’re going to write, or the effort becomes a process of discovering what your story needs to be, which results in needing to re-write the entire thing anyway.

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