I love NaNoWriMo, which is why this year I’m not doing it.
Let me explain.
First off, if you’re a writer and you’ve never heard of NaNoWriMo, aka National November Writing Month, be sure to check it out. Every year, writers sign up and pledge to write 50,000 words in 30 days.
I first heard about NaNoWriMo in October of 2013. Several of my writer friends swore by it. My debut novel, The Towers of Tuscany, was already in production and I was about to start my next novel, so I thought why not?
November 1 arrived. I sat down at my computer and pounded out 2,601 words on the first day. It felt incredible! I’d never written that many words that quickly. And it was so easy! I could keep this up forever. What were they talking about NaNoWriMo being hard work? They should make it 70,000 words in a month. No, 100,000 words!
Day 2 also went well, words clocking in at 2,538. Piece of cake! I even created a graph to keep track of my progress.
But as the days passed, I began to find the whole exercise increasingly stressful and soul destroying. I got to the point where I was including swathes of research in my word count. Who was I cheating? No one except me, but by God, I wanted to see those numbers rise every day.
After 27 days of slogging and sweating (yes, I beat NaNoWriMo by three days!), I uploaded my 50,000 words on November 30 and proudly downloaded my badges and ordered the T-shirt. I posted on Facebook and Twitter. I was a NaNoWriMo success story! I had 50,000 words (more or less) of my new novel.
Over the next year, I worked with those 50,000 words—throwing out a lot of them, reshaping and massaging the ones that were left, suffering as scene after scene, hard-won chunk after chunk disappeared into my “outtake” file. During NaNoWriMo, I’d frequently written scenes just to reach my word quota. Some of these scenes took the novel in directions that later, in the sober light of editing, I couldn’t make work. Of course, that will happen with any first draft, even one written at a leisurely pace, but there was a hectic-ness to my NaNoWriMo writing that in the end did not serve me. Badges are nice, and the T-shirt makes a good jammy top, but I began to suspect it was more important to get a good novel out of the experience.
Nevertheless, undaunted, I tried NaNoWriMo again the following year, and the year after that. I wrote partial novels and both times, I didn’t make it to the end. Around about the halfway mark, I realized that again I was pounding out words instead of telling a story.
I understand the need for discipline, the bum glue that keeps authors in their seats until their daily quota is completed. But where was the joy in adhering slavishly to the NaNoWriMo daily quota? Writing is hard work, but should it be a chore on par with cleaning toilets or re-grouting the bathtub?
I think not.
If I’m not enjoying myself, how can I expect my readers to enjoy themselves? A novel represents a good six to eight hours of a reader’s time, sometimes stretched over weeks. I owe it to them to provide a reading experience that is as much fun as the writing experience.
So, after three attempts, only one of which resulted in a published novel (A Woman of Note, Lake Union Publishing 2015), I officially gave up NaNoWriMo. I have not, however, given up on discipline and word counts. Far from it. Instead, I’ve learned how to use word counts to benefit my story and my writing process, rather than punishing it.
Six days a week, I write between 500 and 1000 words. If I write more, great, but I don’t feel that I have to or think myself an abject failure if I don’t.
I have four rules for how I now spend my writing time:
- Complete all the words in one sitting (one to two hours).
- Close my office door and crank up the music.
- Finish at an exciting point.
- Don’t think about writing for the rest of the day.
This last “rule” has proved to be the most important by far. In the past, whether I was doing NaNoWriMo or just piling up the words in a typical day, I wrote until I got stuck or depressed or frustrated. I very often ended my writing day feeling irritated. Why didn’t I write more? What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I be like other writers who churn out the words? I’m a failure. I shouldn’t be allowed near a keyboard. Nobody loves me. I’m going into the garden to eat worms.
You know the drill.
What do I mean by finishing at an exciting point? My practice now is to write a scene until the point where my characters are on the verge of doing something new, but I don’t exactly know what. I stop writing and then for the rest of the day, I don’t actively think about writing (Rule #4). I give myself permission to not write and, most importantly, to not feel guilty about not writing. Guilt is the enemy of creativity! Instead, I do all the other things I need to do in order to live a full life—consulting work, editing, exercising, dancing, cooking, reading, knitting, researching, marketing, hanging out with friends and family, enjoying life. And I really am enjoying my life more since I’ve instituted this new regimen because now I look forward to my next writing stint. Just like I hope my readers will, I want to know what’s going to happen next.
By the way, I don’t think of myself as a panster or an outliner anymore. I used to think I was a panster (writing by the seat of my pants with no clue what was coming) and then I morphed into an outliner with each coming scene mapped out and numbered. Now I’m a hybrid. When I’m writing my first draft, I have a vague notion of my ultimate destination, but I have no idea exactly what roads I’ll be taking (or, more accurately, my characters will be taking) to get there.
From when I stop writing for the day until I pick it up again the next, I trust the ideas to bubble away just below my conscious mind and then to present themselves when I need them. By not fretting about what’s going to happen next, my subconscious relaxes and gets on with doing its job. As a result, I almost always know what I’m going to write within minutes of sitting down to start the current day’s installment. The writing process is also going much more smoothly and with fewer hiccups than with my first three novels (although I did love writing them—most of the time!).
So, farewell NaNoWriMo. I’m not signing up this year, but I absolutely will be writing almost every day in November. I might even get to 50,000 words, but it won’t bother me if I don’t. I’ll have made progress on my fourth novel and that’s really all that matters.
Should you do NaNoWriMo? Absolutely! Give it a try if you haven’t already and see how it works for you. Many writers swear by it and that’s awesome! But if you find yourself becoming more worried about word counts than story, give yourself a break. Lower your daily word limit to something that works for you and the story that you want to tell—and enjoy yourself!
But if you do make it to 50,000 words in 30 days, wear that T-shirt with pride!