Why I Broke Up With NaNoWriMo

I love NaNoWriMo, which is why this year I’m not doing it.

First posted in 2018; revised on October 31, 2019 because I’m still not doing NaNoWriMo (although I totally recommend it).

Don’t you love this misty, mysterious image of a lone writer bravely walking into the unknown?
It’s pretty much how I feel every day when I sit down to write.

Image by cocoparisienne from Pixabay

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Let me explain.

What is NaNoWriMo?

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 way back in October of 2013. Several of my writer friends swore by it. My debut book, The Towers of Tuscany, was already in production and I was about to start my next book, so why not?

November 1 arrived. It was raining, if I remember correctly.

I sat down at my computer and pounded out 2,601 words on the first day. Incredible! I’d never written that many words that quickly. And it was so easy! I could keep this up forever. Who says NaNoWriMo is 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! Writing fast was the simplest thing in the world. What was all the fuss about? I even created a graph to keep track of my progress. Here’s what it looked like after 27 days.

However as the days passed and even as I continued to rack up the words, I began finding the relentless word counting stressful and soul destroying. I got to where I was including swathes of research in my word count. Who was I cheating? No one except me, but by golly, I wanted to see those numbers rise every day.

I Conquered NaNoWriMo

After 27 days of slogging and sweating, I made it. And yes, I beat NaNoWriMo by three days in spite of writing nothing at all on one day and only about 10 words on another. With a song in my heart and tingling in my fingers, I uploaded my 50,000 words on November 30 and proudly downloaded my badges and ordered the T-shirt.

I posted my awesome success on Facebook and Twitter. I was a NaNoWriMo winner! I had 50,000 words (more or less) of my new novel.

Go me.

Post-NaNoWriMo Reality

Over the next year, I worked diligently to put those 50,000 words into something that kind of resembled a novel. Day after day, I struggled—throwing out thousands of words, reshaping and massaging the ones I kept. And oh, I suffered 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 did not serve me.

Badges are nice, and the T-shirt makes a good jammy top, but I began to suspect that getting a good novel written was more important than stressing over word counts.

On the plus side, the novel that I started during NaNoWriMo 2013 did get published (Lake Union Publishing, 2015) and has done well, winning an award and some loyal fans. Called A Woman of Note, the novel follows the journey of a woman composer in 1830s Vienna.

So yeah, NaNoWriMo worked for me that first time around, but read on!

I Try NaNoWriMo For A Second and a Third Time

Despite having to throw out so many of my initial 50,000 words, 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 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 they complete their daily quota. But where was the joy in adhering slavishly to the NaNoWriMo daily quota?

Writing is hard work, but should it be a chore on a 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 eight to twelve 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, I officially gave up NaNoWriMo. I have not, however, given up on discipline and word counts. Far from it. Instead, I’m learning how to use word counts to benefit my story and my writing process rather than punishing it.

How to Write with Joy

Six days a week, I write between 500 and 1000 words each day. If I write more, great, but I don’t think I have to or consider myself an abject failure if I don’t.

I have four rules for how I spend my writing time:

  1. Complete all the words in one sitting (one to two hours).
  2. Close the office door and crank up the music.
  3. Finish at an exciting point.
  4. Don’t think about writing until the next day.

Let’s look at each of these rules (or guidelines as I prefer to think of them). Rules are just so punitive-sounding and remember–writing should be about joy, even on those days when pulling words from your brain is harder than extricating yourself from quick-drying cement.

One: Complete all the words in one sitting

I’m a big fan of timers and I suggest you think about using them to help you write faster and with more focus. When I’m writing a new scene (as opposed to editing, which is a whole different process), I set the alarm on my phone or computer for ten minutes. At the same time, I set the timer on the stove (if I’m working at home) to thirty minutes.

For ten minutes, I write quickly, letting the words flow from fingers to screen in a continuous, unedited stream. I usually close my eyes and put myself in the center of the scene so I can see the action and hear the dialogue. These ten-minute stints exhilarate me. In a typical two-hour writing session, I can do maybe four of them spaced over the two hours. They are the writing equivalent of sprinting, and like sprinting, work best in short bursts. No one sprints for two hours.

After my ten-minute stint, I spend the interval before the stove timer goes off reading what I wrote and starting the editing process. I know from experience that I will go over and over what I wrote, polishing and sanding every word, before the novel is published so I’m not too worried at this point about perfection. I want to get the story moving and spark new ideas. When the stove timer goes, I get up and turn it off, thereby satisfying the need to move my body from its habitual frozen-in-front-of-screen state.

Remember the big picture, people. You don’t want writing to jeopardize your health! Move!

No two-hour writing sessions are the same, which is why I love them. Sometimes I do four 10-minute stints, sometimes I edit at a leisurely pace, sometimes I spend more time than I’d like to admit just staring into space.

Whatever. I’m writing!

So yeah, schedule your daily writing into one sitting, but don’t stress about how many words you write. As mentioned above, about 500 to 1000 words a day is my sweet spot when I’m in the writing phase of a novel. Occasionally, the writing gods will smile upon me and I’ll pound out 2,500 words in a single day, but those days are not the norm. I wish they were but they’re not. I’m learning to deal with reality.

Two: Close the office door and crank up the music

I steal this rule/guideline from the incomparable Stephen King. If you haven’t read his book On Writing, stop reading this right now and go and buy it. There’s a reason why Stephen King is a bestselling author. Even if you’re not a fan of his brand of horror/thriller (and I confess I’m not), you can learn a ton from On Writing. Go ahead, get the book. I’ll wait.

Got it?

Right, back to music and the closed office door.

Thank goodness for YouTube! I choose inspirational, movie soundtrack music when I’m writing. The swelling and receding mimic the progress of a scene. Check out Hans Zimmer’s soundtracks. I know other writers (Stephen King included) enjoy pounding rock. Not my style, but that doesn’t matter. The point is, find music that moves you and the writing process forward.

I also close my door when I’m in the middle of writing (as in creating scenes out of thin air as opposed to editing). The physical barrier between me and the rest of the house helps me focus. I am fortunate to have a life partner who gets my need for solitude when I’m working. If you have a partner who doesn’t get it, sit them down and explain that the closed door is not personal. Hopefully, they’ll understand and if not, that’s why coffee joints were invented. I find that writing in a café surrounded by strangers focuses me almost as much as sitting alone behind a closed door in my home office.

Also, headphones are a must in public settings to avoid eavesdropping on conversations that probably won’t make it into your novel.

Three: Finish 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. Then I stop writing and for the rest of the day, I don’t actively think about writing (Rule #4).

Four: Don’t think about writing until the next day

This last “rule” is the most important by far. In the past, whether I was doing NaNoWriMo or just racking up words, I wrote until I got stuck or depressed or frustrated. I often ended my writing day feeling irritated. Why hadn’t I written more? What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I churn out brilliant strings of words like other writers do? 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.

When you end your day’s writing stint at a point where you want to know what will happen next, you can then go about the rest of your day confident that your subconscious is engaged and working. James Scott Bell talks about “the boys in the basement”. These burly fellows are duking it out in the basement of your mind while you’re doing your grocery shopping, reading someone else’s novel, taking a walk, vacuuming.

Let the boys do their thing and then the next time you sit down at your desk, listen to what they’ve come up with. If you want to learn more about Bell’s writing advice (and it’s excellent), check out his course and all his writing books. My is Revision and Self-Editing for Publication. My copy is dog-eared and very well-thumbed.

And one more thing: give yourself permission to not write and to not feel guilty about not writing. Guilt is the enemy of creativity!

Instead of angsting about my writing, I enjoy doing it and then I enjoy all the other things I love doing as part of living a full life—mentoring authors, editing, exercising, working on my website, dancing, cooking, blogging, reading, knitting, researching, marketing, hanging out with friends and family, getting out into nature, seeing new things, traveling, enjoying life.

And I really am enjoying my life more since I’ve implemented this new regimen because I now look forward to my next writing stint.

Just like I hope my readers will, I want to find out what will happen next.

And while I think of it, I don’t consider myself a panster or an outliner anymore. I used to say 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 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 (or, more accurately, my characters) will take to get there.

A Final Note About NaNoWriMo

Every year on November 1, I bid a fond farewell to NaNoWriMo. However, I absolutely will write almost every day in November. I might even get to 50,000 words, but I won’t beat myself up if I don’t. I’ll have made progress on my next novel, and that’s really all that matters.

Should you do NaNoWriMo? Absolutely!

Try it if you haven’t already and see how it works for you. Many writers swear by it and that’s awesome! But if you become more worried about word counts than your story, give yourself a break. Lower your daily word limit to something that works for you and the story you want to tell—and enjoy yourself.

If you do make it to 50,000 words in 30 days, wear that T-shirt with pride! Oh, and donate to their website. The NaNoWriMo folks do such a great job of motivating and inspiring writers that they deserve a lot of lovin’.

Are you working on a novel or would like to work on a novel? Contact me to inquire about my applying for my mentoring services. I enjoy working with authors to help them craft their best work. Drop me a line and let’s chat. The first 30-minute consultation, which includes an evaluation of a writing sample, is free.

Happy writing!

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