What 10 Years of NaNoWriMo Have Taught Me

I first heard of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNo) back in 2007. It was an interesting concept: write a novel in 30 days. How can you write a novel in 30 days?! I wondered. To 16 year old me, it was an impossible idea. But I tried it anyway.

And let’s be real – the first attempt was terrible. I don’t think there’s anything salvageable from my first attempt, but that wasn’t the point. I wrote something and that was amazing.

10 years, 8 attempts, 4 wins and 4 failures later, I have learned so much about writing just through the act of banging my head against that 50,000 words in 30 days deadline and here’s what I’ve learned.

  • First drafts can and should suck. Just write – get the concept down on paper, ignore spelling and grammar and everything else. Let the draft be terrible and go off on tangents and let side plots take over the main plot. All the first draft has to do is exist. This is the whole point of NaNo and why the point is quantity over quality.
  • Novel writing takes a lot of preparation. This is the one moment I’m going to harp on outlining somehow – even if it’s just a quick page of writing detailing how the plot will go and a list of the cast of characters. It takes much more prep than you’re prepared for. Sure, pantsing works for some people, and maybe you’re one of them! But I really suggest preparing at least a bit.
  • 50,000 words is simultaneously more and less than you’d think. This goes hand-in-hand with the plan note above. 50,000 words is a lot – but it only barely qualifies as novel-length. Some places won’t look at anything under 60,000. 50,000 words is a great starting point, but it’s just that – it’s a starting point.
  • The program you use matters. But maybe not in the way you think. It doesn’t matter if you use notepad or Word or Libre Office or Scrivener so long as it works for you without being distracting.
  • Be prepared for the unexpected. Maybe a side character takes over the plot or you write yourself into a corner and have to kill someone off. Or maybe you’ll change the entire scope of the novel three chapters in and suddenly start writing something different. That’s okay. Just keep writing – don’t edit.
  • At the same time… Don’t be afraid to suddenly wrench the story back on track. It’s your story! If you don’t like where it’s going, just change it and do the in-depth analysis of why later. You can go back during the editing phase and make sure that the character’s attitudes and personalities line up with their later actions, or this key event happened differently. It’s your story, you don’t have to stick with where the flow takes you.
  • Community isn’t what you think. Writing is often played up as being a lonely venture, which it definitely can be. But there’s a sense of community in NaNo – even if you don’t actually go to write-ins or participate on the forums. You’re not doing this alone, and that one thought is sometimes enough.
  • Break the rules. No really – break them. No one will ever know but you. Write a series of short stories, start early, write a script or poems or even non-fiction. The rules are there to be broken.
  • You’re only competing against yourself. Hitting 50,000 words isn’t the goal – starting to write is. Don’t fuss about if you fall short or if you don’t even get close – if you started something, you reached the real goal.

In the end, NaNoWriMo isn’t for everyone, but I highly encourage you all to try. It can be incredibly rewarding to do, even if you never do anything with it in the long run. Whether this is your first time or your 28th time, I wish you the best this November!

Originally posted to Tumblr.

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