What NaNoWriMo Can Do For Experienced Writers

What NaNoWriMo Can Do For Experienced Writers

Anyone who’s ever strung more than ten words of story together has heard of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). It’s been around as long as I’ve been on the Internet. It probably isn’t going anywhere any time soon. For those unfamiliar, NaNoWriMo takes place in November. The idea is to write an entire novel (50,000 words) in the span of a month. The goal even breaks down into easy little 1,667 word daily goals.

Of course, since novels don’t spontaneously happen (99 percent of the time), writing an entire novel in one month takes a ton of planning. Most writers spend the months leading up to NaNoWriMo planning for the novel they intend to write. When I was a teenager, my mother had a friend who even planned her meals ahead of time so that she could maximize her writing time. And since writing is easier when you have a community to encourage you, lots of regions now hold write-ins for NaNoWriMo participants, allowing them to easily connect with each other.

NaNoWriMo and I have a Sordid History

When I first started writing full-time, NaNoWriMo was a constant source of consternation. Being able to finish an entire novel in a month is a charming idea. But there were lots of problems. The first was that my novels tend to be much longer than 50,000 words, so NaNoWriMo barely makes a dent in them. The second is that 50,000 words is a lot to a new writer. Even 1,667 words a day can be daunting when you struggle for two hours to write 500 words you’re happy with.

Most of my early attempts at NaNoWriMo resulted in both failure and tears. Luckily, the Internet has swallowed all knowledge of those early attempts so no one can see how bitterly they affected me. Try though I did, I just couldn’t rack up the intended word count. I never abandoned my projects, but it took most of a year to finish my first novel. It took six months to write the next one after that. I stopped working on NaNoWriMo officially and started participating from the shadows. But even working on tons of little projects never helped me achieve the stated goal.

I started to hate NaNoWriMo. I even got vocal about it. NaNoWriMo, past me would say, only teaches people bad habits. First, they kill themselves trying to reach a daily word count whether it’s feasible or not. Then they to beat themselves up because they failed. Further, past me would elaborate, most people reach the NaNo goal by padding their work with useless fluff. (I have even read guides where people suggest padding your NaNo count by never using contractions and going back later to change it.) I walked away from the idea of NaNoWriMo feeling vindicated in my hatred and stopped paying attention to it all together.

But NaNoWriMo isn’t all Bad

It is true that NaNoWriMo can teach you bad habits. Especially if you’re a new and impressionable writer who hasn’t yet learned about healthy writing habits. But it turns out this isn’t so much a NaNo problem as it is a writer problem. Writers tend to be horrible project managers. That’s why so many of us have folders and notebooks full of partial and abandoned projects.

What past me didn’t understand was that NaNoWriMo isn’t about a specific word count or even a daily achievement. It’s about learning enduring writing habits that can help you be productive year-round. For example, NaNoWriMo encourages participants to reach for a small daily goal. Something I talk about all the time. The trouble is getting hung up on the number; 1,667. If it’s too high, it would be easy to cut it in half. Maybe 834 words sounds more reasonable. And then you have a novel in as little as two months.

Or maybe the problem is writing every day. I’m a full-time writer and I don’t write every day. I take weekends off to stave off burnout. So you could adjust your goal to compensate for the two days you miss. (Which puts you up to 2,273 words a day to reach the goal.) OR you could simply take more time. (We all get there in the end as long a we keep going.) The problem is when we start standing on the official rules, on what we’re supposed to do. And as I’ve mentioned in numerous other posts, the fact that writing advice tends to be distilled into cheap one-liners leads a lot of people to interpret it far too literally.

Healthy Writing Habits are the Key to Success

A few years ago, I started trying to build healthy writing habits. It was hard. I tracked my word counts, but it made me realize what days I missed. It also revealed how low my word counts were to lots of other people. I pushed myself. It backfired. I spent years unlearning my unhealthy habits and replacing them with fresh, healthy ones.

Then earlier this year, I noticed my word counts consistently trumping the 50,000 word NaNoWriMo goal. I couldn’t believe it. This had only happened a handful of times before, and never easily. But it kept happening. In May of 2018, my word counts fell just 400 short of 100,000. I didn’t even believe what the math was showing me. Had I achieved a state of total nirvana?

Turns out I hadn’t. But I had learned to produce consistently, to manage my projects, and not kill myself in the process. I was finally ready to come back to NaNoWriMo. And for the first time in several years, I just so happened to be starting a brand new novel at the beginning of November. A novel I had already devoted two months worth of planning to. I was so confident I could finally handle the riggers of NaNoWriMo, I didn’t even start my novel until the fifth day.

It might seem counter-productive to come back to NaNoWriMo when I already know I can do it. When I already do it on a fairly consistent basis. But returning to NaNoWriMo and tracking my participation along side other writers has been refreshing. I’ve learned that it isn’t just new writers who can benefit from the exercise. There’s a lot it can teach seasoned writers too.

Here’s What NaNoWriMo Taught Me This Year

First, NaNoWriMo makes an excellent litmus test for healthy and productive habits. How do you react when you fall behind? Do you stress out about it? Do you berate yourself? Or do you make a plan to get back on track, knowing you can adjust your final goal if you need to? If you’re skipping meals and pulling all-nighters, you probably want to revisit the health portion of your habits. Even if you don’t end up reaching the goal, tracking your writing habits for an entire month will give you a good idea of where you are with writing productivity and help you locate aspects where you can improve.

Second, comparing your progress across years is a great way to see how far you’ve come. I didn’t realize until I peeked at my word counts for previous years that I had already succeeded at NaNoWriMo in 2017. And that I had only missed the 50,000 mark by 5,000 words in 2016 (and then only because I ran out of novel).

Also NaNoWriMo encourages you to connect with the writing community. We’re all in this together, no matter how far we get. If you’re struggling, there are plenty of people who share your frustrations willing to chat it out with you. And now matter how you’re progressing, there are plenty of opportunities to encourage other writers and receive encouragement yourself. As a result of signing up on the website, I also discovered that there’s a fairly large local writing community near me that I’m hoping to connect with.

Finally, NaNoWriMo can revitalize your love of the craft. Managed properly, it can be a reminder of what it feels like to set other worries aside and engage in an act of pure creation. It might even remind you why you started on this crazy journey in the first place.

I’m so glad I decided to go back to NaNoWriMo this year, and I’m looking forward to participating again next year. If you gave it a try – congrats, no matter how far you got!

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