Reflections from a NaNoWriMo veteran

So I’ve done NaNoWriMo since 2008, and I’ve won every year. Hilariously, my cumulative word-count from 10 years is 503,605, meaning I’ve won by an average of 360 words each year – if that isn’t precision, I don’t know what is.

I thought newer NaNoers might find it interesting to hear my reflections on how to get to 50,000 year after year. It is up to you to decide whether or not 50,000 is your goal, whether it’s a sensible goal, and whether it’s how you want to write. Ultimately, a NaNo where there are more words on the page at the end of the month than the beginning is a successful NaNo.

Be determined

NaNoWriMo is a huge thing to undertake, and there are times when it just isn’t going to feel worth it (somewhere around Day 25). At those times, you just need to feel, through gritted teeth, that you want to see that ‘Winner’ page and get that purple badge on your profile more than you want…

  • … sleep.
  • …to be an interesting conversationalist. (Your brain will be so fried you won’t be.)
  • … to be a good friend. (You will have to decline social events to drag yourself home and write. You will become extremely self-absorbed.)
  • … to write something good, or even usable. (Seriously, the first year I did NaNo I realised 30,000 words in that my story wasn’t really viable, so most of the rest of what I wrote was the MC learning how to do random crap like play the harp, do square dancing, and run a farm. It wasn’t good, it wasn’t useful, but dangit it got me to 50,360 words.)

Seriously, getting to 50,000 words is an exercise in sheer bloody-mindedness for most of us. Embrace it! Mind over matter/common sense/sleep!

Life will happen

Ultimately, there are some things that trump getting your novel written. One year, my grandfather went into hospital on the 25th of November; the only reason I hit 50,000 that year was because I’d been writing 2,000 words a day so I was already basically there. I certainly wasn’t sneaking off from his bedside to get my words done.

There are other things that will make it more difficult, and that you will just have to choose what you want more (see above about determination): 50,000 words or sleep/friends/a life/overtime at work. I’ve done NaNo when I was unemployed and bored and had nothing else to do. I’ve done NaNo around university study. I’ve done NaNo around three different jobs that were different levels of demanding and took up different amounts of my time. Interestingly, the easiest years for NaNo were the ones when I was early in my career, working an office job that wasn’t too mentally challenging. NaNo while studying was a bugger, and NaNo while unemployed and broke was surprisingly tough – a certain amount of time constraint forces you to prioritise.

Understand your rhythm

Depending on what’s going on in your life, and the kind of writer you are, different things will work for you.

Most years, I’ve gone with the approach of sitting down every day and writing 1,667 words and not getting up until they’re done.  One thing I’ve noticed is that 1,667 is actually a bit of an awkward number of words to write; the first 1,000 words each day are the hardest, while you get back into the mindset. Then you have 700ish fairly fluid words, and then it’s done. 

Actually, writing on to 2,000 words is often not that much more difficult, and will give you a nice buffer for dramas later in the month. When I was early in my career, I used to write 2,000 words a day, with the goal of getting to 60k over the month (as my lifetime total demonstrates, actually what happened was I hit 50k on the 25th and then clocked off…!) As I’ve needed more of my mental bandwidth at work, I’ve moved to an approach of writing 1,000 words a day during the week and catching up on weekends. One year I got two days behind early on and that year was such a grind that I literally had to make that up 100 words at a time over the whole rest of the month. Not a good year.

Speaking of catching up, know how much you can realistically catch up. My wordiest day ever was 6,200 words so I’m not the kind of person who could sprint out 10,000 words in a day to catch up if I got a long way behind. In fact, in general 5,000 is pretty much my max in a day. So if you’re like me, you need to be disciplined and not get too far behind; whereas if you can bang out 10,000 words in a day then you can be a bit more relaxed about that.

Planning out your story does make life easier and results in more usable stuff.

Planning during NaNo is hard because you’re tired and you always feel like you should be writing. If you can force yourself to, plan out (or at least have a sketch in your head) the plot you need for all 50,000 words before you go in.

… That said, I usually don’t do that. Because I am not a planner.

Don’t expect to (always) write something good

Look, at some point you’re going to get home late from work, bang out 1666 words that are crap and you know they are. It’s going to happen. Make peace with it. (I’ve often gone back much later and found passages I wrote in the depths of NaNo that were surprisingly non-terrible – so maybe it’s more accurate to say you should suspend judgement about whether it’s good.) 

If you do Word Sprints, then you’re going to find yourself writing 600 word blocks that are detailed descriptions of buildings, or long musings from your character, that stop the action completely and will bore readers. 

Sometimes you’re going to write off the end of your plot and not have enough energy to figure out exactly what should happen next, but it’s 10pm and you’ve only written 500 words and you need to go to bed, so just make some crap up and accept that it might get deleted in the next edit.

If you decide to write historical fiction or something else that requires a lot of research… come to terms with the fact that things are going to be wrong. That is what editing is for. If you’re the kind of person who needs to get things right, let yourself research (it’ll just drive you crazy if you don’t), but know when to call time, leave yourself a **CHECK** flag, and move on.

Edit if you must… but don’t delete ANYTHING

It’s good advice to ‘fire your inner editor’ for NaNo, but if your inner editor is like mine, that little bugger has tenure, and she’s not going to be quiet. So if you have to edit, let yourself edit! I hate the feeling of leaving bits behind me I know are wrong because the direction of the plot has changed, or I need to introduce something sooner, etc. So I let myself edit.

BUT. First, accept that time spent editing is time you’re not churning out words. Everything has a price! So edit enough to scratch that itch, then get back to writing.

AND. Create a separate folder in your project, or word doc, or chapter at the end, and copy/paste everything you delete into there. Those are still words that you wrote in November – you earned those words! Sometimes I’ve got to the point around the 28th of November where I am literally copy/pasting single words I’ve deleted from the main text into my ‘deleted stuff’ document.

Be a rebel

The traditional NaNoWriMo is to attempt to write a fresh, 50,000 original novel from beginning to end in a month. I’ve literally never done that. I’ve done a few years where I wrote the first 50,000 words of a longer novel, one year where I wrote the second 50,000 words of a novel, one year where I wrote a 30,000 word novella and then 20,000 words on a different project, one year when I took a second run at a NaNovel from a previous year (this is not as easy as it sounds), several years where I interleaved working on existing projects with writing my main NaNo story, etc.

If the traditional approach works for you, great! But if you’re 25,000 words in and your story is just sort of over, wrap it up and start something new. Or if you’re getting sick of the thought of your MCs, take a few days on something else.

Be social

The years when I’ve had the most fun doing NaNo (and the writing has felt easiest) have been the years when I’ve got into the community, going to Write-Ins, socials, etc. You can get a surprising amount of writing done sitting in a cafe, and wanting to be able to tell people at the TGIO that you got your 50k is a powerful motivator to keep going. The years where I haven’t got so into the social aspect because I’ve been busy or just haven’t clicked with the crowd, have been less enjoyable on many levels.

Have fun

Seriously. Write something you’d enjoy reading. Don’t go in thinking you’re going to write the Great [Nationality] Novel. You might end up doing that! But what’s going to get you through the month is writing something you enjoy because it’s silly, funny, dramatic, dark, romantic, etc, or write the thing you’ve been wanting to write for years. My two best NaNos were the year I wrote the story that had been in my head since I was ten years old… and the year I wrote a silly romance novel structured around my favourite Gilbert and Sullivan songs. 

For me, doing NaNo has given my 503605 words I wouldn’t have had otherwise, wonderful friendships, a sense of myself as a writer, and stories I’ve been able to share and that have found an audience: PhilomenaThe Crown’s PriceThe Forest’s HeartThe Time-Traveller’s Choice and In spite of all temptation were all at least part-written during NaNoWriMo, along with many other stories that have yet to (and may never) see the light of day.

Ultimately, the 50,000 is a target. If you get there, great! If you don’t, oh well, at least you have more words! If getting that purple badge is your goal, I hope the above is helpful. Other veteran NaNoers, what are your tips for getting onto the Winner’s page by 30 November?

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