What I Learned Doing NaNoWriMo

I participated in the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) for the first time this year. NaNoWriMo takes place in November. It’s sort of a competition, but really more of a challenge. The goal is to write 50,000 words in 30 days. There’s no “one” winner. Anyone who achieves that goal is a “winner.” The prize is a certificate, and bragging rights. 

The idea is to create a profile, set your goal, and then update your word count everyday. Along the way, to encourage you, there are badges that can be achieved by reaching certain milestones: words written (5k, 10k, 25k, etc), days in a row updated, and updating multiple times a day. There’s a page that calculates your daily average word count, how fast you write, and when you are projected to reach your goal, plus there are graphs to show your progress.

When I was thinking about whether or not to sign up for NaNoWriMo, I saw a video by Shaelin Bishop for Reedsy (link below) about deciding whether or not to participate. One of the reasons she listed in favor of participating is the social aspect. NaNoWriMo the organization really promotes the sense of community and shared experience, too. They encourage you find groups and buddies to help you stay motivated and enthused.

I’m not the most social person in the world, so I wasn’t sure how much I would need that, but I decided that if I was going to do this, I may as well do it all.

I started with finding any local groups in my region. I found three, but my most local one was not active—there wasn’t what NaNoWriMo calls a Municipal Liaison (ML) to create local events. A nearby community was very active right away, so I signed up for activities, like an informational, virtual meet and greet, the week before NaNo’s official start.

I also went to the NaNo Forums and started looking around. I looked in forums for Newbies, and romance writers. I ended up joining two groups.

All three of the groups I ended up joining (the locals, the romance writers, and another less defined group), switched over to Discord servers, where we could post our progress, or lack thereof, ask questions about writing, get help with plots and dialogue, and just generally be there for companionship, camaraderie, and cheerleading.

When I first signed up, I told myself that it didn’t matter if I won—I just wanted the extra motivation. To be honest, in October, the idea of writing 1,667 everyday sounded nearly impossible. If I dwelled on that, I wouldn’t do it. So I gave myself permission to fail, but to do it anyway.

One of the things that worked out for me, personally, is the fact that due to COVID-19, all of the local meet-ups happened via Zoom. I live about an hour from the local group I joined, so meeting at a cafe or library, as was done in previous years, is not something I would have done. But I can meet via Zoom, so I did. 

And it turned out to be a really great thing. Even though all we really did was say hello and ask about each other’s progress and then put ourselves on mute for two hours, it was nice to have those people there to say hello to and to share the joys and trials of trying to write something.

The other thing that was great about the virtual write-ins, as they called them, was the schedule. They happened everyday at the same time, so they helped me, and others I think, to make writing a regular part of my daily schedule.

Before I started NaNoWriMo, I had already written about twenty scenes in the novel I’m working on. It had taken me a few months to write them. I would come to a scene where I knew what needed to happen but didn’t know how I was going to write it. I’d spend a week or two, sometimes three, thinking and agonizing over it. Fretting. Sometimes I’d be so intimidated by what I needed to write that I’d start rethinking my whole story outline instead of working on that scene—as if somehow that would make the way forward more clear. 

This was one of the reasons I wanted to do NaNo—to give me the push, via the daily word goals, to move forward.

Fortunately, I also found a quote attributed to Jane Austen (my favorite author) which said: “I am not at all in a humor for writing; I must write on until I am.”

So as I was faced with the daily challenge of writing 1,667 words, but feeling as if I didn’t have a clue how to move my scene forward, I did what Jane Austen said, and just started writing something. And if I didn’t like it, I rewrote it (but kept the bad versions to add to my daily word count—because I wrote them so they counted!). 

And I learned probably the most important thing: you don’t have to wait to be inspired or to “know” what you’re going to say—if you just start writing, eventually you’ll find what you wanted to say. Or at least get close enough to move on. 

The other thing I learned is you can always go back and edit later—that’s what December and January are for!

So I also learned that writing 1,667 words in one day is not as daunting as I first thought. Not that I made it everyday. But some days I wrote over 2,000 words. So after the first week, I realized that I could actually reach the 50,000 mark—I could win. And once I realized I could, then I wanted to.

The stats page on the NaNo website helped with this. I didn’t like seeing the my line go below the goal line on the graph. And when my estimated day of completion changed from Nov. 30 to Dec. 1, I would work harder to get extra words in and raise my daily average.

I also learned that I am not probably ever going to be a really fast writer. There are some people who can get their daily word goal in an hour or two. That’s not me. I don’t even think I can think that fast. And that’s okay. I don’t have to be a fast writer. I just need to be a writer.

In case you’re wondering, I did “win” NaNoWriMo. I ended up getting 50,735 words before the end of November. And it felt great! In one month I wrote thirty more scenes. But I didn’t finish my novel.

So I’m going to keep on writing everyday. But I have adjusted my daily goals. I know I can write 1,667 words a day, but being a slow writer, that means that’s all I’m doing all day. I have some other things I want to do (for instance, making a slipcover for a chair has been sidelined long enough), so I’m reducing my daily goal by about half. 

And some of the groups want to keep going, which is great because we can continue to help and motivate each other.

Which is another thing I learned: writing doesn’t have to be a solitary endeavor.

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