National Novel Writing Month, aka NaNoWriMo, is designed for the procrastinator. Every November, a bunch of us commit to writing a 50,000 word novel draft. For many of us, it’s a kind of therapy – a way of confronting the demons that stand in the way of productivity.
For years I’d put off writing the novel that’s been bouncing around my head. I’d made a few attempts but could never manage to put together a complete first draft. Last year, I decided to take the NaNo challenge (I had considered it the year before but never took the plunge, so to speak). Though I got off to a rocky start (see chart below), I was able to complete the challenge. The experience was exhausting, but I made it through, and I ended up with a first draft that I didn’t completely hate. Unfortunately, I was so sick of writing the damn thing that I couldn’t bring myself to edit it. I kept putting it off, and before I knew it, it was October again.
In the interim, I’d gone back and read parts of my draft. Having sat on it for so long, I was able to look at it with “fresh eyes.” I still liked the basic framework of the novel, but there was a lot I no longer liked, and many parts that I felt needed to be reworked. I’d also left a number of character development holes that I promised myself I would go back and fill in later (and of course never did). It was ripe for a re-write.
NaNo, as originally conceived, is supposed to be about getting out a first draft. So a re-write wasn’t technically covered by the rules of NaNo. I had an idea for another novel, but the completionist in me would not allow me to move on to a new project while my last draft sat collecting dust. After much hand-wringing and consultation with the /r/nanowrimo subreddit, I decided to go ahead and do a re-write, and declare myself a so-called “NaNo rebel” (look it up). I would not be writing a first draft – but in the spirit of NaNo, I would commit to writing at least 50,000 new words. If I decided to reuse passages, I would not count them in my daily word-count (this turned out to be a non-issue – it was far easier to just rewrite a scene from scratch and mostly from memory than to attempt to rework the old stuff).
What I’ve Learned
Since I’ve done this two years in a row, I thought I’d compare my experiences. Last year I had a very slow start. I don’t really remember what happened last November but I remember having to juggle a lot. I had a new job so that definitely cut in some. As you can see from the chart, I lagged behind for half the month before managing to up my production. However, I was never able to reach the daily goals (indicated by the grey line) until the very last day. I spent the entire month playing catch-up. It was exhausting.
Another goal of NaNo is to get you used to writing everyday which, based on what I’ve heard again and again from successful authors, is probably the single greatest way to boost your writing productivity. I don’t think 1667 words per day is sustainable (not for me, anyway) in the long term, but I could see myself doing 500 a day without cutting too much into my spare time, which would be the equivalent of almost four 50,000 word novels per year. Sci-fi novels are, on average, about twice that length, at 100,000 words, so we’re looking at about two novels per year. That’s not including the editing, finding a publisher, revising, etc., of course. But it gives me a good sense of what I’d be capable of producing if I put my mind to it. It’s a nice goal to have.
I felt burnt out after the last NaNo, and I found it very difficult to get back in the habit. This year I thought I would do it a bit smarter. It’s a bit like running a marathon (I suppose, I’ve never done it) – if you don’t prepare you’re just asking for trouble. I committed to meeting the daily goal each day – even going over a bit to give myself some wiggle room. However, I told myself I would not go over too much – the idea being that if I wrote, say, 5,000 words one day, I might burn out and have trouble finding inspiration the next day. Let’s call this the “slow-but-steady” approach.
Based on my experiences both years, I’ve learned that falling behind, even a little bit, takes a long time to recover. The red circle on the chart highlights this. Around Day 10 or thereabouts, I came down with a nasty cold. I was able to push through until Day 12, when I had to leave town for a two-day work trip. The combination of feeling like garbage, travel, and work put a huge dent in productivity. Some days I barely broke 300 words, but I did manage to get in something everyday. By Day 18 I had finally recovered, getting back to hitting those daily goals. Day 18 was probably the closest I came to burn-out. The next day was a slog – my creative juices were tapped. I had another very slight dip in productivity around Day 24, recovering by Day 28. The lesson: don’t fall behind. Write something hacky and cliché if you have to, just push through. The anxiety that comes with trying to catch up is antithetical to creativity, and can create a vicious cycle.
I noticed that some writers reached 50k very quickly, as early as the second week in some cases. While impressive, I resisted the urge to compare myself to those over-achievers. My goal, after all, was sustainability. I probably could write a novel in two weeks, but I’d be dead by the end of it.
With the exception of the afore-mentioned hiccups, I rarely felt like the goal was unattainable (admittedly, knowing that I did it once before probably helped), and without too many other distractions I never felt overwhelmed. Now that NaNo is over, I don’t feel exhausted. I’m eager to get to revising and editing my draft. It’s going to take some work to merge my drafts and iron out inconsistencies, but I don’t dread the task as I did last year.
These were my experiences with NaNo. I don’t claim that the lessons I learned are going to be valuable to anyone but me. Every writer is different – my approach may not work for you – but I hope you can draw some small bit of insight from my experiences.