In November of 2018 I embarked on my first-ever NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). It was great. It was awful. I can’t wait to do it again next year! I’ll never do it again. Hmm… You can see I’ve got some mixed feelings. But while the experience is fresh, I wanted to capture my ten biggest takeaways. Here they are. I hope they help you think about your own writing process and preferences.
#1 I’ll feel better if I just start.
On the last Sunday of November, I was still tryptophan hung-over. I was road weary from driving 500 miles round-trip to see my family. I felt lazy and whiny. My husband, who can read my my moods the way a skillful pilot can read the clouds to know when a nasty storm is brewing, said, “You’ll feel better if you just start.” Man, was he right. I was using up a lot of energy moaning and whining about how I didn’t want to write. I was resisting. Resistance takes effort. Once I sat down and started, this was actually one of my most enjoyable writing sessions.
#2 I can absolutely make time to write every single day.
I wrote for a total of 22 days in November to win NaNo. I wrote on Sundays when I felt lazy. (See above.) I wrote the day after Thanksgiving when I was tired and out of my element. I wrote on days when I had a full client load. I wrote on the day I taught a workshop, which always uses a lot of my energy. I wrote when I was tired and uninspired. I wrote at night, which is not when my ideas flow most easily. But it was really important that I got the message I couldn’t give myself an out if I slept through the best writing time first thing in the morning. Come to think of it, I slept through ALL the morning writing times of November, except for the day we turned back the clocks when I kicked that extra hour’s booty.
#3 Tracking is magic.
I wrote using 750words, a simple and elegant website the counts your words as you type. It tells you when you hit 750 words, and it was set up to alert writers when they reached that magical 1667 number — the daily word goal of NaNo writers. I tried not to pay attention to the numbers for the first few hundred words. This is like looking at the odometer and realizing you’ve only gone 25 miles. Not motivating. But after I passed my sweet spot and had to push myself to keep going, it was huge to be able to see immediately where I was. (The site autosaves every few seconds and tallies your word count.)
Once I finished writing each day, I added my day’s word count and time to a spreadsheet. This was magic! Being able to see not only my progress but also my times was hugely motivating. I was able to keep a pretty consistent rate of 2k per hour-long writing session. Knowing this gave me the confidence to keep going.
#4 I like writing too much to slog through it.
If you followed along in my vlog about my first NaNo, you saw that I was over it by day three. Ruh-roh. Not a good way to begin a month-long challenge.
Here’s what happened: I accepted the double-up challenge on Day 2 and wrote over 4,000 words. Turns out that’s too many words for me. I didn’t like it. I didn’t feel creative. I just felt spent. So of course, the next day when I went to write, I had all these negative associations. I like writing. In fact, there’s little in the world I love more. (OK, I actually just asked myself what I would do if I had to choose between writing and my cat, and the answer was not pretty…please don’t tell Bradbury Kittycat!)
I knew I couldn’t keep going if the process felt icky. So I pulled out all my tools to make it fun again.
#5 Freewriting is as boss as I always knew it was.
Here’s what I mean by freewriting: No end goal. No judgment. Speed. A simple prompt. That’s it. When I freewrite I focus on the sensory details. I try to look out through a character’s eyes and see what she’s seeing.
I love the feel of freewriting, but I love the “winning” of getting down scenes and chapters that actually tell my story. My solution? A list of prompts that makes it super-de-duper likely I’ll freewrite my way to a great scene that dives deeper into the central conflict, my MC’s motivation and character arc, or my setting. (All these prompts are available in Recipe for Drafting.)
#6 Accountability is queen.
Accountability worked twice as hard for me in the challenge. The stick was that I did not want to be a writing coach who fails to complete NaNoWriMo. I added some writing buddies on the NaNo site — these people can see your word count! I vlogged on my YouTube channel and shared word count update posts on all my other social media channels.
The carrot of accountability was connecting with other writers and getting to spazz out with them about how we were all in it together. I actually made a bunch of new Instagram author friends in the month of November. It felt really fun to be part of something with so much momentum. I even went to an in-person write-in. I didn’t get much writing done (see #8) but I made another new writing buddy and enjoyed chatting about the creative process with all who attended.
#7 Making it an experiment makes it work.
Prior to writing my 50,596 words on The Orphan Sisters Book (wow, pretty creative working title, right?), the longest fiction I’d ever written was shorter than 13,000 words. I didn’t even know if I could write a story that met the 50k goal, let alone do it in a month. Gulp. It was actually that thought that made me start the vlog. I figured, “Heck, I might not finish. I might not make it. But I can still use this experience to teach and inspire.” Bingo! As soon as I made that mindset shift, I felt approximately 217% more confident about embarking. I still wanted to win (see #6), but I felt like failure was an option. It’s crazy, but there are lots of other areas of my life where knowing that I might fail and simply making my peace with that has been what’s given me the courage to start.
#8 I’m a writing hermit.
Sigh. That dream of tippy-tap-typing away at a laptop over a steaming latte in a hip coffee shop — it’s not for me. I spent one of my writing session in Red Bee Coffee in Grover Beach. It’s my fave local spot and I’ve often dreamed about hunkering down in there to while away the afternoon writing.
So on a Friday afternoon I headed over there with laptop in tow. I ordered a big pot of Earl Grey tea and a shortbread cookie that I’m still thinking about. I had a hard deadline because they close at 5 pm and I arrived just a few minutes before 4:00. Did I mention my writing sessions take one hour? I had everything I needed. Result: I got my words down and left before they had to kick me out, but I was distracted. I spent a large part of that hour clenching my teeth and wondering how the lady behind me could possibly chew so loud.
When I went to the in-person write-in, I was better prepared: I had earbuds and music. But I had a really hard time concentrating. Eventually, the desire to just talk to other writers overwhelmed my discipline. I did NOT meet my word count goal during the write-in; I had to take a another session at home to do it. And what I wrote at the write-in? It’s really disjointed and my least favorite part of the story.
# 9 I’m a sprinter.
It wasn’t until I was two-thirds of the way through NaNo that I realized people do sprints. Which of course means that sprints are something different, not the norm. I’d somehow gotten into racing against the clock when I draft a book. Where did this come from? Probably using 750words. I want those good stats, baby! I want that “undistractible” badge! But it goes a little deeper than that. If you’ve read my book Recipe for Drafting, you know that I encourage drafting in your own personal high speed. Drafting fast means there’s no time to doubt yourself or go back and edit while you’re trying to write. Except for a few short additions and notes I made to my drafting doc once the timer had officially stopped — 276 words, to be exact — I wrote my entire 50k in sprints. I like sprinting. It’s my favorite way to write. But just like sprinting does not work when you’re running a 5k, sprinting is not so great when you’re writing 2k at a time. See #10.
#10 My sweet spot is 1200 – 1500 words in a sitting.
Before starting NaNo I stumbled upon my writing rate on 750Words. It was a gratifying 53 words per minute. But, of course, what I’d been writing to get that stat was non-fiction: books, blog posts, and even just daily freewrites about the thoughts zooming around in my brain.
Silly me. Silly, silly me. I created a schedule for NaNo based on that stat. I thought I’d be knocking out 3,000 words in two hours — and I thought that was being generous. 😉 What any runner will tell you is that your time for a five-mile run is NOT your time for a mile multiplied by five. When you sprint, you go all out. And the reason you can do this is because it’s for a limited time.
My sprints went great until I hit 1200 or 1500 words. At that point, I found myself forcing it. The words weren’t there. I had to go hunting for them. I’d find them, start moving again, and usually go all the way to 2200. This was why I finished over 50,000 words in just 22 days of writing. But it was also why I had to keep a vigilant watch on “the grind” and continually invite myself back to fun. But now I know! The next writing I plan will respect this. I’m putting this info in my Author Toolbox and using it.
Have you ever NaNoed? How’d it go? How do you plan your writing time and keep track of what works for you?Let me know in the comments.