Lessons from NaNoWriMo

Home / Blog / Lessons from NaNoWriMo
Lessons from NaNoWriMo

In 2004, I heard this crazy idea: write a 50,000-word novel in one month. It was being promoted by this group called National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, for short. There was a really brief book — No Plot, No Problem! by founder Chris Baty — that told you what to do, how, when, what to expect, etc.

Turns out, it only takes 1,666 words a day to reach 50,000 words in 30 days. I type fast. It could take me as little as 90 minutes if I didn’t get stuck.

Oh, and it didn’t have to be good. It didn’t need a plot or an outline, which is good because I am what is called a “discovery writer,” aka “pantser” (writing by the seat of your pants!). Research and outlines before starting? Nah. Not me.

Plus, I had permission to write a crappy first draft, as Ernest Hemingway* said. And, no one has to read it — not even me — so there’s no pressure. Thank goodness! Fear and trepidation about wasting my time writing something bad was banished forever because bad was inevitable and even expected. Yay!

I was in.

Starting Nov. 1, 2004, I sat down and started writing. I had no idea what I was going to write about. What a wild ride I was in for!

In the years since I started, I managed to finish eight first draft novels of 50,000+ words. I wrote each year from 2004 to 2014, skipped 2015, and tried again in 2016 but haven’t done anything since. Each year, I tackled a different genre — murder mystery, romance, historical, crime caper, noir, ghost story, and young adult. The ones that worked as complete novels were not precious ideas. They were ideas that sprang seemingly unbidden from my fingertips on Nov. 1. The ones that held sentimental value, like the YA novel based on stories my late father told us when we were kids, didn’t seem to have the same energy. Probably because I was nervous about taking something he started and not completing it well. (See how fear can stifle creativity? At least, in me it does.)

Will I do it this year? While I’d love to, I have other things I need to focus on.

HOWEVER, I have plenty of advice from my years of experience. When a friend on Facebook announced that she was thinking about doing NaNoWriMo this year and wanted support, I came up with these tips:

  1. Keeping track of my daily word count has been really helpful. I use a spreadsheet but I also post onto the NaNoWriMo website word count chart. Seeing the bars creep higher and higher each day is really encouraging.
  2. Using Scrivener has been a lifesaver for word processing AND letting me jump around in the novel. (I love it so much I use it regularly for real work projects that involve organizing a lot of information and keeping track of where I am in the process.) It’s affordable AND there’s a monthlong free trial and 20% off for participants and a 50% discount if you reach 50,000 words.
  3. If you are a plotter/planner/outliner, you can start before Nov. 1 and the month will be a breeze! As a “discovery” writer, I do a lot of daydreaming about the kind of novel I want to tackle before I start on Nov. 1. So far, that’s been about it. Too much “preplanning” seems to take the excitement out of it for me.
  4. Don’t forget to backup, backup, backup! Email your current version to yourself or put it on the cloud every single day and delete later. Nothing is sadder than losing your work to date.
  5. Get a few of your like-minded friends to do a “write-a-thon” — either in person or virtually! Then, when it’s time to start writing, start and don’t stop until the timer goes off.
  6. Speaking of timers, if I set one (a kitchen egg timer, iPhone app, etc.), it actually lets me start even if I’m not feeling like writing. I just have to satisfy the timer’s duration and if I don’t want to continue or I don’t want to stop writing, I can do whatever energizes me.
  7. Don’t have two contiguous hours to work on the novel? Break it up into 20-30 minute chunks spread throughout the day.
  8. Write on your phone if you’re not near your computer. Or, handwrite in a notebook. (Some people write their entire novels by hand! That’s something I don’t think I can do…my hand would hurt too much.) Any word count counts! Even lists or plot points scribbled down.
  9. Remind yourself that the challenge is to get yourself writing, not to write a final draft. First drafts are shitty.* Seconds and thirds, too. But, without a first draft, you won’t ever have anything. Plus, I use it as a time to try out a crazy idea: Write a crime caper! A silly mystery! A YA novel! A horror story! Committing to one idea for a month is a small investment that might lead to something great down the line.
  10. Are you stuck? Can’t think of what to write? I scribble random words onto a piece of paper, cut it up into strips, and put it into a container to be dolled out as writing prompts whenever necessary. The weirdest and most wonderful sections of my story have come from this technique. Also, free-writing about how you can’t write can help get you started writing. There’s only so much time you can type out whiny thoughts before you want to escape, really fast, to writing your novel again.
  11. Wear a silly hat. Yes, it does work. It gets you “in the mood for writing” no matter where you are. :-)
  12. The last, biggest piece of advice is the most important:


If you don’t, you will never know what you are capable of.

So what have I learned from NaNoWriMo?

  1. I can achieve an ambitious writing goal in just one month. Hooray!
  2. By thrusting myself into the fray, I can deliver. Maybe it’s my former daily deadline-oriented journalism background?
  3. I’m not competitive with other people — I’m competitive with myself. I want to surpass my own past achievements.
  4. I don’t just have one idea: I have many and if I don’t have an idea right now, I can come up with one pretty darn quick.
  5. I love setting little goals and seeing them add up to reach bigger ones.
  6. I enjoy the excitement and intrigue of discovery writing.
  7. I have learned a lot about plotting as you write. That’s been invaluable.
  8. I do better with new challenges rather than focusing on something I have an existing emotional tie to.
  9. I don’t know how to apply rewriting/editing techniques to a massive novel — yet. But I know that just starting and creating short-term, incremental editing goals will probably work best for me. Like Annie Lamott wrote in Bird by Bird.
  10. I can’t (or won’t?) write a summary unless a friend (I’m looking at you, Ewart Rouse!) asks me to explain what I’ve been writing.
  11. Never say you can’t do something. You can. But, you’ll never get good at it unless you try it over and over and over again.


* According to this website, Ernest Hemingway was quoted by memoir writer Arnold Samuelson as saying this:

“Don’t get discouraged because there’s a lot of mechanical work to writing. There is, and you can’t get out of it. I rewrote the first part of A Farewell to Arms at least fifty times. You’ve got to work it over. The first draft of anything is shit. When you first start to write you get all the kick and the reader gets none, but after you learn to work it’s your object to convey everything to the reader so that he remembers it not as a story he had read but something that happened to himself.”