WHAT I LEARNED FROM WINNING NANO

In November, I participated in National Novel Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo). Begun in 1999, NaNoWriMo affectionately called NaNo by those in the know, now happens every November. The goal is to write 50,000 words in 30 days. That breaks down to 1,667 words per day. If you achieve this goal, you win. It’s that simple. Everyone can win, or no one. It depends on each writer.

This was my third attempt at NaNo, and my first successful run. No health emergencies, no new puppies, the required Covid-19 lockdown all worked in my favor. But I needed more than that to win. I needed determination. Prior to November, I was striving to write 2,000 words per day, so I decided to just keep that up, but on a new NaNo project.

You, too, can earn a nifty certificate, suitable for framing!

Just because you commit to NaNo doesn’t mean that life stops happening. Even during a pandemic. Thanksgiving, doctor appointments, family visits, household chores, preparing for the holidays all still happened last fall. I couldn’t hide in a cave for 30 days tapping out the words. I had to fit it into my life.

If I had 15 minutes to sit at my laptop I did. Guess what I could get from 15 minutes? As many as 400 words. Two hundred minimum if I got moving. Sometimes, I wrote 2,300 words in one sitting, but not often. My most common BIC (butt-in-chair) count was around 800 words. At between 30 to 45 minutes my attention lags, I have to get up, do something different.

My secret sauce this NaNo go-round included two things. Number One: I loved my story. I loved the characters. I loved the concept. I knew the beginning and the end before I started. This idea came to me about two years ago, and it’s been waiting while I’ve worked on other projects. This year for NaNo, I determined that I would start on Page 1 with a brand-new document – not add to a current work. Some writers use the NaNo energy to finish current works. It’s all about what you’d like to accomplish. This year I wanted to write a whole story from beginning to end.

Secret sauce ingredient Number Two: Commitment. At the beginning – and every day thereafter – I told myself that the only thing that would keep me from getting my words in that day were actual emergencies. Illness, injury, death, flood, fire – you get the drift. Sleeping in is not an emergency. Visiting family is not an emergency.  Doing necessary errands is not an emergency. Being tired is not an emergency. Feeling depressed about the state of the world is not an emergency. In short, love of my story and commitment to the project is what got me through November 2020.

Writing is a muscle memory activity (physical and mental). If you’re used to rolling out of bed and going for a run, or flipping on the coffee, or turning on the tv it’s going to happen every time without thought. So, if you build up the muscle of sitting at your device of choice with your first cup of Joe in hand, or as soon as your clothes are on, or whatever, that muscle will develop.

I said, “this is happening”, not “I hope it happens” or “with any luck I’ll get this done”. I told myself “I am doing this until I am literally unable to do this for whatever reason. I put off other things – some work, some play. We all choose our priorities. Pets got fed (and walked), bills got paid, etc.

Misha’s and Bridget’s walks are a priority – even during NaNo.

Another writer gave me the best piece of advice for feeling confident before starting. Write 30 scenes for your story before Day 1 of NaNo. That way, each day you’ll know where to start without too much thought. Getting only 26 scenes down originally, I worried that this concept wasn’t novel-worthy. But after a day or two I wasn’t even looking at this list of scenes. The story was writing itself.

Sometimes writing happens in spurts. Sprints are great, but I get tired. I get tired of sitting or standing or staring at the screen. The dogs get tired of being inside. But at the end of the day, 2,000 words is 2,000 words, regardless of whether it took four writing sessions or one. I don’t recommend four, if you can help it. That’s too much of getting into and out of the zone. I think two to three writing sessions per day is ideal. Some use the Pomodoro or similar timed writing sprints to good effect.

I dangled a couple of carrots in front of myself too. I told lots of people about my progress. I bragged publicly and often about my NaNo journey. I also asked for support. I promised myself that I would buy a NaNo Winner t-shirt if/when I won. And I ordered it 10 minutes after I hit 50k words. You have to keep your promises, or you won’t believe yourself anymore.

Wear your success proudly!

I checked into one YouTube write-in. It was interesting, and I hear that it helps tons of people to write sprints in a group. I guess I’m a bit of a lone wolf. But whatever gets you writing, do it.

Another big motivator for me was that I have a plan for this story. My plan is to publish it in 2021. I will revise and edit, have it critiqued, do a ton more research, write lots of backmatter/author’s notes, have it professionally edited, etc. before it goes out into the world. But 2021 is the year. And knowing that my story has a destination and a plan helped me to commit to writing it. Practicing writing and flexing one’s literary chops is a great thing. I write three pages of Morning Pages, a la Julia Cameron, every day that will never see the light of day. But when I put this much time, thought, and tears (yes, there are sad parts in this story) in I want it to launch, not rest.

I’m so thankful for the NaNoWriMo team for starting this program way back in 1999. It’s been such a great learning experience and vehicle for so many people. At the very least, it’s an exercise in daily writing commitment, and at the most an eventually publishable novel. Camaraderie, confidence, and some personal growth are also some of the byproducts.

It’s a little early for me to commit to doing NaNo again this year. But I can definitely see this becoming an annual thing. I’ll plan it next time so that I’m not in the middle of another novel when I start NaNo. Also, I would plan ahead and not schedule doctor appointments or other nonessentials during that month. We need to make it as easy on ourselves as we can.

If you plan on doing NaNo this year tell everyone in your life – so they understand. Okay, maybe understand is not a reasonable goal, but at least they’ll be informed. Some will ignore it, some will poo-poo “Well, what are you going to with the thing after you write it?”, and some will be very supportive – asking about it, understanding when you’re busy, offering to read it. Regardless, telling others gives you that accountability and possible support.

Before November, make sure your computer’s in working order. Do what you can. Back up everything every day. You do not want to lose this. Get snacks. Eat them when you need to. Reward yourself.

Do that writing 30 scenes thing I talked about. You can outline if you must, but for me that was too structured – too much writing before the actual writing. You don’t want to feel as if you’re writing the story twice.

If you do decide to try NaNo this year, be kind to yourself. Be kind to your family. Don’t neglect your kids, your dog, your partner. If you fall behind, try to catch up, but no making yourself sick or sad. 20,000 words or 10,000 words is a solid start, and the words will still be there in December – or January – waiting for you to capture them and place them on the page. If you make it to 15k this year, you have a benchmark for next year.

If you’ve participated in NaNo, I’d love to hear about your experiences, tips for what worked, and what you’ve learned. Whatever your word count, I hope the experience deepened your writing life, expanded your world, and added to your skill toolkit.

And remember that writing the story is just the beginning. There’s editing, rewriting, rounds of critique… Enjoy the creation phase. You may miss it when it’s gone. I know I do.

Write on. New worlds await the bold Word Traveler.

I’ll see you next week with my post entitled: “Why You Shouldn’t Do NaNoWriMo” 😊

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