Advice for NaNoWriMo Participants: What I Learned from Working on My Novel Every Day for Ninety Days
Updated: Nov 4, 2021
Today is the start of yet another NaNoWriMo, the annual effort of an army of writers who commit to writing a 50,000-word draft of a novel during the month of November. I did the math so you don’t have to: that’s 1,667 words a day for thirty days.
I’ve never completed NaNoWriMo but I’ve tried and failed a few times, and every year when November rolls around my social media feeds alert me to someone I know who’s signed up, forcing me to question my own writing practice and resolve. Can I do it this time? Do I even have a book in me right now? What am I working on, anyway? When’s the last time I wrote anything?
Even though I’ve never gotten very far with NaNoWriMo, I've had success with (and also tried and failed at) many other writing challenges. In fact, today marks the 90th consecutive day of working on my new novel. The criteria for this recent challenge were simple: write for thirty minutes a day every day for ninety days on the same project. I didn’t specify a daily word count because I’ve never had great luck with word count goals, but I tried to get to 500 words as a general guideline and I didn’t beat myself up if I fell short of that. Most days I got close to writing 500 words, many days I wrote more, and there were a number of days I came up quite short. In the end, however, I wrote a total of 51,088 words.
Whether today is the first day of your first ever NaNoWriMo or you’ve been thinking about committing to a regimen to finally draft the book that’s been rattling around in your head for years, here's some insight from my recent experience for anyone undertaking the enormous (and worthy and rewarding) challenge of drafting a book.
1. Begin with an obsession
I didn’t have a fully-conceived plot or thorough outline for the project I’m working on, but I knew a lot about its central character (a historical figure), and I’d done a lot of reading and thinking about this particular subject and time period over the past couple of years. I can't really stop thinking about it, and I know for a fact I would have bailed somewhere along the ninety-day journey if I’d shown up to a blank canvas with only a vague notion of what to write about. Having an idea I knew I wanted to think more deeply about and that had legs, at least in my mind, freed me up to do other things with my creative energy. I wasn’t stuck stewing about what world to inhabit next, the way I am when I’m drafting short stories or essays and move on to each new one. Instead, I got to show up to the same people and same places every day and let my imagination work at making everything within that world more rich, full, and complex. If you don't have those characters, or that place, or those questions you're trying to answer that hold a limitless fascination for you right now, you shouldn't not write or participate in a writing challenge, just know that you'll likely spend a good part of the next month doing a whole lot of exploratory writing, which may not necessarily translate to a 50,000-word draft on a sustained subject with consistent characters, at least not yet. Keep circling your obsessions, though, the ones that won't let you go, and always stay open to new ones.
2. Prioritize writing
I write best in the morning. It’s my happy place and it still feels like a secret hiding place to me. The city is still relatively quiet then, and so is my mind, and the world hasn’t gone bananas with their emails and needs just yet. There’s a certain “soupy” quality, as Aimee Bender has described it, to my brain in the morning, a place where I’m more in touch with my subconscious mind and therefore more pliable, more playful, and more willing to take some creative risks than I am at the end of a day, when my head and body are overstuffed with stimuli and all I really want to do is plop on the couch and look at my phone. There were days in the last three months when I wasn’t able to write first thing in the morning, either because I had other obligations or because I chose to do something else with my time or because I believed the lie my head was telling me when I woke up that morning, which was that I’d get around to it later and have no problem banging out some good words later that day, but on those days I struggled, and I immediately reverted to writing first thing on the following mornings. Find your best time, whenever it is, and stick to it each day. No one else will plan, protect, or prioritize writing time or your writing life for you.
3. Create accountability for yourself
I’ve been fortunate to have had many creative communities and champions in my life, and I can’t imagine a creative life without them. Writing is lonely work, but there are a bunch of other lonely writers and creators out there struggling with the same things you are each day. Find a creatively supportive community and lean into it always, but especially on the hardest days. If community is challenging for you to tap into right now, find one partner, one trusted friend, maybe an old writing group friend or your best creative ally, and ask them if they’ll be willing to serve as your accountability partner for thirty days. Text them when you finish writing each day, and on the hard days, text them before you sit down and then again once you meet your daily writing quota. If you’re active on social media, let your followers know what you’re up to and share your progress with them. They, too, can help keep you accountable just by knowing they’ll be there to receive your next update. Remember, you’re not asking for a reader right now, just a cheerleader, a witness, a support. Your best creative champions will be thrilled to show up for you, and if you don’t know who they are just yet, you’re about to find out.
4. Take notes constantly
Harness the momentum you’re creating by writing regularly and don’t be afraid to write even when it’s not your scheduled writing time. For some of you who haven’t been writing at all, it might be a shock to your creative system to go from zero to ninety in a day, and as your imagination wakes up and gets put to work, it will still be awake even when you aren’t writing at your defined time and place every day. Stay attuned to the insights that pop up throughout your day, the connections that will occur while you’re at the supermarket, just before bed, or when you’re about to hop onto another work call. Your synapses are about to be set on fire; don’t lose your best ideas because you can’t manage to write them down in time, or by telling yourself you’ll remember them in the morning, or because they didn’t occur while you were at your writing desk. Too much stuff will be flying around in your head to remember everything that comes into it. Open a new notes document on your phone, keep an extra pen and notebook in your car, carry a pocket-sized notebook with you wherever you go, and jot everything down. Stay vigilant so you can capture all of those fireflies before they disappear. You’ll be glad you did on days when you’re feeling stuck and wondering how you’re going to make it to your daily goal.
Maybe a book on craft. Maybe a book similar to yours. Maybe one totally unlike yours. Maybe historical databases and old newspapers and maps and articles about nuanced subject matter you know nothing about but need to understand in order to render your characters more believable. Maybe all of the above. Fill your head with great music this month – the best stuff you can find. It will all get churned up and synthesized and reformed into your beautiful and messy first draft – the rhythms, the words. It takes quality materials to make a quality product.
6. Believe in the power and process of revision
Trust the time it takes to make great art, and trust that the process of revision will be there when you need it. For now, however, be here. On page one, then on page two, then on page three. Have a North Star, but don’t lose sight of your immediate goal, which is simply to write today. Be as messy as you need to be, and when you are, remember you’ll get to clean it up later. Write well but not perfectly. Remember that these thirty days are temporary and that there will be a time when you’re looking back on them with a giant stack of pages under your belt and with a completely different perspective than the one you have right now. Thirty days is nothing in the long run. It’s a fling, a telephone billing cycle, a free trial run at a new gym. Your only job right now is to play with words – that thing you love to do.
7. Not writing is valuable too
Sometimes my book needs me to listen to it and not do so much talking, so I allow myself to meditate on the text, or to be still, as Charles Baxter has put it, even at the risk of finishing with a lower total word count that day. Sometimes I meditate on the emotional life of a particular character, trying to hear their voice in a scene when they need to express themselves, or I close my eyes and look more deeply at the setting my characters are in, imagining and filling in the details in my mind, or else I sit still and wait for a rhythm or a sentence or an image that’s compelling enough to get me typing. I realize that NaNoWriMo participants might not have the luxury of not writing (it takes time to bang out nearly 1700 words a day, even if they aren’t perfect ones), but for those who are modifying the challenge, or even for those who aren't, the idea is the same: sometimes you need to stop before entering a new room, before crossing a threshold, before diving into a pool. Sometimes the answer lies in the pause. Let yourself collect yourself when your book needs you to.
8. Reward and acknowledge milestones (but beware the days after)
Days and word counts with zeroes behind them are milestones. And so are halfway marks. Celebrate your milestones, whether it’s your first full week, your first 10,000 words, or day 15 (the halfway mark for NaNoWriMo). March toward those goals confidently and shout about them when they come. They matter. Every day matters. Every word, in fact, matters, even if it never sees the final draft, because it’s all forward momentum. Beware, however, the days following milestones: day 8, day 16, day 22, etc. There’s an instinct to pause once we get to a natural resting place and it can be hard to imagine pushing forward. Professional writers show up regardless of what day it is or how they’re feeling. They write no matter what.
9. Create a vision for your book
Vacuums can feel so vacuumy, and the feeling of writing in one can really suck. Give yourself the gift of a big bold vision for your book, even if it means inflating your expectations to get you through these first thirty days, or through your first draft. When I started my current project, I pulled all of the books from my shelves that I thought I might need for reference and set them in a pile, and then I made another pile of all of the books with which I want my book to resonate. Seeing them there every morning doesn’t just give me company, it gives my book company, and it helps me see it as a real thing in the world. So, on your first slow day, or maybe as a reward after your first milestone day, I encourage you to create a title page and a page with an epigraph, a table of contents, and maybe even an acknowledgements page. Fill out your manuscript with things that make it look like a book so that the next day you’ll be showing up to something a little less ordinary than a Word document. Give yourself a real book to tend to. Is that putting the cart before the horse? I don’t think so. Not if it makes you feel better about showing up to your book, inspires you to continue, or elevates your writing.
10. Don’t look back
You might check the last page or scene you worked on to get back into the rhythm of your language or into a particular character’s point-of-view again, but don’t look back at everything you’ve written, and I certainly wouldn’t reread everything before your thirty days is up. I peeked a few times, sometimes to great chagrin and other times to pleasant surprise, and, while those surprises felt nice and reminded me what I was doing wasn’t all for naught, that maybe there would be some salvageable stuff at the end of this experiment, rereading the entirety of something that isn’t even written yet when the whole idea is to generate, to move forward, to create an abundance of pages, just seems like a surefire way to kill momentum. Drafting new stuff is a delicate and magical process at times, and taking our critic’s voice even unintentionally back into those pages before the dream has ended is a dangerous mission. Keep mapping, keep assaying, keep tiptoeing, keep playing, keep inching or plowing ahead. You’re making progress, one word at a time. As E.L. Doctorow said, “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”