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Three Things I Learned from NaNoWriMo 2016

NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, is an annual challenge to spend the month of November writing at least 50,000 words. You don’t have to consider yourself a “writer” to participate, and there’s no penalty for missing the mark or huge reward for success, other than the knowledge that you’ve written a book-sized quantity of words.

In 2003, my first year participating in this challenge, I spent a lot of the month before preparing. I created a really neat outline, took pictures of places that inspired me, the whole nine yards. I also hit the ground running and wrote 50,000 words in the first ten days of the month. Needless to say, I felt pretty accomplished.

This year, I came back to NaNoWriMo after a long hiatus. And I did some things that I’d never done before:

  • I stuck very close to the minimum daily average word count most days.
  • I kept reasonable sleeping hours every night except for three.
  • I skipped days.

And there’s a reason for this: This time, I wasn’t chasing a one-off victory. I was fighting to find a place for fiction-writing in my life. I wanted something that would be replicable; I wanted the momentum to keep writing even after November was over.

In previous years, my competitive spirit focused on alacrity. But even though I remember writing something like 10,000 words in a day some years, that level of commitment isn’t remotely sustainable for me, particularly now that I also actively write for a living.

So what did I learn this year?

  1. It is possible to sit on a computer and write all day, then come home and write some more for fun. I have colleagues for whom this is obvious, but I’ve really struggled juggling writing as 1) a vocation 2) an extracurricular (I volunteer as a newsletter editor for a club that I’m part of) AND 3) a hobby/passion. Historically, something has always given (and you’d best believe it’s not the job!)–however, this month, I successfully delivered major written projects in all three areas.
  2. It’s okay to not feel inspired as long as you keep writing. If I had waited until I felt like I knew what I should be writing, I’d probably be hovering somewhere around 5,000 words right now. Instead, I found that the more I wrote, the easier it was to keep writing. This meant that getting to 1,667 words in a day didn’t feel substantially more difficult than writing the first 800 did… or substantially less difficult than writing another 2,000 on top of that, if I had the time.
  3. Let yourself be human, but don’t set yourself up to get discouraged.Out of the gate, I made sure that at the end of day one, I had two days’ worth of words written. I knew that life was going to get in the way of staying at “par,” and I wanted a buffer. At two different points in the month, I ate into that buffer. I actually spent two days under “par” about midway through the month, but I had full confidence that I’d be able to pull myself back up to where I needed to be to finish on time. However, if I’d had a lousy start, I might’ve let myself believe I couldn’t do this–so I made sure that I started with a lot of momentum and the mental boost of feeling like I was ahead of the game.

NaNoWriMo isn’t a challenge that suits everyone. Some of the most successful writers I know prefer a much slower pace, and by valuing quantity over quality (at least in terms of success markers), NaNoWriMo by itself won’t help someone write better work than the level he or she is already at. However, I’ve always liked it because it provides a structure that encourages people to carve out time for writing. And, of course, because my competitive spirit compels me to do my best to win.

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