How I Finally Won NaNoWriMo After 12(ish) Years of Trying
NaNoWriMo, for those that don’t know, stands for National Novel Writing Month – wherein aspiring authors of all ages and dispositions take the pledge to write 50,000 words (roughly novella length) in November.
When I first heard about it in 2006, I could not think of a challenge more perfect for me. I've wanted to write a book ever since I discovered an overwhelming passion for reading after borrowing a copy of "The Flying Dutchman" by Brian Jacques from Mrs.Dickman's library in 4th grade (thank you Mrs.Dickman, for more than just that). Before this book I was of the opinion that reading was just work, and I didn't like work all that much; I loved stories but I preferred hearing them from people since that took very little effort on my part. This book - the gateway drug for the many which followed - completely changed my mind, and it was at that point that I truly understood how powerful writing could be.
Before I begin, I should really say that I’m no expert on this topic of "winning". In fact, thought I’ve tried on and off since 2006 to write 50,000 words in a month, this is the first time I’ve won. I’ve certainly wanted to win, and I’ve gotten relatively close twice before (the first time in 2006, when I wrote by hand and pulled out all the cheats I could, and the second in 2015 when I got the first 30k of this novel written down), but this is the first time I’ve actually accomplished – and in fact substantially surpassed – this goal.
Perhaps it’s because of this that I’m writing this post now; who better to tell you how to win besides someone who’s tried time and time before and came short each year before this one. There’s still many things to learn, but at least now I know of a few things I did differently this year that definitely had an effect, as well as some strategies and tools that helped. I hope to put these ideas into words, so that I can remember this feeling next year when I sit down to do it again, and every year from now on.
I think the best way to begin is by looking at things I did differently.
This year I took the challenge because I wanted to finish the first draft of my novel, In Search of Fire, which I've been working on for about 5 years now. I was sitting at 37k words and had been for a long time; I figured this was exactly the type of push I needed to advance the story and finally get it done. Thus, I was a Nano Rebel.
1.) Being a Nano Rebel
NaNoWriMo doesn't have set rules (besides reaching your word goal - 50,000 - and not calling each other cheaters) but it does have many carefully crafted suggestions, tricks and tips to help get participants over the finish line. One such tip is to start the challenge with a fresh idea and no words written.
This makes a lot of sense; staring at a blank page is kind of scary, but also exhilarating. If you're excited about a new idea - as you should be - it's very simple to start writing and keep on going for a while; so in a sense, it allows you to start strong. There are no limits in place as to where you can go with your story, unlike when you start in the middle of a draft - especially one you've perhaps struggled with in the past - and there are constructs, settings, unruly characters, plotholes, and writer's block is staring you in the face.
Despite that, this year I rebelled and wrote on a story I've already started because sometimes that's simply what you have to do. My goal wasn't to write a book, it was to write this book - it's one I was struggling with and had plotholes galore but I was determined to do it - I was excited to get the story out.
That determination is all you need. It's the most important part to all of this, I found out.
2.) No Tricks
I didn't use tricks this time.
There are so many I could have used. I remember when I first tried NaNoWriMo at the age of 13 I was obsessed with tricks because 50,000 words seemed infinite and unachievable without them. Things like giving your characters 3-word names and using the full length every time you mention them, or avoiding contractions like the plague even if they made more sense (they often would have) because that extra word was more important. I remember I spent 5 pages that year detailing a living room and added all kinds of crazy plot developments that made no sense in the current story simply for the word count. It was fun, and as far as word count went I think I got really close to winning, but at the end of it all I can't say I got a substantial story out of it.
It's just not as meaningful; it's one thing to have simply written 50,000 shitty filler words, and another to have written that many - shitty or not - and have them actually contribute to the story at hand.
So this year I didn't use these tricks. My goal was clear: advance the story. I didn't need these tricks, anyways, because I knew my story was definitely going to be longer than 50k, even with 37k already down. 50k doesn't seem so impossible when your goal is more than that.
3.) Don't Focus on the Word Count
Ok, to be fair, I definitely did keep track of it. But I wasn't obsessed with getting to 1667 words each day as I had been in past years.
Simple: in my mind, my goal was higher than that. 1667 was the minimum, I said to myself, more of an afterthought than anything. There were some days I failed on this - 3, in fact, when I simply couldn't write because I was tired or my eyes hurt or I had horrible headaches resembling (dare I say it) migraines. However, there were also days I completely surpassed my goals. I shot for around 2000 words a day instead, and more than that if I could do it - which, it turns out, I could. Often I'd keep writing until I felt I'd made progress, and then write some more.
I think the best thing I did was think of word count as a minimum instead of a goal. If 1667 is your goal, it's a struggle to reach it, but if your goal is some unknown far beyond that, it's simple to keep going until you can't anymore, and in the end you often far surpass your own expectations.
So I didn't focus so much on word goals. Plot and development counted more than words for me this time around, and I feel like it made a big difference as far as my mental state was concerned. Rather than saying 'oh, I wrote another 1000 words detailing the plumpness of this armchair', I was able to say 'I finished this scene in a coherent manner and introduced a decent plot twist' etc. Sure, it's not perfect; it will need polishing later. But it works as solid scaffolding for the draft and is much less likely to be completely cut in editing. It's a good productive feeling.
4.) Don't Stop Writing
I mean this in terms of day-breaks from writing. This is probably common sense, really, though I know of many people who do take breaks or write intermittently and then produce 10k days and win it all. You know yourself best, but this is what works for me. This definitely fits into the "things I learned" category as well, but I'll put it here because it's one of the biggest differences from this year vs the other times I got close to winning.
The absolute hardest part of writing is starting, in my opinion. Once I've started - give it 10 minutes or so - I get in a rhythm and it just flows from there, but getting into that mindset in the first place is hard work. The more time has passed since the last time I sat down to write on a particular project directly reflects on how hard it is to get back into that needed mind space.
I hadn't thought this was the case before. In fact, there has been many a time when I'd get to a point in the story where I had to make a decision (what should happen next? how does the plot advance? what would this character do?) and I wouldn't know the answer.
My go-to method used to be to set the writing aside, and focus on the idea creation. I'd take time to do this - as much time as was needed, in fact. Of course, over time I discovered that this approach was lacking. I wasn't writing down my ideas into the story (even if I made notes), I was just thinking through them. Like trying out different movie endings in my mind, I kept rewinding back to the point I got stuck at and exploring different options, but over time I wouldn't be making progress. The first day would be fine; I'd come up with some ideas, tell myself I'd polish them off tomorrow and write them down, but then tomorrow would come and they would be hazier in my mind than before. I wouldn't be happy with them, so I'd think on them more. The more time that passed thinking and not doing, the harder it was to sit back down in front of the open document and actually type the story out, because with each passing day the hurdle would feel bigger and harder to overcome.
I've often heard it said that writing takes time, but I think for me it's not taking time that's the problem, it's the fact that I'll take too much of it. I need motivation to sit down and actually act on my ideas, which is what NaNoWriMo is good for.
This year I tried to write every day, multiple times a day. I missed 3 days, and I felt incredibly guilty each time - even after I'd already hit 50,000 words - because I knew that it was dangerous to stop writing.
My story was always on my mind; I talked it out with others when I wasn't able to write, or I'd make notes, or daydream (or really dream) about it every day. And because I was writing on it every day, the plot would advance quickly, and I'd be forced to think ahead, produce new ideas, and keep my enthusiasm up rather than being stuck at one part of the story and feeling my imagination wane over time. I think if we really boil it down, this was the key difference this year over all others.
This is something I didn't do because I fell into an October void (wait what) and completely forgot to! Seriously, I don't know where the time went - I still think it's August sometimes.
I wish I could say this was some heartfelt awesomeness I learned and place it in the section below, but I didn't... so here it is.
I guess the message I take away from not planning this year is that it's good to know I can pants it if I need to. However, I think this worked in large part because I was a Nano Rebel and had at least a semblance of an idea as to what I was trying to write. I do prefer planning - at least general big ideas to know where the plot is heading, and character development because characters lead the plot. If you have the time for it, I'd suggest the Snowflake Method or the condensed version dubbed Hailstorm Method.
What I've learned this NaNoWriMo:
1.) I Can Do More Than I Think I Can
Seriously. This is a big point.
I can win NaNoWriMo.
I know that now. I mean, I always knew it logically, and this year I went in knowing I would win. Whatever it would take to make it happen, I was ready to do it; failure was not an option because I simply wasn't willing to give up on this book idea. Even so, now I have proof that not only can I do it, I can really truly overachieve at it, even during one of the busiest work months of my life. So yes, winning Nano is definitely possible, and what's more, anyone can do it if they really want to, even when life's going all topsy turvy, there's long hours at work, the cats keep meowing for attention (and so does the boyfriend), and the apocalypse is nigh.
I'm going to say it again because it's important - the only thing that stops you is your own determination. It doesn't matter if you have ideas or not, or if life is crazy; if you want to do it, you can do it. You just need to sit down and write.
2.) (Mental) Health is Important
Ok, I know I just harped about not taking breaks and all that, but you gotta look out for yourself. Can't go getting mental breakdowns or anything like that. Since we're on the topic, physical health is important too. I ate too much Halloween candy, I'll admit, but thankfully I managed to not get sick in November so I'll talk more about the mental aspects.
I tried my best to keep on writing, even while working overtime a lot and being tired, but that's because I felt like I could do it - like if I didn't, I'd be giving up without a fight. At the same time, there were a few days when I realized I simply couldn't stare at a screen any longer, and on those days I relaxed, took a nice bubble bath or burrowed under the covers at 9pm instead of 1am and recuperated my mental strength. I felt a bit guilty, yes, but it was the right thing to do, and I still thought about the story so that the next day I'd be ready to start again.
3.) It's Really Nice to Stay Ahead
For obvious reasons, it feels like a win when you're ahead of schedule. Setting my goal above the traditional Nano one of 1667 words/day certainly helped with this, but it's also just as important to keep the pace up and not give in to false victory. This might be a personal quirk, but I do much better when I feel things are easier and I'm doing well, rather than when I have to fight for a comeback from behind. Some people thrive on that challenge; I'd rather just keep being ahead of my goals.
Following from this, you can't stay ahead if you don't know what "ahead" means so...
4.) Set a Goal
There is a small point I have to mention here: regarding goals, mine were rather fuzzy overall. I came in with the lofty goal of "finishing the first draft". I had no idea what this meant, no way to quantify it. Would it be 50,000 words more or 100,000? There would be no way to find out until I actually sat down and wrote it all, so it was fairly hard to set up accurate goals. On top of this, my life was very busy for most of November, so it was unrealistic to set goals too high if I knew that in all probability I wouldn't make it.
What I did try to do was set a goal of 2k words a day minimum because I was sure I wanted to surpass 50k at least. I didn't worry about it too much, and I didn't obsess over how much was left (because who knows? Certainly not me, and I'm the one writing the damn thing!) Instead I took it one day at a time and tried to do my best then and there. It would be a good day if I hit about 2.5k, a great day if I hit 3.5k, and a fantastic day if I did over 5k - and I definitely did get a few of those! Most days were around 2.5-3.5k, which I was happy with, and those 5k days certainly helped overcome the days I didn't write. Everything balanced out, and my average was good, so with all of these combined, I managed to make it to 50k on November 21st (an almost 5k day) and 70,202 by November 30th.
I didn't finish the draft.
I didn't finish the draft BUT - I'm so frickin proud of my progress still. I made it to the climax, I'm so close to being done. I added 70k to my existing 37k - that's huge! It took almost 5 years to get those first 37k down, and now I have 3 times that just one month later. So I'm ok with it.
But I realized something important from all of this: it's really hard to aim for a goal that's not quantifiable. I especially felt this after I hit 50k, and knew I was only 2/3 of the way through the story (give or take), but I didn't know what the new goal should be. So I took it one day at a time (again) - something like "I think I can get through the next 5k today" or "5k in 2 days, that's definitely doable during the work week" and went from there until the very last day of November.
Now I'm left in the same place: I have the last bit of the book left, something ranging from 20-35k if I had to guess. I think going forward, I'll have to adopt a technique very similar to this one - take it day by day, as long as I keep progressing. That's the only thing that matters, in the end.
5.) Set a Schedule
I've seen it said a lot that writing is like any other work; you have to set aside time every day for it that nothing else can touch. I've never been good with setting myself schedules like these, but I can see the logic in it. Rather than set specific hours or blocks of time, though, I settled for knowing that when I got home from work, I'd have to write until I'd hit my goal. Sometimes I needed to relax a bit beforehand, so I'd pick a 30-minute show on Netflix (comedy is always good for me) and then I'd start. Sometimes I'd take a break in the middle of writing and watch another show. Most times I just powered through until the clock tolled midnight - I wasn't super strict about it. But simply knowing that this would be the case - I'd write when I got home, whether it was right away or after an hour - put me in the mindset to do so. It allowed me to skip that step where I question whether I feel like it or not, whether inspiration will strike, etc. It doesn't matter. I just knew I had to write, so I did.
Going along with this:
6.) Write Often
Knowing that I'd write when I got home was all well and good, but it was even nicer when I'd already done some work beforehand. It's surprising how much writing can fit into a few minutes' break or during lunch. After a while of working on the same thing I get pretty tired so realistically there's only so much writing I'm willing to do in one sitting, but if I pluck at it over the course of multiple small breaks during the day, I get more writing done overall.
7.) Leave Off in the Middle
I've said before that the hardest thing for me is to start writing again. The simplest solution is to leave off in the middle of a thought. Some people will go so far as to stop in the middle of a sentence or even a word, but I can't quite bring myself to do that; it breaks the rhythm for me.
However, I can stop in the middle of a scene, or a paragraph - anything that allows me to read a few sentences beforehand and immerse myself in the story again. This is the simplest because I know what happens next - usually I'm excited to finally get it down on paper too - so I can pick up the ends of the story quickly and keep running with it. On the other hand, even if I know what a new scene is about, starting at the very beginning of it is harder than in the middle because it requires more of a mental shift, even (especially) if you're reading the last paragraph written for a reminder. Those are best left for when you're halfway through a writing session, in my opinion.
8.) Write Notes
I don't know how others think through stories, but for me it's like a puzzle. I have some characters in mind, and a setting, and maybe the beginning of a plot and an idea of where I'd like to end up. The problem is connecting the dots to get me from the beginning to end.
Sometimes I get stuck with this; I don't know exactly what happens next, or I'm not sure how a character would best react. Before, I used to set the document aside and take time to think this through, but this November I really didn't want to take the time to do that. I wanted to keep foraging ahead. I'd read somewhere that contrary to popular belief, you get your best ideas when you're in the middle of a project and are constantly working with it rather than thinking about it from the sidelines, and this year that proved true for me.
Still, the problem remained: I wouldn't always know what to write about.
When I couldn't bring myself to write the actual story, I'd write notes. Sometimes they'd be bullet points, sometime they'd be very detailed "and then he does this, and this happens, and he thinks this, etc" - like those movie scenes playing out in my mind, but instead they'd be caught on paper as well. This was very helpful for when I wanted to explore different options for what might happen next, or when I needed to develop characters a bit more. I'd write out different options like a long trailing thought on the screen and once it was out there, it would be so much easier to see what I liked and what I didn't.
By the end of the month I had something like 15k words' worth of notes written like this. Maybe it seems like a lot of wasted effort, but turns out, those scenes that I detailed out were very easy to write again afterwards (for real, into the draft) because I'd already done the hard work of thinking everything through.
A completely different note (ha!) on notes - I use them extensively to keep track of changes in my novel. Because I pantsed it halfway through, I ended up changing a ton of random details (character names, directions, locations, schedules, weather... it goes on and on). These notes will be the holy grail come editing time, so I write everything down.
9.) Community Helps
Once November was over, it became harder to sit down and write again. I think this in part is simply because I need a bit of a break from it and had other things to catch up on (yay adulting), but it also largely points to one of the truly wonderful things about NaNoWriMo: it creates a community of like-minded individuals with similar goals. I think this community is a magical thing.
You don't even have to play a huge part in it (I know I didn't) but simply knowing that it's there - walking by coffeeshops and seeing other Wrimos writing - is supportive in and of itself because it means that you're part of something bigger than just you, the screen, and the book. You're not alone, the hype is real - so many books are being written right now, so what's stopping you from writing yours?
I call that motivation.
Which brings me to my last few thoughts: tools to help with NaNoWriMo and keep up that motivation.
Things that helped:
1.) Motivate yourself!
Ok, yes, very obvious - keep up motivation by motivating yourself! (Duh.) But some people work best with punishments, some with rewards. Some like big rewards at the end, some like instant gratification. Everyone's a snowflake, so you have to do a bit of inner-snowflake reflection here.
Personally, I need positive reinforcement and lots of it. I need to feel like I'm winning and progressing constantly. Snacks work sometimes, though I'm wary of using them as rewards because I'm fat enough, thank you. Netflix breaks worked well after good long writing sprints, so I used those a fair bit - though of course the problem remains that often the shows are longer than you should really be taking a break for (and who's gonna stop halfway through an episode of something right? I'm not a monster.) Still, there's lots of possibilities out there.
I think by far my favorite motivation AND writing tool was 4thewords.com
Frankly, this site was (and still is) invaluable for motivation. It's a cool little website made by some awesome book-lovers in Costa Rica that turns writing into a game.
You get to battle monsters, each with their own word count quota and countdown, and once you reach the quota before time runs out you win and get item drops and treasure. These battles often count towards quests that give you even more goodies, and everything you've written is constantly saved as you write and organized into files for later use (though I always back everything up on Google Drive as well BECAUSE YOU NEVER KNOW). You can customize your avatar, and do all that other fun game stuff. It also keeps track of writing streaks, which is good motivation for writing every day!
While writing this post I've defeated 3 monsters whose item drops got me 10% closer to finishing a quest and am almost done battling another that will finish two other quests for me. I'm also on day 50 of my streak! (Woo).
It also features a reading area where you can read what others have posted if you want to (something I've admittedly not looked at much) and a forum with super friendly people united by their love of writing and games.
It's the best.
I highly urge anyone interested in games and writing to give it a go - it's quite addicting and you can tell the developers have put a lot of time and effort into constantly improving the site and adding new features and events. I believe you get a month-long demo for free, and after that if you choose to continue it's only $4 a month which you control completely. If you do sign up, use this code and both of us will get a discount! Code: GVGJL65602
Pretty much the only community event I did this Nano besides my normal writing group meetups was going to write-ins in my area. These are events organized by local Wrimos that usually take place in coffeeshops, bookstores or libraries (though there are some traveling ones that take place on ferries and trains!) The point is to get together and motivate each other to write - because excitement is infectious, and large quantities of writers pounding away on their keyboards surrounded by rubber ducks is very exciting indeed.
I went to some write-ins on the weekends, and it made for very productive evenings. We held word wars - where everyone competes to get down the most amount of words in a specified amount of time (usually 5-15 minutes) - and the winners got more rubber ducks to spread the writing duck plague (if you ever walk by a shop in November, April or July and see frazzled people typing madly or staring broodingly into their coffees with a small heap of rubber ducks placed around their table, bets are they're doing Nano). Some people just did 25-minute sprints the whole time and would emerge at the end and look around like they'd forgotten what world they lived in. It was oodles of fun, and quite a few of my 5k+ days were done at write-ins of this sort.
4.) Nano Sprints
You don't have to attend a write-in to do word sprints. All you have to do is join twitter (which I did)!
Sometimes you just need someone to tell you when to start writing and when to stop, and @NaNoWordSprints has your back there. It runs 24/7, led by Wrimos all over the world who call start and end times for mad dashes of writing - sometimes they're 5 minutes long, sometimes they're 30. Many a time they're back to back, so you can jump in whenever you want. At the end they'll call out for progress reports and the feel will erupt with people posting word counts and new wins. It's nice for building a sense of community, and really good for pushing you to get a few more minutes of writing done when you really need to just sit and do it.
(You won't be winning any ducks though. Such is life in the digital era.)
That's it guys; that's all I got. (Look at this - a 5k day here too, writing this article!)
There's a lot more I could say about tools for writing and planning, not just motivation, but I think that's beyond the scope of this blog post. This is meant to be about what I used this year - and this is it: a game, some candy, a bit of sleep deprivation and a hell of a lot of determination.
It’s been a hell of a ride.
Thanks for reading.