NaNoWriMo: Why I’m Cheering from the Sidelines

We’re halfway through the first week of November, which means thousands of writers around the globe are deeply settled into their NaNoWriMo writing routine. If you look to the right of our blog, you’ll see we have a fantastic widget tracking all of our chapter members’ progress toward their goals. (Go team!) Last week, Cindy provided us with some incredible advice on how to make the most of your NaNoWriMo experience. But she also mentioned that the experience isn’t for everyone; that some writers just don’t enjoy it.

I’m one of those writers.

I’m speaking from experience, of course. Back in 2013, I attempted my first NaNoWriMo. I was armed with an outline, some character sketches, and a 500 word snippet for an opening scene that I’d written in a weekly assignment for a writing class, which my teacher encouraged me to use as part of a larger work. I’d never even attempted a novel before. This was a first for me, and I was pumped.

To reach the 50,000 word goal for NaNoWriMo, you have to write at least 1,666 words a day. This far exceeded anything I’d ever been able to do in the past, but I was confident. By the end of the day on November 1st, I’d churned out close to 2,000 words. Piece of cake! I’d thought. This is gonna be a breeze! November 2nd, I’d fallen a little short, with 1,500 words. No problem. I can make up for it tomorrow. Except I didn’t. I kept falling further and further behind, and with each passing day, I grew more and more anxious. The anxiety started to cripple my creativity, and soon I’d find myself staring at a blinking cursor, fighting off tears, telling myself I was a fool for even thinking I could do something as amazing as writing a novel.

Sometime before the first week was through, it was painfully clear I’d never make the 50,000 word goal. I gave up, and went back to short stories and essays for a while.

But even though I’d given up on my novel, I never really forgot about it. It was a story I’d been excited to tell, one I’d been in love with before the pressures of NaNoWriMo made me set it aside. So, several months later, I decided to open up that long forgotten Word document… and something extraordinary happened. All those words that had brought me such great disappointment last November suddenly filled me with joy. I rediscovered my passion for the story, and recommitted myself to finishing it – but this time, I’d do it at my own pace. Without the pressure to reach a fixed word count, without the knowledge of random Internet strangers watching my progress bar grow (or, in my case, stagnate), the words started flowing from my fingertips. I realized this was what I was meant to do. I joined RWA. I got serious. Within a year, I’d finished a clean draft, ready for querying. Since then, this novel has won an award and secured me representation by a literary agent.

For me, NaNoWriMo was a good way to get me to think about writing a novel. But the execution was nothing short of a mess. When faced with the pressure of reaching a daily word count, I froze. Now, that’s not to say I can’t write under pressure. Once I received an R&R that required me to rewrite the entire second half of my novel – which amounted to 45,000 new words – in under a month. So why was I able to succeed in this request for a revision but flail spectacularly during NaNoWriMo, I wonder? Maybe it was because the revision was a life-or-death decision for the advancement of my career. Maybe it was because the backbone of my story – the voice and themes and the heart – were already securely in place. Whatever it was, it was magical and distinct, and something I can’t seem to artificially recreate simply because the calendar reads November 1st.

So for those of you who don’t find much success with writing sprints or NaNoWriMo, don’t be discouraged. Not everyone can write at the same pace; people create in all different sorts of ways. If you’re a slow writer and you need some inspiration, I highly recommend purchasing a recording of the RWA 2015 workshop, Not So Fast: Finding Success While Writing in the Slow Lane, featuring four bestselling romance authors who aren’t churning out a book every 90 days. And if you’re on the fence about giving NaNoWriMo a try, Chuck Wendig has a great list of pros and cons about the experience on his blog. As for me? I say, go for it! The worst thing that can happen is you find out it’s not for you. And you might even get a finished novel out of it, anyway.

10 thoughts on “NaNoWriMo: Why I’m Cheering from the Sidelines

  1. I wrote like mad the first time I did NanoWriMo – but that’s a pace I cannot keep up! So I use it to force me to produce SOMETHING – and this year – if I add 3 chapters to a novel I am trying to finish – that will be excellent. If I add 30-35,000 words to the book – even better. If, like yesterday, I sort out the last version and format it to current standards, and pre-copy edit it using the things I have learned that I do wrong, that’s fabulous. I treat this challenge more as a chance to FOCUS on the task list and stop letting life (like flooding and thunder and annoyed beagles) get in the way. I don’t let the lack of word count matter when there is so much more to a book than writing it. Accomplish something. Good enough.

  2. Every year is different for me. If I’m in the right head space, it’s a golden opportunity. Last year I wrote a 45,000-word story in November and had it published in late December. (It was a Christmas story.) This year my emotional health was craving something sweet and fun and easy that would be a balm to some hard times – and I’m having a blast writing a new chick-lit that will turn a stand-alone book into a series. But I’ve had some years that it was a complete waste of time, too. So now, each October I take stock of my professional and emotional needs (haha!), and decide if I’m writing a new book, or continuing with whatever else I was doing and cheering others on. Thanks for the cheering, Kristin! 😀

    • You know, I still haven’t ruled out doing it at some point in the future. But right now, it’s not the right choice for me. I know everyone else in RWA San Diego is going to meet their goals — whether that’s 50K words by November 30th, or something else more personal. Best of luck!

  3. Last year I wrote 28,000 words for NaNoWriMo–not a “win,” but more than I’ve ever written in a month before. I came out of it with a skeleton of a novel, one which I am still working to put flesh on. I’m trying again this year with a new idea. I’m working hard on keeping my inner editor gagged this time (didn’t, last time). I don’t think one “unsuccessful” attempt overshadows the potential of the NaNo exercise.

    • You’re absolutely right, Andrea. I haven’t ruled out trying it again. Personally, I haven’t had much luck with *any* kind of word count/sprinting exercises in terms of creating content that is of much use to me. Most of the time I’m so focused on getting words out — any words! — that I fail to really think about why I’m writing what I’m writing. My creative process (or maybe my brain?) is a little bit different. I thought there must be something wrong with me, or I was failing in some way as a writer, until I listened to that RWA recording I link to above. It was invaluable to hear the perspectives of other slow authors, since it’s not one you hear very often. Thanks for your comment! 🙂

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