Fun with NaNoWriMo
The first time I attempted to write a novel during the month of November, I'd heard the term National Novel Writing Month in passing at work. The person who mentioned it explained nothing but the idea rattled around my brain for days.
I've been writing since the third grade- little snippets of terrible poetry here, short stories I abandoned there, and the beginnings of multiple unfinished novels that littered my hard drive like fallen leaves in autumn.
I'd drag out writing each thing, wishing it were perfect, then tearing it apart and deeming it never good enough before I closed the file (or sometimes even deleted it completely).
Having a deadline made finishing a novel seem possible.
I've always thrived under pressure. I'm the procrastinator who waits until the night before a paper is due to start writing, then turns it in (complete with footnotes) the next morning and gets at least a B+.
But internal deadlines mean nothing to me- it's easy to let myself down in silence.
I tried to write a novel that November.
I failed miserably.
How is that possible? What about the pressure of an external deadline?
The answer is that while I'd heard of National Novel Writing Month, I hadn't actually heard of NaNoWriMo.
In 2015 I heard of the group NaNoWriMo (which, of course, stands for National Novel Writing Month). I wish I could remember how I heard of the group- my memory of that year is spotty at best. What I do know is that I felt like I'd finally found my people. Here across the country were other crazy people also attempting to hit this arbitrary goal of writing a rough draft of 50,000 words in 30 days.
There are many things one can say about me, but that I am great at planning something out in advance is not one of them. I joined the denizen of Pantsers all across the country in going into NaNoWriMo with a bit of a storyline and a prayer. (For the uninitiated, Pantsers are people who do no, or next to no, plotting. Not to be confused with Plotters who plan outlines of various complexities, or plantsers who do bare bones outlines and let the story take them wherever it wants to.)
I was living in Tempe that year. I joined the local NaNoWriMo group and attended a few write-ins. My crippling shyness kept me from making friends at those write-ins, or even really speaking to anyone. But when I did attend a write-in, I found that I put a lot of words on the page.
I did not put nearly enough words to make up for the days I barely got a word or two down, but at least it moved me closer to my goal. I took several days a week off from writing- reassuring myself that I'd figure it all out in the end, no need to panic. After all, I thrive under pressure.
Those were almost famous last words. By November 28th I was in a full fledged panic. The end of the month was fast approaching and I was over 25,000 words behind my goal. I'd told everyone I knew what I was doing. I could not bear the shame of failing. But reaching that goal felt impossible now with only a couple of days left.
My now wife, then girlfriend, sat me down on the bed with my laptop and some snacks. She wouldn't let me leave the room that day until I hit an additional 10,000 words. I let "Fear the Walking Dead" play in the background (my first novel was a horror novel) and wrote like the wind.
I ended the day with 11,000 additional words. My hands ached, but they were there. They were terrible words that made no sense in the end, but they were there.
The next day I did it again, getting up to 10,000 additional words. By now my hands were cramping and I felt like crying if I even thought about typing.
I still got up on November 30th and resolved to finish the damn thing. I was so close to the finish line- to quit now would be admitting defeat.
I cracked my aching knuckles and started writing again. By now my brain felt like mush and I hated my novel. If I never saw the words from that first novel again it would be too soon.
At the end of the day I finished the novel at just over 50,000 words and earned my first winner's certificate. A little piece of paper that is simultaneously worth nothing and everything at the same time.
One would think I would learn from my mistake the previous year when I attempted to write the novel in 2016. And one would be woefully wrong.
I went into 2016 with the same "story and a prayer" mental dynamic I'd had the year before. Now, though, we were living in San Diego and the writing groups were a little different. I remember sitting in this dingy Denny's (its always a Denny's) off the freeway trying to write while I listened to two guys at the table next to me talk about what they were going to write for NaNo. Bouncing ideas off each other for hours without ever putting words on the page.
By the end of the first week, I was ahead of the word count goal and was proud of myself. I took a little writing break and resolved to come back to it later. Can you guess what happened?
If you guessed that I lost momentum and then struggled to meet even a basic daily word count, you are correct. While the overall goal of NaNoWriMo is to reach 50,000 words the actual underlying goal is to build good writing habits. The goal is to give discipline and structure around the idea of creating something from nothing.
I ended 2016 much the same way I did 2015- by flailing miserably but ultimately making my word count by typing a truly ridiculous number of words on the last three days.
I did the same thing in 2017. And in 2018 when we moved back to Arizona.
In 2019, I resolved that something had to change. The stress I was putting myself through each November was making NaNo, and writing in general, stressful and unenjoyable. I again joined a local group (my current group) and found a much more welcoming environment.
I attended Plotting events in October (called Plotober) that taught me my favorite plotting method. It's called Bookending and I will sing its praises until the day I die.
I was still too shy to participate in person much, but I did attend several events with Municipal Liasions (one of which is the wonderful Kristen, who is still an ML today) who tried to make everyone feel included.
While I didn't end the month having to write as many words to make it to the goal as I usually did, I was still woefully behind and hating myself by November 28th. Something had to change.
In 2020, that something was the world. When Covid hit, everyone at my company went fulltime to working from home. There was a sudden push around October to finally hire a few people to assist in my job so I wouldn't be a one man band any longer.
I looked at the calendar for training, looked at the amount of non-training work I'd still need to do each day, and thought about NaNo. With a sad heart, I realized that doing both my job and writing for that year was impossible.
2021 I dipped my toe back into NaNo. One of the only good things to come out of the pandemic was the option to virtually attend write-ins.
For someone like me who is easily distracted by sights and sounds, who is shy to the point of pain in person, and who often has to work late, in person was never a good fit for me. I admire anyone who can write in a coffee shop or a restaurant without getting distracted. That simply isn't me.
Virtual write-ins allowed me to make community with others going through the same struggles I was and to write together. For the first time since I'd started doing NaNo, not only was I getting words on the page, but I was actually meeting the daily minimum word count guidelines on the NaNo website. I attended write-ins for my group (PhoeNoWriMo) and for Sisters in Crime and I attended them almost every single day.
2021 was the first time I ever hit the 50,000 word count well before the end of the month. Was the novel that year any good? Not really- I'd managed to miss a massive plothole (ha- get it, plothole?) in the story that made it impossible to finish without major revisions. But I'd created discipline for myself.
Since 2021, I've started making time for writing each week. I've worked on short stories and screenplays. I even tried to write another novel in the spring (that stopped due to work commitments taking up the majority of my time sadly).
This year is my first time as a ML myself and I'm doing all virtual events for our group. Being on the other side of the dynamic has been interesting, and challenging in a good way. How can I, a complete introvert, trick these people into thinking I'm an extrovert long enough to get them excited to meet their goals? By lots of practice of course.
My book is as outlined as it can be (I even sent it to several people whose opinions truly matter to me for feedback on possible plotholes and used their suggestions to improve the outline). I've created a cover for this book. I have a playlist. I've set all the virtual meetings for my group and I've signed up to do several for other groups.
But come 11:59:59 on October 31st, I'll sit down at my keyboard along with thousands of other people. I'll stare at the blank screen and blinking cursor as the clock flips over to midnight. And then with a little hope, a little luck, and a lot of discipline, I'll write.