NaNoWriMo: Reality Checks, Rebels, and Redos

Jordan Wagenet Writing Tips

(Image courtesy of National Novel Writing Month)

Autumn brings to mind falling leaves, pumpkin spice lattes, and . . . a dissonant symphony of frenzied keyboard tapping? That’s right—we’re talking about the annual, global event known as National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short.

If you’re unfamiliar with the event, during the month of November, NaNoWriMo participants write 50,000 words of a new novel (or 1,667 words a day). All you need is an idea, a writing tool (yes, handwriting and typewriters are welcome!), and some daily free time. The event was started in 1999 by a small group of writers, and participation has exploded to hundreds of thousands of people every year since.

As I mentioned when I wrote about NaNoWriMo last year, hitting that impressive word count by 11:59 p.m. on November 30 is the only condition for winning. You’re competing against only yourself in a daily struggle with discipline and creativity. For many first-time participants, NaNoWriMo is a breakthrough step in building confidence in their writing abilities and ambitions.

If NaNoWriMo sounds like a chance to dust off your word processor, let’s take a closer look through the eyes of a veteran participant. When I wrote last year’s article, I was gearing up for my first NaNo event. As a 2018 winner, I have returned with helpful advice for others taking the plunge for the first time. Let’s get started!

Is NaNoWriMo for You?

First, let’s talk about whom the event is designed for. Writing a novel is a huge deal; the typical novel is between 90,000 and 115,000 words, depending on the genre. When staring down such a monumental task, most writers can relate to the pervasive feelings of perfectionism and procrastination that stall the writing process and destroy creativity.

If you’re a perfectionist or procrastinator, NaNoWriMo gives you a motivation stronger than your fears so you can just write. Writing about 1,700 words a day is a reasonable daily goal. Be gone, procrastination!

Additionally, NaNoWriMo is both for those who plan their novels out and for those who let the story guide them. While an outline may make writing more productive, planning isn’t for everyone. NaNoWriMo’s free-form structure lets you embrace your unique writing process.

November is also for experimentation in your writing process, your genre, your speed, or anything else. Go ahead and write that paranormal romance, try speed writing, or totally wing your novel without an outline—having fun is most important.

Some NaNoWriMo Reality Checks

First-time participants may have preconceptions about the event that can hinder progress as the month wears on. I’ll break a few of those down so you know what to expect.

For starters, NaNoWriMo is just a tool. You get out what you put in. Good discipline produces productive writing. Your friends, your novel, or the event itself won’t carry you through rough patches. You are the most valuable player—NaNoWriMo is just a big game.

Think of NaNoWriMo as published-author bootcamp: daily minimums, deadlines, and writing through the bad. #writingtips #nanowrimo Click To Tweet

Also remember that NaNoWriMo is a habit-building event, not a novel-writing event. Contrary to the advertising, you are not writing a novel in a month. You are writing only half a novel. Finish that first draft of your novel in December and January with those skills you’ve just learned.

Last but not least, think of NaNoWriMo as published-author bootcamp: daily minimums, deadlines, and writing through the bad. These roadblocks don’t go away once you’re published, so NaNoWriMo prepares you for a writing career by building constructive mindsets now.

How NaNoWriMo Helps Writers

You might wonder why people with jobs, families, and packed schedules subject themselves to this writing frenzy during the busiest time of the year. But here’s a secret: the founders chose November because it’s so busy. And still, hundreds of thousands of people participate. Why? Because it’s helpful.

The event changes your mindset from I can’t write to I can write. You don’t have time to critique every word you put down, and the old writing adage, “Write first, edit later,” is never truer than during November. That doesn’t mean every word you write will be golden, but as Terry Pratchett once said, “The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”

NaNoWriMo also builds more productive time management skills. You’ll find pockets of time you didn’t know existed before. Those 1,700 words could be completed in that hour wasted on social media every night.

NaNoWriMo changes your mindset from I can’t write to I can write. #writingtips #nanowrimo Click To Tweet

Finally, your creative brain is forced to be more disciplined when writing gets tough—because, no matter how much you prepare, writing will get tough. When I wanted to close my laptop because a scene wasn’t working, I realized that successful authors stay productive even when writing is hard. They might take a break to solve a problem, but they don’t just stop and forget about their novel.

On a related note, you’re not alone in your endeavor. The NaNoWriMo staff provides tons of support for writers, from a community forum and helpful newsletters to local write-ins and fun badges you can earn. Help and guidance from veterans is just a click away.

A Few NaNoWriMo Struggles

Despite the positives, the event isn’t all sunshine and roses. While I had a lot of fun, I also struggled, and those 50,000 words of mine did not come easily!

Writing 1,700 or more words every day can be draining. The honeymoon phase will wear off, and you will, at some point, hate writing. You may even hate your story. To prevent burnout, schedule breaks into your writing regimen. Take one day off a week from any writing; you’ll need to write more on other days, but those days will be more productive.

Additionally, NaNoWriMo does not guarantee you a well-written novel. If your novel has glaring issues, those won’t magically go away for a month. Unfortunately, those issues will snowball into bigger problems that bring a story to a grinding halt. Plot issues tend to become apparent 30–40 percent of the way into a novel—or a little over halfway through the month. Don’t ignore problems; plan your story’s structure ahead of time so you don’t lose ground later.

If your story gets stuck, you may also make poor decisions to keep from falling behind. You might introduce subplots or characters to fix it, but those “solutions” can derail your story even further. Instead, go back to where the story was last working and analyze what went wrong. Deleting a few thousand words might sting, but your writing mojo will be back in no time.

On a final note, sometimes winning NaNoWriMo isn’t possible, and that’s fine. Perhaps your story was poorly conceived or your real-life schedule took over. No matter the reason, bowing out is nothing to be ashamed of. You still learned something in the process. Celebrate what you did accomplish, no matter the word count.

NaNoWriMo Isn’t Just for New Novels—Or Novels at All!

To close my discussion, I wanted to dispel another misconception about the event: it’s not just for new novels. Yes, the event was intended to inspire new novels, but since the event has grown, so have the needs of the participants. Since you’re competing against yourself, you can decide what your project is. In contrast to the traditionalists who start a new novel project from scratch, the NaNo Rebels make up a significant portion of competitors. This classification captures a diverse crowd, such as those editing a completed novel or adapting unfinished material over a new outline; fantasy writers who need to worldbuild before writing a novel; and nonfiction writers completing a thesis, writing blog articles, or finishing up a biography.

I won as a NaNo Rebel last year, with 35,000 new words and 15,000 words adapted from an earlier version of the story. How did I count my words? The methods vary, but I counted the words I kept, so my daily counts also reflected the new material. Other editor rebels count the total number of words they edit, or they count the time they spend editing as a bulk number of words, so find what works for you.

Struggling creatives can also use the event to build any sort of writing habits with daily minimums scaled to their needs. They may not reach the objective word count, but they are still building productive writing habits that will help them in the future.

Looking Back at 2018 and Forward to 2019

Winning NaNoWriMo isn’t about the certificate you get on November 30. The event ends much more quietly than it begins—no big money prizes, no one competing for first place. Spoiler: all you get is a simple PDF that you can print. Nothing special, right? You’ll be tired and your brain will be mush. You’ll wake up the next day and the event will be over, but your story will still be waiting for you to take up those habits you learned and continue the journey.

Eleven months after my win, I’m glad I participated in NaNoWriMo. I was more productive than I had ever been before. I liked that I could tailor the event to suit my creative needs. Even when my story was stuck, my friends made it better, because we were all in it together. Most of all, I finished the event more aware of both my strengths and weaknesses and thus more confident about my writing—which is maybe the best reward.


Make sure to bookmark our article Your Story Is Worth It: How to Edit Your NaNoWriMo Novel so you’re ready to push forward come December! And when you need a second pair of eyes for your editing, we are here for you


About the Author

Jordan is a freelance copywriter and business blogger who joined the Scribe Source team in 2018. While she is a prolific B2B and B2C content developer, she also has a master’s degree in geological sciences and is adept at developing scientific content. Jordan also works as an English tutor, teaching literary analysis to youth. She can frequently be found working on her own fiction or helping other writers develop their stories.