November has come yet again, and if you’re a writer and you have an internet connection, you should have an idea of exactly what that means. Every year in November, a metric ton of writers of varying abilities, ages, and interests decide this is the year. This is the year that I get that novel written, and maybe even published down the road. After all, it’s hard to publish something that you haven’t even written yet. The goal of the event is to write fifty thousand words in thirty days. That sounds like a ton, but the yield is somewhere between a novella and a short novel. That’s still a lot.
Like with any monumental task, you have to start breaking that giant number down. Fifty thousand words? That’s one thousand six-hundred sixty-seven words a day for thirty days. Is that manageable? Possibly. I’ve tried NaNoWriMo four times. The first year, I got about eight thousand words in (over a week or so, which was not up to pace), decided there wasn’t much merit to the story I had thought I wanted to tell (it was a deliberately bad sci-fi story, but I realized that even if I reached my goal and got the thing written, I’d then be stuck with a bad sci-fi novel, and no amount of irony could change that), and bailed. In NaNo parlance, I lost, and therefore was a loser. I didn’t give the whole thing much thought for the next couple of years, but sometime in 2011, an idea started lolling around in my head (one that I thought could hold up for an entire novel), so I decided to give it another go. This was another sci-fi novel (I took it seriously instead of taking the coward’s way out – aiming low out of a fear of success), and I put my head down and plowed through the entire thing. It ended up being just over fifty thousand words, and I hit that mark a couple of days early. In NaNo parlance, I won, therefore I was a Winner.
The next year, having won once, I knew that it was entirely possible to get a first draft done in a month. Not a “Moby Dick” sized novel, but something to work with. I had an idea for something that I hoped would be entertaining (a basketball novel – a rare beast indeed), and put my head down and instead of plowing through the entire thing, I kept ramming my head into walls of various densities. I had an impossible time keeping pace for the first couple of weeks, and had to spend the last half of the month playing catch-up. I panicked and searched my mind for reasons why it was so much more difficult this time around. I had guesses, but no real answers. Still, I worked, and a day early, I hit the 50k mark. Three weeks later, I still haven’t written the big climactic scene: the big game. I’ve tinkered with some of the earlier stuff, but even though, in NaNo parlance, I won, and therefore am a Winner, what I do not have yet is a finished first draft.
In my fourth attempt, I decided to write a sequel to that sci-fi novel that I had crossed the finish line with. I got about 60% of the way there, but things weren’t coming together in the way I had hoped, so I threw in the towel. But only for the time being – I intend to continue working on it down the line, but the main issue was that the cake wasn’t done baking, and I was trying to pull it out of the oven way too early.
Four attempts, four very different results. And that raises the question of what exactly should I expect to get out of attempting NaNoWriMo? Or you, if you haven’t tried it yet. These are the lessons I’ve learned. Year one: I learned what I did not want to write like. Negative lessons are still lessons. I tried an approach that didn’t work for me, and even had it succeeded, the results would have been unacceptable to me. Also: not every idea is a winner. In a larger sense, what 12/1 me could have told 11/1 me was that you’re still looking for your voice. It’s not as if I’d never written before, but until you’ve got a pile of books with your name on the spine, your voice is probably still evolving.
Year two: managing workload. Fifty-thousand words sounds like a lot, but it’s doable. You’re going to do some juggling to manage that, but you do not need to lock yourself away for a month in order to meet that goal (this is a subject that will be tackled very soon). You can be a Winner and still be part of the real world, that world that wants your rent check and where you still have to do laundry and dishes and take out the trash. I caught a cold mid-month that killed my productivity for a few days, but worked through it and got to the finish line. I figured out that I could hit two thousands words in a couple of hours (on a reasonable day, sometimes faster, sometimes slower), and if you sit daily you will pile up words. The goal of NaNoWriMo is to produce a set amount of words in a set amount of time, but if you finish your first draft on December 15th or January 23rd, you still have a first draft done. But you have to sit down regularly and pile up words in order to get there. This is a Big Writing Lesson.
Year three: much harder to say. I struggled with this novel, and have been putting off finishing off my first draft. I don’t think the material is uninteresting, I don’t think that I’ve completely missed the mark, I think it’s going to end up being readable. Even though I struggled, and at times completely hated what I was doing, I don’t know that those things have anything to do with the quality of the work. I spent as much time self-psychoanalyzing what the problem was as writing, but I don’t think that the increased difficulty I had means that it’ll end up being any better or worse than last year’s novel will. So, even though if you were to ask me in six months what I’d learned this time around, it would be different than what I’m going to tell you now, 12/1 me would tell 11/1 me that whether you’re having a good day or a bad day isn’t going to show up in the work. You’re just going to have to fight through, and trust that whatever skill you have developed over the years is still present and on display. When you sit down to rewrite this thing, you’ll probably not be as down on it as you are now.
Year four: sometimes stories aren’t quite ready to be told, and you can’t force them to be. You can’t yell at a cake to make it bake faster, and you can’t always just spill words into a computer and expect it to add up to anything meaningful. At the same time, once you’ve worked through some of the unresolved problems that are hanging up a story, you can resume working on it, and maybe even end up with something useful down the road. That’s not something the 11/1 you is going to want to hear, but the truth is that maybe you don’t have everything worked out that you need to, and won’t have it worked out on 11/30, either. It might take another six months, it might take finishing another two or three novels before you can connect things in the way that a good story demands. The lesson? Do the work you can, but recognize when the time is wrong for a project, and be prepared to move onto something else for a while.
Ultimately, what you should expect to get out of NaNoWriMo is an understanding of the importance of showing up to work every day. In your regular life, you might not be able to set aside two hours a day for thirty straight days (the working on weekends, every weekend, was a real barrier for me), but you can make the math work for you. Can you set aside thirty minutes a day consistently? You could have a first draft done in three or four months. That’s not a crazy workload, that’s trading one sitcom that you watch (or DVRing shows and fast-forwarding through commercials) for having a first draft of your novel done within three pages of your calendar. To me, the most important thing that NaNoWriMo offers is a jump-start towards a positive habit. That’s super-important because real life rarely gives you the completely unobstructed chunks of time that some writers think is necessary in order to bring a project to completion, and being able to work around your schedule is more valuable than waiting for a unicorn to appear.