What I Gained From NaNoWriMo.

Back in October 2017 I decided to take part in NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month – which is a challenge to write a 50,000 word (plus) novel during the month of November.

Spoiler alert – I achieved the 50,000 words by November 26th and ended up on 53,740 words by the 30th. However, the story is still unfinished, which is part of what I am going to talk about here, but I am also going to talk about what worked really well and why you to should take up the challenge in 2018.

At first the thought of writing a minimum of 1,667 words per day, for 30 days straight is quite daunting. What about time off for writer’s block, or creative impasse, or finding cool videos on social media.

Unless you are a full-time writer, you have to find enough time between your family and your day job, to get the word count in. You could write less during the week and then double or triple up on the weekend, but I figured that also double or tripled the stress of trying to hit the word count. So I stuck to the minimum 1,667 words a day.

What did work was announcing my intention to take on the NaNoWriMo challenge and the fact that until the word count was in I would need to be a bit selfish and shut the door to my study. My family were very supportive and very relieved when I hit the word count early!

What also worked, was that I began to write quicker.

You have probably read that Anthony Trollope set his watch upon his desk and wrote 250 words every fifteen minutes? I used to manage about 500 words in just under an hour and thought I was doing well! About ten days into the challenge I was writing between 340-420 words every fifteen minutes.

How? I took fifteen minutes out of my lunch break and wrote as fast as I could! Whatever word count was left then got completed once I was home, the time pressure here being that my wife’s happiness with me equated to how quickly I hit the target and therefore how much time I spent with her.

Both sets of time pressure had their advantages.

From quite early on I was managing to go just beyond the daily target, as you can see below:


What happened after I hit the 50,000 word mark, is another matter, however. Somehow the focus engendered by the word count dissipated once it was achieved. My brain didn’t seem to mind overly that the story wasn’t quite finished yet.

The need to write at least 1,667 words a day was apparently gone. Hence the fact that I am still finishing the story off. A positive by-product of this seeming failure is actually a) I am currently completing the story, and b) I’ve read Austin Kleon’s book Show Your Work and plan to use the story to write a series of blog posts about the writing of the book.

In the past, I generally have plotted out my stories in reasonable detail – as most writerly advice tells you to do – but I found that this led to my creative brain seeing that the story was complete and the undisciplined actually-writing-the-whole-thing-down-on-the-page part of me was quite happy to agree and not follow through on the whole writing it all down part.

I eventually overcame this tendency when I learnt that International Best Seller Lee Child just sat down and wrote. Obviously, he had the basics in place, but the route to the end was a journey for him, just as it is for us when we first read the books. I started writing with the basics in mind and let the character and situations they ended up in do the rest.

Result? I started finishing my stories!

With only 30 days and 50,000 words to write, I decided I might need a bit more rigour than ‘see where it all goes’ and decided to have a more secure plot. I picked a basic seven section structure and developed out my basic idea to fit that.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I veered away from the content I had mapped out from these sections as the characters took on more life and took over the plot a little. The sections remain essentially in place, but the route has lengthened somewhat.

The basic structure certainly helped and allowed me to write quickly, through knowing the direction and way markers I needed to hit. But I think the main thing that helped me to write quickly was a combination of using 1st-person narrative and not worrying about the sentences being perfect. I knew I was going to be editing at the end, and my main priority was to actually get there.

Once you have signed up to the NaNoWriMo official website and register your novel, then you can access the word count and stat checker, which gave you the numbers and graphical affirmation that you had met, or surpassed, your daily target. Once the numbers were in and confirmed on the screen, then you could step away from the keyboard.

You obviously don’t need to wait for November to try this out yourself and that is one of the lessons I have learnt from the experience.

Decide to write the story. Give yourself a deadline which will stretch you. Let those closest to you know what you are doing and what the time frame is. Get those words down as fast as you can.

The final two lessons are to reset the deadline if you haven’t finished the story and have a similar deadline for editing when you really have finished.


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