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  • Writer's pictureSarah Donkin

What I learned from Nanowrimo

A computer keyboard.
The trusty (and dusty) keyboard that I've been violently typing on for the past month.

On October 26, I realized that November was coming up fast. And as most people in the writing world know, November is a special month: National Novel Writing Month, or, NaNoWriMo.

For those who are unfamiliar, Nanowrimo involves setting a word count goal (minimum of 50,000) and trying to reach it within the month of November. Ideally, you end up with a full first draft of your novel by the end of the month. I haven't taken on that challenge since high school. This year, I decided to jump back in.

I will confess, I did Nanowrimo the “wrong way.” I didn’t start out with a brand new novel idea on November 1. In July, I started drafting a new novel, which I had about 40,000 words on by the end of October. So, I decided to set my goal for 50,000 words and use the month of November to finish that novel draft at a total of about 90,000 words.

Well, Nanowrimo ended yesterday with the end of November, and I did it. I now have a 90,000-word first draft for a novel that combines elements of fantasy, satire, and humor. I’m hoping to take a break from it while I work on another first draft of a new idea, then come back to it in a few months to make some edits.

In the meantime, there are a few things I’ve learned over the past month.

It’s surprisingly doable

When I started on November 1, I wasn’t sure if I could do it. I didn’t feel prepared. Jumping in was a spur-of-the-moment decision. I also work full-time in journalism, so I write a lot during the day (although that’s a somewhat different type of writing).

In order to hit my goal, I needed to average about 1,600 words every day. This sounds like...a lot. But let’s break it down.

The average typing speed is about 40 words per minute. That means that if you write at an average speed for about 40 minutes, you’ll hit 1,600 words. 40 minutes a day. That, in theory, is all it takes.

Now, typing speed does not equal writing speed. You can get hit with “writer’s block” at the most inconvenient times. Even factoring in some extra time for writer’s block issues or a slightly slower typing speed, you might need to dedicate an hour to an hour and a half every day to hit the goal. You can look for prompts and other brainstorming tools to help with writer's block (after all, it’s a first draft - you can always edit things out later). Planning ahead a little bit can help, too.

Routine isn’t essential, but it helps

That brings me to my next point: I wrote at least a little bit every day. It was fairly easy to do, since I was already in a daily writing routine (every morning before work).

But I definitely didn’t hit my word count every single day. Some days, I only wrote 800, or 500 words. A few days, I only hit 100 or 200 words. I think there was one day that my total count was 63 words.

Still, writing at least a little bit every day helped me keep my characters and ideas fresh. It at least forced me to see what I had written most recently. That helped me think about where I might go next. By the next time I sat down to write, I had a lot more to say, and a much better idea of how to say it, because at least attempting to write the day before kept the story going in my brain.

Also, every little step forward is another step in the right direction. This is important to remember, because even if you don’t manage to hit your word count goal or finish a full draft in a month, as long as you wrote something, you made progress. Appreciate the small successes as well as the big ones.

Community is key

This year, I had an advantage that I didn’t have in high school. Nanowrimo has an option on the website to look for groups in your area that meet and write together during November. I was able to find one within about a half hour of my home.

The group met up several times each week to write together at different restaurants, coffee shops, and libraries. I didn’t make it to many meetups, but I did tag along for a few. The days that I went to write-ins were the days when I hit my highest word counts. One day was over 6,000 words. Just being in one place with other people who are dedicated to writing helped me stay focused, and feel less isolated when I was writing.

The group also had a discord server where writers could do “word sprints,” either in person at meetups or from home or other locations. A word sprint is essentially when you set a timer and try to write as much as you can during that time. If other people are around to join in on the sprint, then you have someone else to run with. It’s not a competition, but other people can help motivate you to push through difficult writing sessions.

The end?

I was a little worried that I would feel burned out at the end of the month, but I’m just more excited to keep writing and explore other ideas. I’ve started a lot of stories in the past, and it feels great to finish a long-form story for the first time in a while.

Even though November is over, I see a whole lot more story beginnings in my near future. My goal for 2020 is to write three full-length first drafts of novels from the beginning of the year to the end (there, I said it, now I have to do it). I’m also hoping to be a little more consistent in telling stories here on my blog (I’ve been slacking off for the last two months - getting married and moving will do that to you).

Let me know in the comments if you attempted Nanowrimo this year, or if you have any thoughts on novel writing in general. Till next time, thanks for reading, and keep telling your stories.

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