Survival of the Wordiest: My Month of NaNoWriMo

50,000 words in 30 days. National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), the ultimate writer’s challenge, runs from November 1st through November 30th and is not for the faint of heart. So, why would I, and thousands others, commit to such a lofty goal?

For starters, there is a huge sense of accomplishment in hammering out what could have taken you months or years in just thirty twenty-four hour periods. It is an effective way to start that project you have been meaning to get to for however long, and—if I am being completely honest—you can rack up some serious bragging rights! 

Yet, NaNoWriMo is not about creating a perfectly polished publishable piece of prose (try saying that five times fast) in 30 days. No, this is about getting that “shitty first draft” (thank you Anne Lamott for that bit of priceless advice) out of your head and onto paper, Google Doc, Word Doc, Scrivener, papyrus scroll, or whatever system works for you. Your NaNoWriMo project is simply the shell of what will, hopefully, become your novel. 

Before one begins NaNoWriMo you may want to identify what category of writer you fall into. Are you a Planner, a Pantser, or a Plantser? 

The Planner is one that does just that: plans. They create detailed  lists, outlines, character sketches, mind maps, world charts, and the like. They are going in armed with as much information that they can have about their novel. A Planner could work for a month or more before NaNoWriMo even begins to achieve their best possible result. Their novel idea might have been knocking around in their brain long before they decided to join the challenge.

The Pantser is one that literally “flies by the seat of their pants.” This is the writer that is pretty much winging it. They have an idea of what they want to write about, but generally have not outlined anything or delved much into character or plot. They are making it up as they go, and following whatever road presents itself to them in the process.

The Plantser, as you might have guessed, is the union of a Planner and a Pantser. It is the best of both types, and involves some outlining or mind mapping, but not so much that there isn’t a little room for spontaneity. 

I am of the Pantser variety and what is known in the Nano world as a “rebel.” My project was not a novel, but a collection of short stories that I have been dreaming about for three years now. Since it doesn’t fall under the novel category, I join the rebel ranks which include nonfiction writers and purveyors of poetry. My first love will always be the short story, and also as a creative nonfiction writer I wear the rebel badge proudly.

While I do not profess to be much of a planner, that doesn’t mean I didn’t do my share of preparation before November 1st. Here are a few of the tricks I employed during the month to keep the creative juices flowing, and the stress level relatively manageable. 

Support System

I warned my family. Many times. This was too big a project to go it alone, and I needed my husband and daughter to understand that I had to write a minimum of 1,667 words per day to reach the goal. In the end they were my accountability partners, cheerleaders, and figurative punching bags when things got tough and I needed to vent!  

Adding to my corner of the writing ring, I enrolled in a class here at ASU designed specifically for NaNoWriMo participants. Starting in October, the class was centered around one goal and one goal only—to get you to 50,000 words. Among the tools and assignments was the craft book, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, motivational videos, taped lectures, and required word count screen shot submissions for extra accountability. A strong writing community grew out of this class—and while I was often too busy to actively socialize, I got some great advice and motivation out of my classmates.

The NaNoWriMo website itself ended up being a terrific source of support with national and local “write ins” and badges that you could earn for completing tasks like writing for seven, 14, and 21 days straight, among others. Their website became that one constantly open tab so I could enter my word count (even if it was just a couple of hundred words) quickly and easily. I can’t tell you how satisfying it was to see those numbers creep up each time I logged a session. 

Music to My Ears (and writing fingers) 

A couple of weeks prior to the start of NaNoWriMo, I read that having some writing rituals could help put writers in the best possible and creative headspace. This was nothing new to me, but one ritual in particular stood out as being especially helpful: music. Normally, when I write for a class I use the Rainy Mood website to create some nice background noise, but several sources recommended creating playlists to match the mood and tone of the novel. Since I was writing a collection of short stories, I ended up tweaking this idea and coming up with several playlists. Interview with a witch story? I listened to a lot of Stevie Nicks, and instrumentals. Coming of age story with a mother/daughter duo and a John Hughes obsession? The Pretty in Pink, Breakfast Club, and Sixteen Candles soundtracks became my muses. 

What Light Over Yonder Window Breaks

To bring a little ambience and atmosphere to my writing sessions, I added the element of fire. I started burning scented candles to help bring a little atmosphere to all those hours I spent bent over the laptop. There was something very soothing when, in the midst of some major writer’s block, I could breathe deeply and get a whiff of ocean air, vanilla toffee, or cafe fresco. Did it help the block? Not necessarily, but it did keep me from pitching my laptop out the window. 

Timing is Everything

When creating a writing schedule, I had every intention of writing first thing in the morning to begin my day. But you know what they say about the best laid plans. My writing schedule ended up being as pantsy as my process. When I discussed how difficult it was to write 1,667 words in one sitting (particularly when you have no outline, or other details to work off of) to my instructor, she recommended chunking.

This was one of many “aha!” moments during the month, and something I was already doing with my college coursework. Splitting up my writing sessions ended up being my savior. I would shoot for two sessions of 800 words, but often I would write bits and pieces throughout the day. In this regard, my obsessive rule of having a pen and notebook available at all times was on point. I was constantly jotting down bits of dialogue, action, setting and character details. And when I wasn’t writing, I was thinking about it. My family swears I didn’t hear a word they said for the whole month!

The Finish Line

Yes, I made it. On day 30 with just hours left in the challenge, I finished at 50,120 words, which broke down into five short stories. Was it worth it? Yes. Despite the days that I struggled to get to that 1,667 words. Despite not knowing what my characters were doing or saying, or where the story was headed. Even those days where I was just so mentally exhausted from life stuff (being a student, wife, mother, and employee) that I just couldn’t fathom writing one sentence—much less hundreds of words—it was worth it. Knowing that I was completing work that would have taken far longer to write in such a short period of time kept me going. 

So, What Now?

Just because November 30th has come and gone, and just because I won NaNoWriMo doesn’t mean it is over. Yes, I wrote over 50,000 words. But they are some of the messiest words ever to grace my Google Drive, and that is because I heeded all the advice and did not edit anything while I was writing. I. Just. Had. To. Get. The. Words. Down. So, I know I am going to look back at the work, scratch my head, and ponder “What the heck was I thinking?”

The real work of hard editing is ahead of me. I wrote drunk for thirty days and now I soberly have to edit (thank you Hemingway). But, to quote another writer, Jodi Picoult, “You can’t edit a blank page.” You also can’t submit blank pages to a publisher, an agent, or a literary magazine.

Would I do it again?

In a word? Yes. While the process was demanding, it was extremely motivating. NaNoWriMo took over my life for 30 days, and it was exactly the kick-in-the-pants that I needed to make strong progress on a three year-old idea.

There are a couple of things I would do differently. Although I am a Pantser, I would conjure up some more story ideas prior to NaNoWriMo’s start. It was tricky to both brainstorm and write in such a short amount of time. While I did like splitting up the writing, I would try to do more of it in the morning hours—evenings became difficult for me to write after long days of classes, work, and family responsibilities. I can see myself planning an extra hour in the morning to get a jump start. Other than that I am definitely on board for next year, and I even have a new collection in mind. 

Are you a NaNoWriMo writer? What was your experience? And if not, would you consider taking the challenge and losing yourself in wordsmithing for a month?

Write on!

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