5 Things I’ve Learned from National Novel Writing Month
In the fall of 2013, I was taking a year off from college while I tried to figure out what I wanted to major in. I didn’t have a job, and despite my love of writing and my lifelong dream of becoming a published author, I hadn’t written anything in months. Call it writer’s block, call it a lack of inspiration, call it a not-quite-quarter-life crisis. Either way, I was worried that I might never write another piece of fiction again.
Then I heard about National Novel Writing Month — also known as NaNoWriMo or NaNo — an event that has occurred every November since 1999. The goal? To write at least 50,000 words of a novel in just thirty days.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of writers around the world take on this challenge. In 2013, I participated for the first time and it was just what I needed to break out of my writer’s block. I wrote over 53,000 words that year, and I’ve “won” NaNoWriMo every November since then. 2021 will be my ninth year participating in NaNoWriMo. Here are five lessons I’ve learned along the way.
1. Writing is a solitary activity, but it doesn’t have to be lonely.
One of the best things about NaNoWriMo is the knowledge that there are so many other people doing exactly what you’re doing — squeezing in writing sessions during work breaks, brainstorming plot points when they should be going to sleep, sitting at their laptops battling writer’s block. When it’s mid-November and I’m starting to wonder if I can make it this year, I remember that I’m not the only one struggling. Somehow, that always gives me the motivation I need to keep going.
NaNoWriMo’s website has a Community tab with a forum for connecting with writers all around the world, as well as a chat space for reaching out to writers in your area. Even if you don’t take advantage of these features, it’s still comforting to know that you’re not the only one on this adventure.
2. You can’t always wait for inspiration to strike.
Every writer knows what a great feeling is when you get a spark of inspiration. I find myself most often inspired by other books, movies, TV shows, and songs. But if I only wrote when I felt inspired, I would never get any writing done. Inspiration is fleeting and fickle, and as nice as it is to have that sudden lightbulb moment, you can’t count on it to happen every day.
NaNoWriMo is all about showing up; no matter how I’m feeling on any given day in November, even if writing is the last thing I want to do, I show up and write at least one sentence. This is one of the best lessons NaNoWriMo has taught me — the most important part of writing is showing up, because if you sit down in front of the keyboard, something will come out, and something is always better than nothing.
3. Editing has no place in the first-draft stage.
The focus of NaNoWriMo is getting words onto the page. It doesn’t matter if the words flow well together, if they make sense, or even if they’re spelled correctly. You may be thinking: “What’s the point of writing something if it’s a mess?” The answer is that it gives you something to work with later. You can’t edit a blank page, but you can edit the 50,000 words you wrote during NaNoWriMo.
The key to reaching that goal is to not edit as you go. When you write a scene and immediately go back to “fix” it, it can ruin the creative flow you’ve gotten into, or make you second-guess yourself and wonder if you should keep going. The only time I look back at previously-written scenes during NaNo is when I need to remind myself of a plot point or a character name. Other than that, I just keep pushing myself toward that 50,000-word mark. And when my inner editor starts to creep into my head, I tell it to go away and come back later, when the first draft is done — but no sooner.
4. Planning is an essential step for some writers, but it’s not necessary.
NaNoWriMo writers tend to fall into one of two camps: planners, who outline their novels well before November and know exactly the story they want to tell; and “pantsers,” who prefer to fly by the seat of their pants and write without any specific plans in mind. If you were to ask my friends and family which group they think I fall into, I know they’d all guess I’m a planner. In every other aspect of my life, I plan things well in advance as much as possible. So it’s shocking, even to me, that I’m a NaNo pantser.
Every November 1st, I begin with an idea for that year’s novel and a loose idea of where I want the story to go, but I don’t typically have an outline. NaNo is one of the only — if not the only — aspect of my life where I can let go and be spontaneous. Knowing that I have only 30 days to write 50,000 words makes it easier to not second-guess myself and to allow the story to tell itself without overthinking.
5. Your writing can be just for you, not for anyone else.
It has been my dream to be a published author since I was a child. I daydream of walking into a bookstore and seeing my name on a cover, or of a reader reaching out to me to say that my book meant something to them. I currently have one fully-edited novel and am in the process of querying literary agents. But I also have several unfinished drafts of other novels, most of them written during NaNo, that I don’t think will ever be read by anyone other than myself — and that’s okay. Not every draft I’ve written during NaNo is particularly good in my eyes, but I believe that every word I’ve written; every draft I’ve written, has made me a better writer. Writing can be fun and experimental — it doesn’t always have to be productive in the traditional sense.
NaNoWriMo has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, and I have no plans to stop dedicating every November of my life to it. If you’d like to participate in this year’s event, all you have to do is sign up for an account at nanowrimo.org. And on November 1st, be ready to join hundreds of thousands of other writers striving to reach 50,000 words.