I first learned about NaNoWriMo all the way back in 2001. A friend of mine was participating and enthusing about how much crazy fun it was. I sort of had aspirations of being a novelist at the time—my creative writing focus to that point had been mostly in poetry and writing novels for a living seemed like a pipe dream—but it just seemed so insane. Writing an entire novel in a month? Really?
I opted out that year because I was writing a thesis, but this same friend sent me an email the following September. NaNoWriMo was coming up again and I wasn’t in school anymore. Would I like to take up the challenge? Sure, I though. What the heck do I have to lose?
NaNoWriMo is about a lot more than just trying to bang out a novel. I learned that pretty quickly during my first attempt in 2002. I was new to New York City and looking to meet people, so when participants in the local forum started going, “Hey, we should all get together!” I was happy to go meet my fellow writers. A few of the people I met that first year are still my close friends, in fact.
I had an idea for a mystery novel that I’d been sitting on all summer, so I decided to write that, and I learned a few valuable lessons about planning and improvisation and why editing during November is a terrible idea. I’m not sure the effort was entirely successful—the novel was disjointed and poorly paced and swiftly abandoned once November was over. But I loved the experience so much that I signed up to be a Municipal Liaison the next year.
Every year that I’ve participated, I’ve learned something new about my writing and my process. I’ve learned that I can’t start on November 1 with no idea at all, nor should I make too rigid a plan. I’ve learned how to turn off my inner editor when I’m writing. I’ve learned to keep on plowing forward without looking back until December. I’ve learned that some of my best ideas come when I’m not trying too hard to find them. And most of all, I’ve learned that a novel can, in fact, be written in a month, or at least the rough draft of one.
And on a less personal level, I’ve learned: there isn’t a lot about writing that is universal. A lot of writing advice is BS because not everything works for every writer. Some of us are plotters, others are pantsers. Some writers need to carefully plan out every word as they go, others have to pound out a draft and revise carefully later. For some people, NaNoWriMo is completely anathema to the way they write and so it can’t be done. Some people write 100,000+ words during November just to do it and not with dreams of publication in mind. Some writers take their craft very seriously. Some just write for fun.
Here are two truths about NaNoWriMo, though:
- The whole point is to get yourself to do something you never would have done otherwise.
- The community is invaluable and can help you reach success.
To elaborate: Most of us are busy. We’ve got jobs, school, spouses, pets, children, mortgages, broken appliances, second jobs, social lives, and so on. Finding the time in there to write a novel is tough, even if it’s something you’ve always dreamed of doing. NaNoWriMo is like an organized excuse. You sign up to do it and then make the time. Maybe you let the dishes sit in the sink an extra day or get your spouse to take the kids out of the house or let your regular TV shows languish on the DVR for a couple of weeks. You squeeze in writing during your commute or while your kid is at soccer practice or on your lunch break at work. Signing up for NaNoWriMo means you make the time to write that you wouldn’t have otherwise. That novel you’ve always wanted to write might become a real thing now, and realizing that dream can be powerful and rewarding.
In my region, we’ve found anecdotally that writers who come to our public events are more likely to cross the finish line than those who don’t. There are a lot of reasons this is true. I think primarily it’s that writing is a largely solitary endeavor, but participating in NaNoWriMo introduces you to a whole community of people who can help and support you. Another key reason is that, at write-ins, we have enforced writing time. You may know this as a sprint.
In New York, we didn’t figure out how great word sprints were until a few years into my tenure as ML. Actually, our early gatherings were mostly social endeavors; hardly anyone ever brought their computers. So even when we started doing write-ins, they sometimes devolved into everyone chatting instead of writing. What’s the best way to get everyone to shut up and get writing? We’d set an egg timer for 10 or 15 minutes and then everyone would just shut up and type.
The average for a 10 minute sprint in our region is 300-400 words. For a 15 minute sprint, it’s closer to 600. So that could mean that you can do just three 15 minute sprints each night and hit your daily 1,667 words, no problem. Right?
We try to do a few sprints at every New York City write-in, and we do them at our online chat-room write-ins, too. It can be a really effective way to get your writing done for the day. And it doesn’t even have to be ridiculous—sure, sometimes a sprint can devolve into zaniness in your manuscript, but I’ve also used sprints to help me reason out how a scene is supposed to progress. I’ve come up with brand new characters and plot points during sprints, and I’ve powered through scenes that were difficult to write during sprints.
Nora Roberts once said, “You don’t find time to write. You make time.” And that’s what NaNoWriMo is all about.
ABOUT ERIN O’BRIEN
Erin O’Brien is a writer/editor in New York City. In her spare time, she writes romance novels under a pseudonym (a few of them have even been published!). She’s a NYC municipal liaison for NaNoWriMo and an annoying overachiever. She blogs sometimes at www.fshk.tumblr.com.