My First NaNoWriMo: Things I Regret and Things I've Learned

My stats on the final day of NaNoWriMo!

Writing 1667 words every day is hard.

Call me naive, but I didn’t realize that until about halfway through November. 1667 words is not that much, so I thought it wouldn’t be a problem, but the thing with NaNoWriMo is that you have to write every. single. day. Skip one day and you feel the repercussions of it for the rest of the week, maybe longer. Have a bad day and only get 300 words and it doesn’t just mean one bad day—it means that hitting your 1667-word goal the next day is just keeping you from falling farther behind, and you’re still not on track.

A little past the mid-point, I realized I couldn’t win NaNo this year. I had several days in a row in which I wrote fewer than 1K words, which in NaNo terms feels almost worthless. I fought it for a while, convinced I could still catch up, because I’m a masochist and a perfectionist and backing down from a challenge feels like admitting I’m a failure.

But then I realized that, even if I won, it wouldn’t count anyway: I was working on a re-write of a five-year-old draft, and toward the middle of November I started to pull in material from the previous draft. I was rewriting some, but not all of it. I was cheating, but it made sense for my book and for my forward momentum not to try to fix what wasn’t (entirely) broken. So I finally admitted to myself that I couldn’t win either way and took a huge load off my shoulders.

Still, I decided I’d keep trying to hit the daily goals as much as I could. I wouldn’t try to verify a win if I did get it, because I wasn’t producing 100% new material, but I’d use the deadlines and the creative energy in the community to motivate myself.

In the end I managed to make NaNoWriMo work for me and help me further my writing goals, even though I didn’t win or even play by most of the rules. I wrote 42K words, revised and new, during NaNo, bringing the total word count for my novel to just over 70,000 words and carrying me to the beginning of the epic showdown in which my characters face a warlock armed with their greatest fears.

So now, with November over, here are a few bits of wisdom I gleaned from participating in my first NaNoWriMo event:

Things I Regret

  • Not planning ahead, logistically speaking. I had a pretty solid outline (in my head, because I don’t write down outlines until at least the second draft) but I didn’t set aside specific writing time each day. I didn’t try to get ahead when things were going well, so I had no cushion for when things started to get harder.

  • Not realizing from the start that I wouldn’t be able to win even if I hit the 50K-word mark, because I wouldn’t be producing 100% new material. In other words, not planning ahead.

  • Attaching so much personal value to winning or losing (i.e., telling myself that if I failed, I was worthless) and beating myself up whenever I was behind—and more so when it became apparent that I wouldn’t catch up.

  • Comparing myself to other writers who were hitting the 40K-word mark halfway through the month or getting three or four thousand words a day regularly. My writing process is no less valid because it’s slower. I allowed myself to not write a masterpiece the first time through, but I still wanted to get a solid first draft that wouldn’t be a nightmare to edit later. That slowed me down, but future me will thank me for it.

  • Not writing every single day, even if I only produced a few hundred words. It does make a difference.

Things I Learned

  • I chose the wrong project for NaNoWriMo, but it was still the right project for me to work on at that time. My NaNo novel, The Warlock Snare, is the second book in a YA fantasy series—the first book is in the third draft, on hold until I have a complete first draft of the second book. I’d gained momentum on the project throughout September and October, and abandoning my WIP to start something new for NaNo would have been completely the wrong move.

  • The NaNoWriMo community is amazingly supportive and inspiring. On Twitter, I discovered the #LGBTQwrimo tag, run by @AmaraJLynn, who posted a new question every day during November. I got to talk about my project with other writers and hear about some amazing future books featuring queer characters that I will 100% have to pick up when they come out.

  • Google Docs is an awesome writing tool, especially when your laptop is this close to dying throughout the whole month of November.

  • “Deleted” stuff can still count towards your word goal (thanks to OhSheReads over on YouTube for this great advice video on how to win NaNo, which I watched too late). About twenty days in, I started changing the text color of sections I didn’t like. That helped me keep forward momentum while not forcing me to backtrack.

  • 1667 words can seem like almost nothing on a good day and an endless slog on a bad day.

Will I Participate Next Year?

I’m not sure. I love tracking my progress through the NaNoWriMo website, despite how much anxiety it gave me when I saw myself falling further and further behind. I got a TON done during the month of November—probably a lot more than I would have if I hadn’t participated. Above all, the community that builds around the event is fantastic and supportive, and I loved being a part of it.

On the other hand, I like to work at my own pace. That doesn’t necessarily mean writing slower, because when I’m writing a first draft, it’s best for me to get it out as fast as possible—while still trying to create a quality first draft—so I don’t get stuck. But NaNoWriMo won’t always coincide with when I want to begin a new book. In the next few years, I’ll probably be dedicated full-time to my series: write a draft, revise, write a draft of the next book, revise the previous book again, revise the next book, and so on. If I manage to make beginning a new draft coincide with next November, NaNoWriMo might work out perfectly for me. If not, I’ll probably skip it and keep chugging along with my current book at whatever stage of the process it is.

However, I’ll still try to keep apace of everyone else and absorb some of the inspiration and encouragement of the community—and send some out, too.