Amanda Hare is a multi-genre writer currently seeking an agent. She is active on Wattpad under the handle 'sacredlilac'.
"I won NaNoWriMo."
"I won NaNoWriMo."
It's not a phrase that ever really mattered to me before this year.
As with most people, 2020 threw me for a loop for a whole variety of reasons. One of the results of the tumult was complete writer's block for six months. As a person who processes emotion through her writing, this was a very bad thing. I knuckled down and rode it out, however.
So when people started batting around the question "Are you going to do NaNoWriMo this year?" at the end of September and into October, my mental fingers flexed.
Nervous about attempting NaNoWriMo?
Was I ready to tackle this month long writing marathon?
Twice before I'd attempted to do NaNoWriMo and failed to complete it due to circumstances beyond my control. I know this writing challenge is a personal race, so it wasn't such a problem to not finish before. There continue to be events going on in my life this year that may or may not derail my ability to put in the time necessary to get the words down.
However, this year, I wanted to test if I was ready to get back in the writing ring. Had I shaken off the writer's block completely?
With all that in mind, I decided to take the plunge and see how far I got. As November approached my nervous excitement grew.
These are a few of the lessons I learned along the way:
Choose a project you are fired up about
Last year a reader commented that a short story I'd written was a great opening chapter for a book. Would I be expanding it? he asked. I'd already had the same thought, and hearing it reflected back just confirmed it.
Then Lockdown hit and along with it, writer's block. For six long months.
However, the characters in that story didn't stop talking to me the whole time. They would pop up with ever-increasing regularity telling me about things happening in their world. They really wanted their story told. The more they spoke to me, the more excited I got about getting it down on, er, paper.
So, despite my nerves about the writer's block cropping up again, I was excited to write these characters' story, which got me fired up to rearrange my schedule and hit the daily word limit.
I expected the story I had chosen to just reach the 50,000 word limit, but in the back of my mind, I also had another story already chosen in case I needed to fill in the word count at the end (which I did) or switch projects.
Being so excited about writing this particular book helped me to stay dedicated to the sacrifices it took to get my daily word count in.
Announce your intention
I've had a mixed bag of results with the advice to 'announce your intention' so that the public knowledge of your goal would push you to reach it.
For some reason, I felt that this was the goal that public announcement would help. And it did, because...
…And get a couple of buddies
When I announced my intention on Twitter and Wattpad to do NaNoWriMo this year, I was surprised when a few other people came forward saying they were thinking of doing it to. We discussed our nerves and some hemmed and hawed about whether they would tackle the challenge or not. After a bit of back and forth in messages, we all decided to help each other off the fence and commit to doing our best to win NaNo.
It helped to know others were feeling like I was. Although I always knew I would 'be doing NaNo' with possibly millions of other writers, this small group made it real for me. They became a little support group that I didn't even know I needed. We posted our word counts and cheered each other on. A couple of us kept up with reading each other’s ongoing books.
At the end of October, there were about ten people in this group of buddies. As I moved through November, I discovered that, for me, three seemed to be the ideal amount I could stay in contact with regularly. I had made a private twitter list of NaNo buddies, added people's prepped books to a NaNo list on Wattpad, and added buddies on the official NaNoWriMo site, but in the end, there were four of us that held together.
Take a couple of days off midway
About the mid-point of NaNo, I was tired from lack of sleep and from the mental fatigue that came with having pushed myself through mental calisthenics I wasn’t used to.
One day, I was sitting on the floor of my kids’ bedroom while they were snuggling down in bed…and woke up hours later! Once I woke up with my face stuck to the carpet. Another time I woke up still sitting in the same position. Then I fell asleep at my keyboard. On these days, I had managed to write on each of these days, but I hadn’t made my word count on each one. There was also a sneaking suspicion in the back of my mind that the chapters I wrote while so tired weren’t my best, either. I knew it was NaNo and wasn’t expecting a perfect polished product, but my writer-brain sensed that there were plot holes my tired eyes weren’t seeing.
My body was sending me a signal: It needed rest.
So, I decided to take two days off to recharge. It was the best NaNo decision I ever made. I did nothing more exciting than go to bed early (i.e. at the same time as my kids!)
After my mini-writing vacation, however, I was recharged and ended up not only finishing the novel, but finishing it five days early! As I hadn’t met the word count for NaNo, I was able to go on to another project and finish my words there.
Remember It's A Personal Competition Against Yourself
Before NaNo started and throughout the month, I reminded myself and a couple of my buddies that this was a personal challenge. Sure it was a contest, but the only contestant was ourselves.
So, no pressure!
If we didn't finish, who cared? If we did finish, bonus!
At the end of the month, if we’d only written 12, 000 words or all 50,000, it was that many more words we didn’t have before. Yay us!
Maps make the going easier
Long before I had planned to do NaNo, I began to jot down the ideas or snippets of conversation my characters were telling me. I ended up with a big jumble of bits that were like a jigsaw puzzle just dumped on the ground. I could see the corner pieces of my story in the beginning, a possible scene or two in the middle, and the climax, but the overall picture was still pretty fuzzy.
When I wrote my first book, all I knew was the beginning and end. The book got written, but it was so full of holes and problems it took me two years to edit it. Gah! My second book I knew a bit more, but again, it took almost a full year and a half of editing to get it up to the point where I sent it out to agents.
(For any pantsers out there, I know you just roll with the story as it goes along! Keep on rolling and writing, dear friends!)
After those two experiences, I learned that for my writing journey, it’s better to take the time in the beginning to sit and figure out where the story is going to go. I’ve found KM Weiland’s book Outlining Your Novel and the companion Outlining Your Novel Workbook to be invaluable for my planning. During my writer’s block time, I picked up the workbook and went through the exercises mentally with the characters and story that became my NaNo project.
I've also been studying the 'Save The Cat!' beats and when I felt the block was lifting, started applying them to the ideas, getting them into a cohesive order. Although the original Save The Cat! is for screenplays, it can be adapted to novels, or you can just buy the Save The Cat! Writes A Novel book!
I set up a corkboard, wrote out the beats on squares of paper (just scrap I had prepped), and my plan for each beat.
By the time November rolled around, I had a full outline of the novel. During the month, the chapters wrote themselves. Except...
When the characters went off plan!
At one point, my characters swerved off plan. And I mean, they went in a completely different direction by staying put.
I wanted them to go into town. The sequence was all ready for them to be vulnerable to an attack. But… they were adamant they would have a confrontation with a mean old man on a farm. They refused to go into town and be attacked. (Thankfully I realised this scene will work very well in book 2!)
Characters have hijacked my plans before, so that wasn’t a completely new experience. However, I was extra nervous because this was NaNo and I didn't want to have to spend time re-writing. I needed to get this story cranked out.
Then I reminded myself the characters know what they are doing. They've been telling me their universe for a long time now. They know what they want? Give it to them. Let them take over my fingers and see what happened.
In addition, if the deviation sucked (which it didn't and worked out infinitely better than the plan), the words being written still counted towards my NaNo goal.
So, I took a deep breath and dove in.
The Point Of "Well, If It Sucks, At Least I'm Having Fun"
Although I didn't hit this point in the same way, one of my writing buddies tweeted one day that he had hit the "Well, if it sucks, at least I'm having fun" stage. He was having imposter syndrome doubts and second guessing his story. Later he posted that he had slogged through and was happy with where it was going.
Phew! What we writers go through for our craft!
Writing vs Quality Of Life
That being said, there is a point where anyone in any profession needs to take a hard look at how their pursuit of their craft is impacting their quality of life.
A few times through NaNo I ended up staying up late or getting up very early in order to get in some quiet writing time when the kids were asleep. This resulted in me getting really, really tired. A tired brain doesn't write well. Very few writers will say they enjoy the editing process, and tired writing often leads to more editing, at least for me.
Being tired is also likely to make you cranky. Cranky is bad. It leads to more petty fights and an unhappy environment.
My schedule is normally packed without trying to fit in my NaNo goal. So, in order to get the 2,000 words a day I was averaging, I had to take the time from the only place I could other than sleeping hours: my free time.
Don't get me wrong, I love writing. It is work that brings me great joy. However, everyone needs a break away from their work in order to come back to it fresh. Having no time to chill out meant that my brain got tired of going over the same information. I needed time to daydream looking at clouds.
For me, it was two days of mini-vacation where I did no writing or reading of my book.
After that, I was refreshed and raring to get back to writing which meant Mrs Crankypants was gone and our household was much, much happier.
It’s okay to need a break. It’s imperative to take one if you need it. Even a walk around the block in the fresh air can be all you need to charge your batteries. Take it and leave Crankypants on the doorstep.
How Much Can I Actually Write?
Having twice produced a novel of 70,000+ words in a month, albeit with slightly different circumstances, I knew going into NaNo that I was able to make the word count.
The single most valuable gem I discovered from my 2020 NaNo experience is my optimal daily word count. With my current load of two young kids and two part-time jobs, the amount I can write on an average day without breaking a sweat is somewhere between 500-1,000 words, depending on the day.
Am I swooning in frustration that it's not higher? Not at all. If I can regularly churn out 500 words a day that's a month of flash fictions or a completed 50,000 word novel every three and a half months or so. Considering I have over 200 story ideas and at least a dozen partially mapped out, I can live with that.
Would I do NaNo again?
You bet. However, I think I’ll wait until my kids are older and in school full time. Just those extra afternoon hours will make all the difference to giving me the balance between my writing goals and quality of life.
Would I recommend it other writers? Sure! I'd advise them to always remember it's a race against yourself though, and if you don't win, who cares! Maybe March or June are better months for this kind of goal for that person. Maybe the pressure of this kind of output isn't conducive to motivating them.
As long as you don't give up, if you get down 1,000 words or the whole 50, 000, you made some progress writing. Just keep at it.