I made a book!
Last year I participated in NaNoWriMo for the first time. If the 10 oddly capitalized characters in that last sentence mean nothing to you, NaNoWriMo is a yearly challenge to write 50,000 words in the month on November. I’d been vaguely interested in the concept since first hearing about it over a decade ago. In 2019, I participated, won, and emerged with a finished novella. Why did I do this, how did I manage it, and what did I learn?
I participated in 2019 because I finally had permission. The instructor of an after-work creative writing class gave me permission to write about my experiences and things that I love even if they aren’t profound. To write a novel I don’t have to hold myself to the standards of great literature. The format of Nano gave me permission to suck. Getting words down on the page is the only goal, and the fast pace of the month guarantees that what you write will suck. To get 1667 words a day out of your head and into the world, there’s no time for second-guessing yourself. It’s a time-bounded challenge, and rather extreme, like running a marathon.
Similarly to how victory for a first-time marathoner is participation, my expectations were low for my first year. I suspected that I would write for one week, then fall off and give up. Two things helped me not only participate but finish. First, I tried to get at least half of my word count for the day in before starting work. At the end of a long day, sitting down to bang out 1667 words is daunting. If I’d already committed 800 or so before work, the idea of getting to 1667 in the evening was much more attainable. Sunk-cost fallacy—time to make those cognitive biases work in your favor. My second trick was writing by hand. Though it is more time-consuming, I prefer hand-writing to typing for creative efforts. When typing on a device I’m subject to endless distractions that are a tab away, hand-writing forces focus. It was an unusual choice, most of my fellow participants thought I was nuts, but it worked well for me. I pantsed my first NaNo project (vs. plotting), at least for the first third. Setting up characters and situation is the part I find easy, but once I’m in second-act territory I needed to work out an end-game.
I learned several things from my NaNo adventure last year. The first is that I could do it. As I mentioned earlier, I expected to fail and was surprised by success. Another surprise was how much I enjoyed the social aspect: attending writeins at local cafes and libraries, meeting people from varied walks of life who were working toward the same goal. I also learned that no, I’m not magic, and my first draft sucked. The story was bad. So was my writing. The year that’s passed since November 2019 I’ve learned a lot about the craft of writing in editing the first draft of my first novel. Still, completing even a terrible novel made me proud.
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