My First NaNoWriMo
Updated: Jun 3
It was November 5, 2017, when I first heard the word NaNoWriMo.
I'd been writing short stories--well, starting short stories. I couldn't finish them. I blamed it on my 2.5 year old and 1 month old, and how my sleeping hours were plagued with dreams of losing one child or the other in varying horrible ways. I didn't call myself a writer, not when I couldn't even finish a 500-word story.
Enter NaNoWriMo. National Novel Writing Month: write 50,000 words during the month of November, racing against myself.
A weird, extreme challenge? I loved it. It was already November 5, but I didn't care. I would do this strange thing, and I would win.
I did the math: I had to write 1,925 words each day to make it to 50,000 by the end of the month. I'd never written 1,000 words in a row, let alone 10,000, but I was determined to succeed, and if you know me, when I decide to do something (the weirder, the better), I do it. Period.
Did I plot anything out, build my characters, consider story structure or beats? No. I hadn't even heard the terms. I just opened a Google Doc and wrote. Words. As many as I could, about whatever was in my head (in this case, an orphan with powers, of course.)
Within a day, I realized that I couldn't write with two small kids on top of me. I tried writing while the toddler was at daycare and the baby napping, but that didn't work; there was too much to do during those quiet minutes. After both kids went to bed seemed the ideal time, but with the toddler's crib in the living room and the baby in our bedroom, the only remaining locations were the kitchen (where my partner worked), the dark hallway (a light might wake the babies), or the bathroom.
So I wrote in the bathroom--on the toilet, on the floor, in the bathtub. I wrote in the bathroom every. Single. Night.
I can still remember that stress-ache in my chest that first night as I reached 1,000 words and saw the remaining 900+ stretched endlessly out before me. Fifty more word felt like an impossible feat.
After five days, I decided I couldn't spend hours staring at the screen every night, trying to think of what to write. I needed to sleep before the baby woke up. So I came up with a plan (still no plotting--learned about that later).
Whenever I had a quiet moment during the day, I'd think about what I'd written the previous night.
I'd ask myself "what if?"
What if her friend betrayed her? What if she fought back? What if the villain started crying? What if they had a dance party in the rain? What if they got drunk and broke a window?
Any old 'what if' got the ideas flowing.
I emailed myself my 'what ifs' in one long reply-thread throughout the day.
When it came time to write, I'd review the email thread and it would fling me back into my story with a clear idea of where to go next.
Words came faster with the story already in my head. Twists and turns made writing more fun, which increased my word count. When I got stuck, which of course I still did, I'd put in a NaNo writing prompt. It didn't fit into my story, but I could fix that later.
I let go of the 50K goal: a chapter or scene a day was my new endpoint, and I wouldn't allow myself to look at my word count until the end of each writing session. If I didn't hit my daily word count goal, I'd go back into my scene and check for these three things:
Description (what does my POV character notice in this scene?)
5 senses (are at least 3 of them used in this scene?)
Is there a good balance between dialogue and description?
These three checklist items got me past the finish line each night, if the story itself didn't. And they improved the quality of my scenes, which is a big deal when you're writing this quickly.
When I hit 10K and got the little NaNoWriMo badge, I can't tell you how excited I was. 10,000 words from my brain onto the page. 10,000 words! In the end, I made it all the way to 50,000 words by November 31st. It wasn't easy, the story was a mess, I was an emotional wreck from lack of sleep, but I proved something to myself (and to everyone who knew me): I can write a novel-length story in a short amount of time. And if I can do it once, I can do it again.
I did NaNoWriMo again the next year, and the next. Each time, I gave myself a chapter-a-day goal, and used the 'What Ifs' and the three scene checklist items to keep the story moving. With each badge, I proved to myself once again that I could do this seemingly impossible challenge.
I didn't revise any of these drafts (didn't even know about revision) until NaNoWriMo 2019. That story turned into the first book I queried in 2020. In August 2020 I did my own private NaNoWriMo (AugNoWriMo?) and drafted the book that got me my agent. By this time, I knew what I needed to do before I began drafting: build my characters, plan my story beats, do a bit of pre-writing from my protagonist's POV. Then it was go-time.
NaNoWriMo isn't for everyone. It's fast, it's hectic, but it's what pushed me from 500-word stories to 50,000 word stories. It taught me that I can meet deadlines. It convinced me that I could be a writer.
If you're unsure or nervous about the idea, I say, go for it. If you're deep in it right now, keep going! Most of all, make NaNo work for you. You're competing against yourself, after all, so you get to set the rules (and change them). In the end, if you write 1,000 new words, or 10,000, that's more than what you had before.