NaNoWriMo: Words, Crunch, and What I Learned

So this happened:


During the month of November, I participated in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo to the uninitiated), during which anyone anywhere can attempt to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. This was my fourth foray into NaNo (for the even more initiated), but my first attempt since 2011. Can I do this? I wondered on the night of October 31. After all, I have a way more packed schedule than I did three years ago. The little glittery angel on my shoulder had other ideas: You haven’t written a first draft since your last NaNo. There’s an idea your best friend gave you in 2013 that you’ve been obsessing about for months. You love your characters, you have a story. You have to do this.

I listened, because I can’t resist glitter. I even skipped a Halloween party to get started at midnight, because I’m just that hard-core or pathetic, depending on whom you ask.

And on November 30, as my sister drove the two of us and our brother back north after a Thanksgiving weekend with our parents, with a 90’s playlist and the highway stretched ahead of us, I clocked in at 51,660 words.

Like all first drafts, this one’s total shit. It needs major, major rewrites and edits. In fact, I already know one big thing that I’m likely going to change. I fully expect my beta readers to tear it apart, which is exactly what it needs to get in shape.

That said, the great thing about NaNoWriMo, the reason I keep coming back, is that at the beginning of the month, my first draft only exists in the crowded space of my brain. As of November 30, it’s a real thing. It exists on paper! (Or at least on a computer screen, until I print it.) I can mark it up electronically and physically, as much as I please. I can tear the thing apart! But finally, I have a thing to tear.

I like to think I’ve grown as a writer since my NaNo cherry was popped in 2009. Here are a few things I learned this year:

  • I have a process. If you’ve ever NaNo’d, you’ve heard the endless debate of pants-ing (making stuff up as you go along, aka flying by the seat of your pants) vs. plotting (self-explanatory). What works best for my NaNo is a) obsessing over the characters and plot for MONTHS (possibly the whole calendar year or more), and b) writing it all down in November. My best friend gave me the idea for this draft in June 2013. I could have attempted to write the first draft last November, but for various reasons, that month was absolutely bonkers. The whole YEAR was bonkers, really. Meaning any writing I wasn’t getting paid for got pushed aside. I was still incorporating edits into another novel. I wasn’t ready. In 2014, I re-devoted myself to this story. I wrote pages of notes on my laptop and in two different notebooks. By the time November 1 rolled around, I was psyched to get started. Just like with any creative method, this isn’t going to work for everyone, but I’ve found it’s most effective for me.
  • I can deviate from my schedule if needed. In 2009, 2010, and 2011, I was working at day jobs during which I had a designated lunch hour. That was the time I wrote — in the middle of the day, I could crank out my word count. (The beauty of a first draft is that I can and do pad my word count like gangbusters.) However, I’m now in a job where I don’t really take more than a coffee break. Moreover, the office has been pretty hectic this month, and outside of work, I was taking a weekly writing class that did not overlap with the subject matter of my novel at all. And did I mention I was sick for several days at the beginning of November? In some ways, though, all of the above did wonders for my flexibility. I wrote when I was laid up with a fever and bacterial infection. I typed between work and reviewing shows. I banged out words while my dinner was cooking at 10 p.m. before hopping in the shower. When traveling (as I did two different weekends in November), I made the most of time in planes, trains, and automobiles. And Flying Spaghetti Monster bless coffee shops. If I had spare time and room to type, I wrote.
  • It’s okay to play. As it stands, my first draft is narrated by three different characters. One speaks in first person present, one in third person present. The third POV is more intermittent, and it’s in second person. The second half takes place a decade after the first half. I have no idea if any of this works. And that’s okay! Anne Lamott’s advice about “shitty first drafts” (i.e. everything starts as one) became my mantra this November. And there’s something freeing about that.
  • If I fall behind, it’s not the end of the world. One mid-November night I sat at a Starbucks, frantically pounding away on my keyboard. I only had 40 minutes max to reach my word count before reviewing a play, and I knew by the time I got home I’d be too tired and fried from a full day of work and an evening at the theater. In walked my sister, my plus-one for the show, whom I hadn’t seen in a week. I wasn’t exactly going to tell her to be quiet while I wrote. So I fell behind that day. For a neurotic type A, that could have undone me. (I wish I were exaggerating, but if we’ve met, you know I’m not.) Instead, I dealt. I caught up later. Shit happens. My novel and I were just fine.
  • NaNo works for me. Over the years, NaNo has had many naysayers. I’ve never understood that: really, you’re going to discourage someone from creating? Really? For a while, I questioned whether participating in NaNo meant I wasn’t a “real” writer. Then I realized that for me, NaNo is the best way to pound out a first draft. I have a set daily word count that I can update on a website and see my progress. I have motivation to write every single day (sometimes I take Thanksgiving off. This year I did not — I just waited until everyone else was asleep or watching TV). I have a tangible goal, a deadline, and the knowledge that people all over the country are also drinking coffee, pulling their hair out and trying to put themselves in their characters’ shoes. (My characters wear Doc Martens.)

Of the six novels I’ve written since 2008, I’d say about four are readable. The one I’m proudest of started as a tiny idea and became my 2010 NaNo. I ripped that thing apart, stitched it back together and ripped it apart again. I made my most honest critique partner (see above best friend who also gives me ideas) read and rip apart countless drafts. I workshopped it in a year-long novel writing course. And then I wrote a query letter, vowing I wouldn’t stop emailing said letter until I got what I wanted.

And last month, it happened: I signed with a literary agent.

Thanks for the memories, NaNoWriMo. I’ll see ya in 2015.

By The Unprofessional Critic

Lauren Whalen is a freelance writer living in Chicago. She reviews plays for Chicago Theater Beat ( and talks about movies on The Film Yap ( Lauren's young adult novel is represented by Chalberg & Sussman Literary Agency. Say hi to her at maybeimamazed02(at)gmail(dot)com. (Photo by Greg Inda)

3 replies on “NaNoWriMo: Words, Crunch, and What I Learned”

Well done on everything!
I won as well, and haven’t spent even a split second thinking about the novel since. This year was tough, but it made me realise it really is about creating a shitty first draft, which I did. I mainly did it to get away from a ton of emotional stuff I was dealing with in October, so it’s 100% escapism, nothing that meant anything to me or “needed to get written”. It was all work and very little fun, but it gave me confidence and distance from all the crappy stuff going on in my head. So I guess it was all worth it.

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