Every November, my Twitter feed lights up with chatter about National Novel Writing Month (known as NaNoWriMo or NaNo for short). As a previous NaNo winner — someone who hit the 50,000-word goal by November 30 — I usually offer an encouraging tweet or two.
Then I move on. I loved my experience with NaNo. Never have I felt more connected to the global writing community or has my writing life felt so intentionally connected to my normal-adult-world life. All the same, I doubt I’ll participate again.
NaNo taught me I could finish a manuscript
NaNo was kind of like that teenage romance whose teary-eyed breakup speech always includes the line “but we learned so much from each other.” It was exhilarating while I was in it but I feel a little too old for something so all-consuming nowadays.
I participated in — and won — my first and only NaNo in November 2009. I’d never completed a full-length novel draft before. The public accountability and performative nature of the event, the hashtags, the feverish graphing of progress, not to mention the deadline all helped push me over the finish line. At a few minutes after 11:00 p.m. on November 30, I learned I was capable of finishing a novel. Even if I never do another NaNo, I’ll carry that victory forever.
Winning NaNo doesn’t mean you have a finished book
I should clarify that NaNo proved I was capable of finishing a novel draft. A finished novel is something else entirely.
I’ve heard agents receive a flood of queries after November. This makes me cringe. I wrapped up November 2009 with a solid first draft. Those pages were nowhere near beta-reader-ready, let alone agent-query-ready. I bet that’s true of 99.9 percent of all winning NaNo drafts when the sun rises on them December 1.
That’s not to downplay the NaNo victory. Without it, I wouldn’t have the manuscript I’m still polishing today.
That’s right folks, I’m still working on my 2009 NaNo “winner”
You read that correctly: today, November 5, 2019, finds me digging back into edits on a manuscript I finished drafting on November 30, 2009. It pains me to type these words. I realize we’re talking about 10 years here. However, I finished that first draft as a very young writer and a very young person. I had a lot to learn.
To be clear, I haven’t fussed over the same words for 10 years. I’ve moved on and worked on ideas for a couple other novels and short stories. I write for two blogs professionally and one for fun. Between October 2017 and May 2018 I drafted and polished a successful book. I’ve done other work.
I’ve also taken several long breaks from my NaNo manuscript. Most recently, I closed the project last fall and officially called it done: I could do no more. I also didn’t look at it for at least a year after my son was born. My 10-year relationship with it has been very much on-again, of-again.
But I believe in the story. As long as I continue to grow as a writer — which I’ve done a tremendous amount — and continue to find good and satisfying work to do on it, I will. Yes, I’m embarrassed to admit I’m still working on it. I also think it’s very close to its ultimate destiny and I don’t care if everyone else has given up on it. I haven’t, and I’ll be there with the champagne when it makes it onto someone’s bookshelf.
I probably don’t need NaNo now, but I needed it then
In a way, NaNo dragged me across the finish line before I had the slightest idea what I was doing. My NaNo manuscript has taught me a great deal since then — none of which I would’ve learned without the crappy first draft I churned out in those 30 days. NaNo gave me a beginning. From that beginning I grew a rich writing life.
That life has changed dramatically over the course of a decade. When I wrote my NaNo manuscript I was childless and working a full-time 9-to-5 job. Now I’m a write-from-home mom of a first-grader. I prioritize my writing on a daily basis in a way I didn’t back then. When I need to make major progress on a project, I have the flexibility to schedule a writing retreat where I go out of town by myself for a few days. In many ways, I can NaNo whenever I want (or need) to.
I also might need to write a book during a month that isn’t November, or I might be deep into revision mode with another manuscript when NaNo rolls around. Now that I know I can finish a book, it’s easier for me to do it on my own terms. I may have needed NaNo for that first win, but I can take it on my own from here.
NaNo’s most important lesson: you need to make sacrifices for your writing
If NaNo taught me and its other winners we were capable of more output than we thought, the why is as important as the what. It wasn’t just the mutual accountability and the public nature of our drafting process. NaNo’s deadline forced us to aggressively prioritize our writing in a way that might have made us uncomfortable without a global event to back us up.
A lot of choices are what I refer to with my six-year-old as “insteads.” If you go out with friends another night this week, that’s an instead. If you take a night off and watch Gossip Girl reruns, that’s an instead. You’re doing these things instead of making progress on your novel.
Sometimes this is okay. Our brains and our social relationships need regular maintenance or they won’t be there when we need them. However, NaNo forces a lot of writers to do this math for the first time: if I want to finish in 30 days, I need to average 1,667 words per day. If I skip a day, that number goes up. Our insteads ought to be both intentional and worth the tradeoff.
1,667 words isn’t so many if you close Mail and Twitter and Slack and put away your phone. Perhaps that’s the best lesson NaNo can give: whether you’ve been through 10 years and just as many drafts or you’re writing a story for the first time, it needs your attention. Share your goals and make choices that support them. NaNo provides an excellent framework to do this for the first time. Ultimately you need to develop the mindset and work ethic to do it on your own. If nothing else, that NaNo draft is going to need it come December.