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Thoughts From A First-Time NaNoWrioMo Writer

Writing is hard. I just exemplified that idea be re-writing this sentence about 5 times. I don’t write creatively, but I admire those who do – especially my close, personal friends who are pushing through the stress and pressure and battle of writing a book.

This post is brought to you by my friend Mel Hamm, who you may remember from the much-lauded movie review of The Martian. She’s one of the funniest, smartest, kindest people I know and to add to her accomplishments, she’s also writing a YA book!

Mel decided to share her thoughts on her first experience with NaNoWriMo last month below!

Have you also participated in NaNoWrioMo? What was your first experience like?

Thoughts From A First-Time NaNoWrioMo Writer

nanowrimo first time experience

Image created by Eric Nyffeler

For those unfamiliar with NaNoWriMo, here’s a quick rundown:

The word itself (NaNoWriMo) is an acronym for National Novel Writing Month. Taking place each November, NaNoWriMo is a means for challenging anyone who dares to try and write a novel in a month. The basic premise is to knock out 1,667 words (approximately the length of this article) every day in November with a goal of writing 50,000 words by the month’s end.

I decided to take part in NaNoWriMo this year for a few different reasons, the first being I simply wanted to see if I could do it. I had a vague idea of a story in mind (a “novel” idea, if you will), and I thought I‘d try my hand at making something out of it. The second, more abstract reason was that I wanted to prove to myself that I could finish something I started (spoiler alert: I could not). The final major reason I wanted to try NaNoWriMo is also the most self-centered: I wanted to be able to say “I wrote a novel.” (Whether that novel ended up being any good or not was beside the point.) None of my reasons had anything to do with enlightening the world with my story because frankly, I wasn’t deluding myself into thinking it would be good enough to do so.

I set off on November 1st, a fiery ball of creative energy, and that first day, I wrote the bare minimum daily word count. And it was tough, tougher than I expected, but I thought if I could do it once, surely I could do it 29 more times. Little did I know, as the month progressed, it would only become more difficult.

Day 2, I did it again. I wrote my 1,667 words, but this time, it was somehow even tougher than the day before. It was only the second day, and I was becoming frustrated and depressed by how hard it was to force a story out of myself. By day 3, I had already contemplated quitting more times than I would like to admit.

nanowrimo first time thoughts

(Okay, I’ll admit it. It was seven times.)

I was jumping from present tense to past tense to past perfect progressive tense. I was beginning every other sentence with a pronoun. I started to think about all the books I had rated poorly on Goodreads. I decided that every book I read from now on is going to get 5 stars because hey, you wrote a book. You wrote a cohesive story. Go you.*

At this point, you’re probably thinking that it just went downhill from there, but I’m proud to say that it did not. (Although it may have saved me a lot of time in the long run if it had.) I learned something about myself in these first days that I’m surprised it took me so long to find out: I am a decent writer, but I am a pretty terrible story-teller. I’m good at exposition; I’m…less good at describing the leaves and the autumn sky. But, I started to realize that even though I wasn’t crazy about the overall story I was telling, there were parts of it that I was darn proud of.

Here’s an excerpt of something I’m relatively happy with:

“She had always had a hard time getting out of bed with only the polite nudging of the sun. Whenever possible, she would sleep long after the bright, solar alarm clock began its prodding, preferring to wear a sleep mask in order to pretend it was still the dead of night. But now that she had a job with a regular schedule, Annie had to rise before her starbright nemesis, and she could feel it mocking her for all those years she ignored it.”

And here’s something I can’t believe I ever let my fingers type:

“It was another lonely Saturday night, and the Hallmark Channel was starting off its Christmas season with the made-for-TV movie, Girls Just Wanna Have Christmas. Starring Luke Perry and Jessica Biel, this was the type of movie Linda considered her biggest guilty pleasure.”

After these first few days passed, I got into a groove, and words flowed a bit more easily. I tried to stop putting so much pressure on myself. I never expected to be Martha Stewart the first time I baked a pie, so I shouldn’t expect to write a brilliant novel in my first draft. Although I tried to loosen up, it was hard to find a balance between “Don’t try so hard!” and “If I’m not trying hard, then what’s the point?”

I got more familiar with my characters, and it was getting easier to imagine how they would act and react in different situations. Despite knowing the characters better, the process still felt rushed. Creating fully-fledged characters in a matter of days felt a lot like I’d imagine speed dating feels. Within mere minutes, I would learn all about a person’s (in this case, imaginary) childhood, career, hopes, dreams, etc., and it was hard to experience any real depth.

As the days went on, sometimes I met my goal, and sometimes I did not. The days my word count fell short quickly outnumbered the days it went over. By mid-month, I had only written about 11,000 words (only?!), and I was starting to lose hope. Each day that I didn’t meet my goal, I would look at my schedule and plan to make it up on a day I had more free time. When the week of Thanksgiving rolled around, I barely made time to write at all.

On Thanksgiving day (November 26th for those not in America), I was halfway to my goal of 50,000 words. I had planned to use the final few days of the month to really buckle down and finish strong. I hadn’t written more than 5,000 words in any single day so far, but for some reason, I thought I could write at least 6,000 words per day for the last four days and finish with no problem.

Well, there was a problem: I didn’t want to write anymore. I went back and forth so many times between “I really don’t want to let myself down” and “I’m really tired of stressing over this” until finally, the latter emotion took over.

The day I decided I wouldn’t finish, I felt like such a failure…at first. Before long, relief took over, and it occurred to me that instead of locking myself in a room in a front of a computer for several hours, I could curl up on the couch with my husband and watch the new Jessica Jones series on Netflix.

Initially, I thought of all of the friends and family I had told about this endeavor. I feared having to inform them that though the month of November is finished, my novel is not. I thought about the pledge I signed at the start of the month, plainly stating my intentions:

“I acknowledge that the month-long, 50,000-word deadline I set for myself is absolute and unchangeable, and that any failure to meet the deadline, or any effort on my part to move the deadline once the adventure has begun, will invite well-deserved mockery from friends and family.”

I also thought back to one of my favorite NaNoWriMo pep talks from author Stephanie Perkins in which she surmises the following:

“Perhaps you’re even regretting that you told [your friends, family, and coworkers] at all, because now they’re all about to watch you fail.

Well… don’t. Don’t fail.”

Well, I did. I had hoped that my penchant for extrinsic motivation would help me succeed, but in the end, I knew that whether I wrote fifty thousand, five thousand, or five hundred words, I was doing it for myself. And my self was sick of aimlessly writing.

Had I finished my 50,000 words, this is probably where I’d be extolling the virtues of never giving up, no matter what, but since I didn’t finish, it’s easier to harp on the merits of letting go of what you feel has become a pointless responsibility.

Yes, I took the easy way out, but I don’t regret it. I started with a lofty goal and a lot of reasons to pursue it, but by the end of the month, I had more reasons not to. My attempt wasn’t in vain though. Here are a few things I learned from taking part in NaNoWriMo:

  • Word count isn’t as important consistency.
  • Nothing you write has to be permanent.
  • Knowing that nothing you write has to be permanent makes it easier to just write.
  • There are only so many synonyms for “walk” and “talk.”

As a whole, the NaNoWriMo community is rife with advice and tools to help anyone succeed in writing a novel, and I am very grateful that it exists. The pep talks, which are received via “NaNoMail,” did wonders for my confidence, and the tracking tools helped me make a game out of hitting word count milestones. If you’ve got an idea for a novel, I absolutely recommend giving NaNoWriMo a shot. Stick to your guns, but don’t let the arbitrary timeline take its toll on your quality of life.

*I do not actually feel this way.

About Lisa Parkin

I'm a hardcore lover of young adult fiction and have been reviewing books since 2011. Other interests include Downton Abbey, heat lightning storms, Harry Potter land and (begrudingly) one orange tabby.
  • Stephanie

    Great thoughts, Mel! I’ve never tried it myself, though I have started multiple writing projects in general, and it is definitely tough to keep yourself motivated when you feel like you should be writing like JK Rowling in the first take.