NaNoWriMo – Can you really write a novel in a month?

It’s that time of year again when writers start thinking about whether or not to attempt the madness that is NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month), or NaNo for short, and as I’ve participated quite a few times, I have some tips for you.

When I first heard of NaNo about 6 years ago, I laughed, shook my head and thought, ‘Yeah, right. As if you can write a novel in a month.’ I thought if someone finished a whole novel in one month then it would be utter rubbish and unedited. So, I avoided the idea completely…until I joined Twitter.

On Twitter, people take #NaNoWriMo seriously. That made me look into it in more detail and I discovered the point isn’t actually to write a whole novel in a month. It’s to write 50,000 words of a novel during November (the quietest time of the year, apparently, and therefore there should be less distractions). That works out at just 1,667 words per day. Just! So you’re not actually expected to start, finish and edit your novel in one month.

Once I signed up to the website (there are no fees involved), it felt like a challenge I wanted to try. So, on 31st October 2015, I sat down with a notepad and thought about what kind of book I wanted to write. All I had was a character and a location in mind. I didn’t plot or plan any more than that because I’m naturally what Nano-ers call a ‘pantser’, meaning I fly by the seat of my pants! But many people prefer to spend October plotting out their novels in advance so that when the time comes they can fly.

On 1st November, I sat at my computer, opened a blank Word document and started to write. It was easier than I had expected. What followed was 30 frenzied days of trying to fit in 1,667 words a day, around life and a day job. I learned that if you don’t write enough words one day, you can catch up another day. Or, if you’re really organised, you can write in excess of 1,667 words on the glorious days when the words are flowing and plentiful. There’s a great word count tracker on the NaNo website (www.nanowrimo.org) so you can log your progress. Plus, there’s a whole community of people willing to spur you along.

By 1st December I was a nervous wreck! I’d just managed 50k words and I had the shell of a first draft novel. But it wasn’t finished. I needed around another 40k words and many edits before I could consider it finished. I’m happy to report that I did finish it and then I edited it for months and sent it to two publishers. Somehow, both of them offered me a contract and the book has since been published (it’s called Who Cares if They Die and became book 1 of a 3-part series).

I believe NaNo got me into the habit of completing a first draft quickly and I’ve used it every year since.

This is what I’ve learned since participating:

The good:

  • It gets you into the habit of sitting down to write every single day. Something I’d never done before and I loved it – still do.
  • It kick starts a new novel and leaves no time for doubting yourself.
  • You’re less likely to edit as you go because there’s no time to! I love editing as I go but it slows me down completely. I once spent 6 months on the first 30k words of a book, editing it over and over. In the end I had to scrap it all and start again. That’s one of the hardest things to do as a writer but it made the novel much better.
  • The writing community on Twitter is amazing and the #NaNoWriMo hashtag is really encouraging during November. You really feel as though you’re writing with company for a change. It feels like we’re all in it together.

The not-so-good:

  • Writing every day gives me migraines. Staring at a PC all day was bad for my eyes. I should have had more regular breaks from my screen during my first attempt.
  • I exercised much less. My shoulders were aching and my hands turned into claws! Better time management on my part could have solved this and I’ve learned my lesson.
  • You need an understanding partner/family/roommate, because they will probably have to take over most of the housework during November. (Which is a bonus for us!)
  • You’ll want to put your novel to one side in December and not return to it for months! But that’s good, because when you pick it up again you’ll have a fresh perspective, which is invaluable for the editing phase.

So, what I’ve really learned is that while it is possible to write 50k in one month, it’s not really possible to write and edit a whole novel in one month (although I know some writers have mastered this). Also, writing every single day isn’t good for your body, but having a set routine of writing most days, whilst taking the weekend off, is best. NaNo can really get you motivated to start that new novel in a way that’s hard to beat.

If you’ve never tried it and always wondered about it, I highly recommend you give it a go. Even if you just kick start that new novel you’ve been thinking about but don’t make 50k words, it’s more than you’ve got now.

Good luck and see you on the hashtag #NaNoWriMo in November!

Wendy x