• Jess Lawrence

5 lessons learned from a NaNoWriMo newbie



Yes, 2018 was my first year giving NaNoWriMo a shot. My first novel (The Sparrow) took me something like four years to write – you know how life gets in the way. When it came to the sequel, I thought I’d have a go at doing this one (or at least the first 50k words) in 1/48th of the time. No biggie, eh?

How did NaNoWriMo 2018 go?

Well, I won. I hit 50,000 words on the very last day. It’s not the end of my novel; there’s probably another 25-30k left to write, if it matches up to its predecessor. But as I got into it, I quickly learned that NaNo is about a heck of a lot more than reaching a word count.

Here are five things I learned as a NaNoWriMo newbie.

1. Words aren’t everything

There’s a 50,000-word target and, yes, every writer wants to smash it. But not everyone will. And that is 100% okay. Why? Because it’s not really about the word count. It’s about putting in the time. It’s about focusing your priorities and, at the very least, trying to produce something. Whether you end up with 50,000 words or 50, you’ve achieved something. You’ve made progress.

2. Writing every day is hard

Hella hard, am I right? I couldn’t do it. I flat out missed the first three days just staring at a blank page. Then somewhere around the middle I dropped the ball again because I’d already reached the next few days’ goals and needed the space.

There's a lot of writing 'advice' out there about writing every day. I get the sentiment, I really do, but every writer is wildly different and sometimes writing every day is just not the right move. For me, I’d rather capitalise on a good day and get 2,000 words down that I’m somewhat happy with than force myself to write 100-500 words every day that I’ll probably end up deleting because my heart wasn’t in them.

TL;DR – writing advice is not gospel.

3. Fellow writers have your back

Writing is a real challenge. You have to push yourself, create something exciting, build worlds that no one has ever seen before, give life to characters only you’ve met. Writing is also very lonely. And the loneliness can lead to self-doubt.

However, since starting NaNoWriMo, I’ve been following more and more authors on Twitter. I’ve also dipped into some forums and I joined Scribophile. And let me tell you this; the people are amazing! I haven’t seen a single discouraging message anywhere. We all hold each other up, share our concerns and our little victories.

It’s a real community, full of support and compassion.

4. It’s okay to write badly sometimes

I’m very much an edit-as-I-go kind of writer. That’s probably why it took me close to four years to finish my first novel. Again, a lot of writing advice talks against this practice. I do it because my first drafts are always terrible. I add so much bumf that it makes me cringe so I go back and cut it out before I move on.

What kind of bumf do I mean? Check out this tweet and its comments and you’ll see. It’s a relief to know I’m not alone.

However, NaNoWriMo forced me to change my style this time around. While writing the sequel, I’ve barely re-read any of what I’ve written so far. This has made me quite uncomfortable – but I’m embracing it. I know that a good chunk of this draft is going to need changing but that's not a problem. Show me any writer who pulls off a stellar first draft. I’ll wait.

I’m not sure whether I’ll keep on writing this way post NaNo but, you know what? I now have 50,000 words after just a month, so maybe there’s something to it.

5. It doesn’t end on December 1st

I read a blog post the other day written by a friend who wasn’t a fan of NaNoWriMo. She’d never tried it, but she had this idea that all it did was get people to bash out 50,000 words in a month, brag about their achievement and then move on to the next challenge in December. (Who’s up for seeing how many pigs in blankets we can eat in a month? 50,000?)

I took umbrage with a lot of her blog post, but this in particular niggled me because it’s really not true. And, more importantly, it’s really not anyone’s business what NaNo participants do with their work after November. You want to keep writing? Go right ahead – top up the coffee and power through, you crazy beast. Want to take a month or two off and gain some distance? Chill the heck out, my friend. Decided that you never want to look at your work again because NaNo was just a personal challenge? So be it, buddy, pass the mince pies.

Will I do NaNoWriMo 2019?

The series I’m working on at the moment may have a third book in it, I haven’t decided yet. If it doesn’t, that means next year’s NaNo would be for a whole new project. I’m not going to lie, that is a scary thought. At least this year I had the plot mostly laid out. But you know what? I love how NaNoWriMo pushed me this year. I love how it gave me sense of progress and productivity – something to aim for.

So will I NaNo in 2019? Well, I have a year to pluck up that courage yet so watch this space. Now, how about those pigs in blankets?


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