Lessons Learned by a First Time NaNoWriMo Participant

I admit it. Until two years ago, I lived under a rock. I’d never heard of NaNoWriMO until after I became involved with my critique group, and when I did, I was horrified. Write an entire 50,000-word novel during the month of November? Oh, HELL no!

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And that remained my opinion—until about two months ago, when one of my critique partners (possibly the one whom I suspect of writing half a novel before breakfast every morning and two on the weekend) asked if anyone else was thinking about NaNo this year. And everyone said yes except for me.

Lesson 1: Peer Pressure Is a Fantastic Motivator.

After an awkward silence, I said, “Maybe?” Because I had realized that if there ever was a time for me to try to write 50,000 words in 30 days, this was it. Over the summer, I had come up with a new story idea that I was excited about. I had drawn up a rough outline, done a dozen or so hours’ worth of research, and written a beginning. And then life happened and my idea languished. I needed a kick-start, and NaNo seemed like a pretty good one. So I told my group I was in, wrote a more detailed outline, and revised my beginning. By October 31, I was ready to go.

Lesson 2: Butt in Chair, Fingers on Keyboard, or, If It Were Easy, Everyone Would Be Doing It.

Working at a steady pace, you need to average 1,667 words a day to finish NaNo. However, I wanted the option of taking a weekend or two off, as well as Thanksgiving Day, so I set myself a daily goal of 2,000 words. And on the first of November, I began slogging away.

I won’t lie—Day One was awful. That first 2,000 words took me about four hours to write. Solar systems form, grow old, and die faster than I generally write chapters. But that first night, I dreamed about my characters. It gave me enough impetus to keep going, and I vomited up 10,000 words the first week. Did I cringe every time I looked back over it? Yes. Yes, I did.

Lesson 3: Writing Produces Highs and Lows.

Then, during Week Two, my story took off. “This is easy!” I thought. “Why have I never tried this before?” Suddenly I was an addict. The plot twists were coming fast. The characters demanded my attention, keeping me awake at night. I felt as if I were trying to close the lid on a box full of snakes. I’d push one in, and two others would wriggle out. What are we going to do about the gold coin? And the little sister? How does the garden figure in? And when did my MC and I develop a crush on our villain? 20,000 words gushed out of me.

And then Day Fourteen hit me like a semi-truck.

Lesson 4: Keep Your Drafting and Revising Separate.

In a recent TTOF post (Drafting, November 25), Todd Petersen says, “The trick of drafting is keeping myself from meddling in my own business.” Well, I meddled. I started reading over what I’d written. Ordinarily, this is what I do. I tend to write a few pages, revise, write a few more pages, revise, and so on. But revising requires a completely different mindset than drafting. From a NaNo perspective, it just doesn’t get the words written.

“Is this it?” I asked, rereading my awful mess. “Really? But—but—this is LAME! My characters whine. My plot stinks. Nothing connects—I have a big mess of disjointed conversations between selfish, unmotivated characters. I’ve been wasting my time.”

This is where the slogging resumed. With my eyes on the 40,000 word badge, I plodded along, hating everything about my story. I fantasized about typing, “This sucks!” 7,000 times and then sending an asteroid crashing down on all my characters to put them out of their misery.

Lesson 5: GPA Can Also Be a Motivator

When I finally reached 40,000 words, I thought, “Eighty percent done. I now have a B minus in NaNo. A passing grade—not so bad. But if I make it to 45,000, then I’ll earn an A minus.” (Yeah, I was one of those students. I also give myself grades when I’m working out—85% of a mile, 90% of a mile…don’t laugh. It works for me.) So my characters jerked along, puppet-like, trying for that A, and every once in awhile, someone said something clever.  Or two unrelated events fell together as if I’d planned it that way. And I started to get back into the zone

I was almost reluctant to write my final 1,900 words (an A grade, thanks). Because my excitement was rising again. Just a little, but enough to make me think that someday I might find a few nuggets of gold in this muck.

Lesson 6: Any Way that Works for You Is the Right Way.

Now, two weeks later, I’m older and wiser. I don’t have a shining new novel, but I do have a skeleton on which I can begin to hang a story. Not one of those clean, elegant anatomy lab skeletons, mind you, but rather something I might have assembled while sleepwalking and blindfolded. The feet are on backwards. There’s a humerus where one of the femurs should go. The phalanges are sticking out of the eye sockets, and there are a few extra bones still lying in the box. But hey, it’s a start.

My final takeaway from NaNo is the most important one. Whatever motivates you to write—to sit down, grit your teeth, and pry the words out of your head, even if they’re not perfect, is good. I’m proud of myself for finishing NaNo. I may do it again someday, or I may not. This year, it was the push I needed, but I may not always be in the same place, and that’s all right, too. Any trick that works, on any given day, is the right one.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a lot of revising to do.

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Kristina Starmer lives in Southern Utah with her husband, son, dog, and more cats than she likes to admit. When not working as a university chemistry lab manager, she can most likely be found rereading one of her favorite books. She is passionate about traveling to new places, ice cream with lots of mix-ins, and the peaches from her garden. Her favorite children’s book is The Owl and the Pussycat and her favorite element is copper. She writes renaissance-era historical fiction topped with a generous scoop of magic.

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