50K Words Later: NaNoWriMo Lessons & Takeaways

50K words in a month

Introduction

One cannot survive on writing alone but in November, we try… National Novel Writing Month [NaNoWriMo] asks authors to commit to completing 50K words [the first draft of a novel] in a single month. In case you’re trying to do the math in your head, split evenly that amounts to 1,667 words a day. The organizers offer support, writing resources, and badges that can be earned as you progress.

National Novel Writing Month began in 1999 as a daunting but straightforward challenge: to write 50K words of a novel in thirty days. Now, each year on November 1, hundreds of thousands of people around the world begin to write, determined to end the month with 50K words of a brand new novel. They enter the month as elementary school teachers, mechanics, or stay-at-home parents.
They leave novelists.

What is NaNoWriMo?

NaNoWriMo is more than a month, the nonprofit organization supports and educates writers, and aspiring writers, throughout the year. Yet with all the assistance offered, only a fraction of those who start reach their 50,000-word goal. I wanted to share what helped me get through it, where I plan to do things differently the next go around, and one crucial question that I was left pondering as the month’s end drew near.

Crossing the Finish Line – Writing 50K Words

Typing that 50,000th word was exhilarating! On the other hand, it felt slightly anticlimactic because I didn’t have a completed first draft. Luckily, I was also ahead of schedule. To be honest, even if I had finished my draft, I would’ve continued to write every day for the remainder of the month. After all, I wanted to earn ALL of the badges. NaNoWriMo was like a “Fitbit for writers” and I’m just the type of person that watch was designed for. Through this experience I learned important things like I can physically type 6,286 words in a single day. And also, how unbelievably unsustainable trying to do that would be.

Although I’m very proud of my words and anxious to turn them into something more polished, the most important thing I took away from the experience was desire to come back, year after year. I already marked my calendar!

I Should Have, or… Tips for the Next Time Around…

These are, by no means, exhaustive lists of what I gained from this experience. They’re simply those things I managed to jot down, made note of, with the few spare seconds I had here and there along the way.

It’s Preptober – 50,000 Words Straight Ahead!

You aren’t going to perform well on race day if you haven’t been training. I did some planning and preparing for November in October. Looking back now, using my 20/20 hindsight, I’d say in the future I should minimally double, perhaps triple, the time and energy that was invested in that preparation.

Although Preptober is a term thrown around frequently before NaNoWriMo [in part because it’s catchy], the official NaNo Prep 101 Handbook [found here] actually lays out a six-week strategy for increased odds of success.

What should one be doing ahead of time? I’m glad you asked…

“Non-Draft” Preparation

  • Prepare your social media accounts by either letting people know you will be absent or having everything for the month ready to go ahead of time.
  • Let the people in your life know you will be disappearing, for the most part, for a month [also realize they’ll forget].
  • Consider setting additional, more personalized goals. The base goals are: a daily goal of 1,667 words and an overall goal of 50K words.
  • Prepare your space! “Fall clean” your physical and digital world.
  • Plan to play to your strengths and prepare for your weaknesses. If your phone will distract you silence it, leave it in another room, or have your significant other take it to work. If you wake up with ideas and energy, block out that first hour.

50K Word Draft Preparation

Building a foundation for your manuscript should include some or all of the following things:

An Idea

If you get stuck here, try one of these: 50 Creative Writing Ideas to Combat Writer’s Block

A Plan

Struggling? Read – How to Plan a Novel: A Step-by-Step Guide

An Outline

Finding the Novel Outlining Process that Works for You offers multiple options for approaching this aspect of preparation.

Character Profiles

Somewhere between a sticky note and 2-inch binder is the right amount of information for a character profile. TCK Publishing has amassed a great list of considerations and questions to ponder: How to Create a Character Profile: Complete Guide with Template.

Worldbuilding

This aspect of preparation will differ dramatically based on your genre. Regardless of where [and when] your characters are, Worldbuilding: How to Create a Believable World for Your Fiction Characters, might get you up and going the right direction…

Could Someone Spend Too Much Time Preparing?

Yes! There is definitely a point where planning turns into procrastination, or at least loses its productiveness. You’re in the best position to know when that line has been crossed.

Hint: If you’re halfway to 50K words and still preparing, you’ve probably gone too far.

50K words is attainable with slow but steady progress
50K words is attainable with slow but steady progress

Maintaining Creativity, Wellness, and Sanity

As you dump everything from your calendar to clear space to write, be sure you’re not skimping on:

These may seem like things you wouldn’t need to be reminded to do but, then again, NaNoWriMo can get pretty intense.

Bonus tip: Foam roll your neck and back every day. Don’t wait for the pain to set it, just make a habit of it right out of the gate. I promise you’ll thank me for this one!

Software

I’d highly recommend you think about using software designed for writers. When I hit 40,000 words, I had… well to be blunt, an organizational hot mess. I’d opened a fresh document each time I sat down to write, which was sometimes four times in a day. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, and it was certainly making it easier to determine each session’s word count. But inevitably, and perhaps predictably, at some point I was left unable to find information I needed. I pushed back the inevitable need to overhaul the system a few times by creating a better naming system and sifting some of the files into folders. Eventually, as the issues became more frequent and severe, I had to say, “that’s enough!”

I would never claim there’s one best writing software out there. Choosing one over another will likely be based on a combination of factors that include your current needs, goals, and budget. Many of the articles that compare these types of programs break them into three categories – those that are free, have a monthly subscription fee, and are purchased with a one-time charge.

I found these two articles helpful when I was trying to choose between the plethora of available options:  

The Best Novel Writing Software of 2020 by Reedsy, which provided a price tag, list of features, and summary. They focused on the benefits, upside of each.

Best Book Writing Software by Kindlepreneur, covered a lot of the same information but added discounts and a pros/cons section.

My new writing software is a lifesaver [as is a talk to text dictation app I added to my phone for those inopportune moments when you have the most brilliant idea]!

Using Sprints, Shut Up & Writes, and Pep Talks to Reach 50,000 Words

Run or Walk?

I struggled in the beginning to reach my word count or to do anything in a given day other than write. I should clarify that this was only an issue on the days I’d designated as heavy work days, when I planned to spend 8 or more hours working. On light days, when I was only writing for an hour, I had no trouble cranking out words at all.

My initial assessment was that the difference had to do with writing to time. It seemed to help keep me progressing at a steady pace and to some degree “turned off” my inner editor. In my mind, I labeled what I had done a sprint. Having decided I enjoyed sprints, I found and signed up for a few [there are sprints on YouTube, Twitter, and elsewhere every day]. It turned out my idea of what constitutes a sprint didn’t line up with what I found most people were doing in practice.

At its core, a writing sprint is simply focusing solely on getting words onto paper [don’t take that too literally] for a designated amount of time. A typical writing sprint, if such a thing exists, lasts for 15 minutes. At this point in time, that just isn’t long enough for me. I need an hour to really get into the groove. Also, the majority of sprints I came across were a competition, sometimes people were judged individually, sometimes people were divided into groups. This may motivate some, but it had the opposite effect on me. I would never have made it to 50K words at that rate!

Tackling 50K Words Together

What I did really enjoy about the sprints was the social aspect of it, connecting to other authors, holding one another accountable. Shut Up and Write hosts events through Meetup in 318 cities. The events are in-person and online, free, and open to all skill levels. The group formed to help writers with accountability and to provide social support.

When 50K words seemed far away, I was stuck in the muck, or I needed to hear a resounding “you got this!”, I turned to one or more of the many amazing pep talks found on the NaNoWriMo site. On the days I forgot to seek out support, it was no problem because they regularly emailed them to me. There were a few low moments around the middle of the month when these talks were a lifesaver!

Do 50K Words Always Add Up to a First Draft?

The burning question I had to answer at some point was, when is a first draft finished? Although most people agree there are first drafts, second drafts, hundredth drafts, there isn’t necessarily a consensus on when one ends and another begins. Some imagine a first draft as a very detailed and lengthy outline, others describe it as a free flow of thoughts.

I’ve come across the idea that a first draft is complete when you’ve written the last scene, or “The End”. Of course, this is only a useful definition for those who write their stories in order.

One thing I was sure of, 50K words were not enough to complete my first draft. As I rounded the 60,000-word bend, I decided a first draft ends [for me] when I have a sense that it’s no longer advisable or valuable to move forward without looking back. That sounds vaguer than it was.

I sat at the computer, space clean, timer ticking, hot coffee in hand, doing… nothing. I could feel to my core that writing would be a complete waste of my time.

Through the month my “research later” list had been growing steadily. It was to the point, had it not been a bulleted list, someone might have mistaken it for a chapter.

My story and characters had grown, changed, and gone in new directions to such an extent that their thoughts and actions no longer fit neatly into my original outline.

I could force myself to moved forward, but I’d have no clear next stop, no set destination.  

I wondered, “does this mean my first draft is complete?” In order to assess the situation, I looked my work over. When I did, I found I had created large chunks of writing from characters backstories, in addition to happenings from the beginning, middle, and end. I thought, “check, check, check.”

Although I was positive it was time to pause, revisit, and revise, I was still unable to bring myself to make the “finished first draft” call. I wondered, who’s the judge and jury, where’s the umpire? It was easy to conclude that only I could make the call. So, I did. I waved the flag, popped the cork, kicked back, and [almost immediately] began debating what completing a second draft would entail.

I’m curious, how do you know your first draft is done? What does your process look like? What are your sanity necessities when immersed in a new project?

Author profile

Chris Elle Dove is the author of Gabby Makes a Friend, and the upcoming picture book, Sadie's Sea Turtle. She's been teaching sociology courses at community colleges since 2005. Her hobbies include meditation, cooking, hiking, and running. Chris is the proud mother of two beautiful, adult children and one German Shepherd.

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