6 Lessons from NaNoWriMo

Over the course of November, I wrote 50,012 words towards my novel, pieced together as:

  • scenes for the first 5 turning points and first step of the 6th turning point of my WIP
  • a prologue
  • off-shoot stories about some of the cast of characters who are part of my protagonist’s journey.
bar graph showing daily word count during NaNoWriMo 2016 for 10000hoursleft, finishing at 50012 words on November 30 2016
Source: screen grab from 10000hoursleft’s NaNoWriMo account

In addition to NaNoWriMo, I completed a writing course, applied for 5 jobs, and fulfilled family, work and personal responsibilities. The writing milestones are personal highlights of the past 12 months. Funnily, when I co-wrote my first post of 2016 (on maintaining goals), I hadn’t set out on this path, conceiving these goals in the final half of the year (and working on them in the last quarter), giving me a more tangible target than my previously vague goal of progressing my WIP over the year (it is never too late to start a ‘new year resolution’).

Here, I share lessons I learnt about myself, my writing, and the writing process.

lesson 1: motivation- a tangible next step following completion of a mini goal is a great motivator

In August, when I decided to participate in NaNoWriMo 2016, I had an almost finished detailed synopsis of my novel. I knew if I wanted to give NaNoWriMo a decent shot, I needed to finish my writing course before hand, with the aim of having a complete structure for my novel. This helped me complete the 8 month course that I had deferred, worked on, got bored with, regained momentum on, and extended over 2 years.

Lesson 2: clarity- a clear goal and the means to get there is essential!

I aimed for 50,000 and got in at 50,012, reminding myself of the first concrete goal I can remember visualising, in my final year of school, where I hand wrote a sign that I posted above my desk, that read ‘Tertiary Entrance Rank (TER)≥ 90’, a ranking used to determine eligibility for university courses. What did I get? 90.25. I wonder what would have happened if I had set my goals higher (or lower even).

As for the means to get to the 50,000 word target, I knew that I could only manage that huge word count with a dedicated effort each day averaging 1667 words daily over the month – a slow and steady approach over the whole month.

Lesson 3: the supporting cast: minor characters challenge and provide context for the protagonist's actions

On days when I got bored of the story that had been kicking around in my head for about 5 years, I broke free of structure and wrote about the minor characters. Not only was this enjoyable, giving me free reign, it also informed the main story and allowed me to add some depth with a greater understanding of the complex lives of the supporting cast and their interactions with my main character. In doing so, a significant addition to my story was establishing a cultural identity for my main character – more on the angst that that has caused me in another post.

Lesson 4: momentum- to get to the end of a first draft, keep moving and don't look back!

First draft is really all about ‘place holding’, as eloquently stated by writer, blogger and NaNoWriMo participant Doug Branson in our NaNoWriMo exchanges. I spent too much time describing what was happening rather than allowing it to unfold, and this didn’t change until day 25 when I distinctly remember feeling I had gotten over a sticking point in my writing and ‘stuff’ just flowed. This was in part due to back stories of minor characters that gave me ideas for my novel proper, and possibly also finally getting into the groove after all that writing. Better late than never, hey? Although I cringed while writing a lot of the time, I refrained from editing and plodded on, the only way possible to achieve my 50,000 word target.

Lesson 5: time bending- 'realistic' goals are dependant on time frame and extent of sacrifice required

It is possible to make time for your goals, if your heart is set on it. This lesson is a double-edged sword. Yes, I achieved my goal while maintaining the essentials of my every day life, but I also recognised that there are some aspects of my time that I can relinquish only for so long. In order to complete my NaNoWriMo goal, I gave up my usual commuting activities: meditation, sleep, and reading. I realised that it wasn’t sustainable long term, and recognise the toll the pressure took on my health. I have learnt the benefits of a writing goal and a dedication to time for it, but bending  time to fit 1667 words into a day is not for me. In a recent post where I assessed optimal daily word count from a range of perspectives,  I concluded that 1,000 – 1,400 words per day is the level where possibilities are open for a range of prolificacy, but that even 500 words per day goes a long way towards writing goals and satisfaction.

Taking a leaf out of my own book, I will aim for 500 – 800 a day to maintain my mojo, and accept any extra as a bonus. Have I started this daily habit yet? No – I am experiencing a little burnout and taking a much needed break until January 2017.

Lesson 6: planning- planning focuses the daily wordcount and contributes to meaningful output

On each occasion I sat down to write, I had a clear idea of the section of the story I was in; my main character’s concrete goal; her character arc at turning point, step and sequence level; and, the central dramatic question raised at the start and usually resolved at the end of each of turning point, step, and sequence. Fingers crossed this means the 50,012 words I will revisit will have some sense and meaning and I can focus most of my energy on writing rather than structure.

I intend to complete the remaining sections of my WIP before returning to the beginning to re-write. The more  financially viable option (than enrolling in the next course at the Writers’ Studio) will be to reference  books on writing and editing and/or take a creative writing course on a MOOC platform. If you have any recommendations of books or free online courses in this area- please let me know. I’d also love to hear about your goals (writing or otherwise) and what you’ve learnt on the journey.

25 thoughts on “6 Lessons from NaNoWriMo

  1. CONGRATULATIONS (again)! I really like this reflective piece on writing and writing processes. I agree that we all have to do what’s best for our situations. Quite honestly, the only reason I can write so much is because I mostly work from home. I’m not sure how people with 40-60 hour a week jobs do it. Looking forward to putting together an edited collection of others’ works by the end of 2017 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Kathy! I kept this in draft for so long and eventually it became fitting to make it a year in review type thing with a loose theme on goals and motivation. Without my commuting time, I don’t think I could write as much as I do. All the best with you 2017 goals- no doubt you’ll be doing great things as always xx

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Congratulations, Mek! I admire your writing and reading about the goals you set for yourself and how you accomplished them is inspiring to me. Regarding daily word counts and all of that – everyone needs to experiment with what works for them. We all have different recipes. Some people may be more productive writing only 3 days a week or 7 months in a year. I’m glad you figured out how to sustain your mojo!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much Leslie! I over do my expectations on myself sometimes and then find it difficult to not follow through, so I am glad to have an understanding of my limits (a month is not too long a time to learn that is it? haha). Looking forward to more posts from you! xx


    1. Thanks! I say never again, but never say never! I should edit with a postscript to say that I have now enrolled in the next course – just this week in fact! What was it like for you? What year(s) did you do it, and have you done more with your NaNoWriMo writing since?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I can’t remember if I ever worked a draft past 50k before NaNoWriMo, but it was responsible for a happy streak of several (5?) years. It was becoming a firm tradition before my son was born; that changed everything. I think each one was closer to suitable for an audience than the one before it. None are polished yet, but at least two do like they have potential. Wishing you more success this year. Let us know how it goes!

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Wow- that’s an incredible streak. I’m 99% sure I won’t do NaNoWriMo again. It plays on my competitive and perfectionist tendencies…I’d never ‘allow’ myself to not reach 50k and that is stressful. How old is your son? I’m assuming you’re a woman by that comment…I could be wrong but it’s not something men tend to say. Will you rework those two with potential? Do you write for a living? So many questions…


      3. For me it felt like rushing to finish a paper for school, but when I got it done it was a thrill. Only way to reach that kind of velocity was to abandon editing and tap into the stream of consciousness. But no, I’ve been a stay-at-home father for my son, who is going to be starting school. 🙂 So my schedule is about to really change. If I do rework a manuscript, I’ll definitely chronicle it on my site! For now, I edit and write speculative poetry. How about you?

        Liked by 1 person

      4. Yes, editing would only slow you down literally but also in terms of flow. Apologies for the assumption you are a woman. I bet being a stay at home dad you’ve dealt with a lot of assumptions and unconcious bias. I work 4 days/week. When I started my blog, my son was about a month old and I stayed home full time till he was 14 months old. Will you return to work once your son starts school? I look forward to reading your creative writing!


      5. Ah, no worries! But yes, it’s been interesting dealing with stereotyping when often I’m the only dad at the park. My friendly son makes that easier, though. Mostly I’m adjusting to the changing demands of parenting. For us, it works best for me to hold down the fort and do any work from home. 4 days a week sounds like a good balance. When do you find you write best? Great to compare notes with someone with a similar timeline. You have a lot of great writing shared here.

        Liked by 1 person

      6. We had (and still have ) a mother’s group from when my son was just a baby….it really should be called a parent’s group but it has been the mums who’ve kept in touch 3 years on…so lovely watching a whole bunch of babies around the same age grow into their own people. Are you part of something like that?

        In terms of writing time, the ‘right’ conditions or the best time never quite happen…it is more a matter of seizing available moments so it is largely on my long commute to and from work (on the train) and when my son naps. Having less time to squander has made me better at managing it although I do have periods where I don’t write at all but it is nice to take a break from it. When do you write? Thanks for reading and engaging 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      7. What a wonderful group you are a part of! I’m afraid one of our challenges here is not having much in the way of family or friends nearby. Luckily my son is the extrovert who has never met a stranger. Yes, any writing time is so precious. It’s hard to know where to begin when I get it! Love the idea of writing during a train commute. I used to write in coffeeshops with a lot of public swirling about.

        For the moment, I mostly write micro works before falling asleep, and submit them when I can. Always a notebook at the ready. How did your adjust to your son going to school?

        Liked by 1 person

      8. We’re in a similar boat…we moved to where we now live when my son was just 3 weeks old. No family or close friends nearby. Our mother’s group and just generally other parents I’ve met when out with my son have become our community among which I have some close friends now 😊

        My son is only 3 so no school yet, but I guess daycare is the same in terms of being apart for long stretches. I was really sad at first for the end of the really special14 months we had together, but it was a necessity and I really enjoyed being back at work, branching into a different role and a new workplace at the same time…so there was the fun and novelty of the newness in my work and also all the alone time I got on the train! Haha. I do miss him during the day though, and am excited to see him every night, but I guess I try to see the positives in it. Also, it’s been less of an emotional dilemma this year since he switched to an incredible center we’d been on the waiting list for, and he’s much much

        I plan to drop down to 3 days per week in his final year before school so I can spend more time with him…it all goes so quickly and considering he’s the best thing in my world, I’d like to squeeze as much out of these years as I can before he becomes a teenager 😮. Ok I’ll stop this long response now! Guess why I have so much time to respond? I’m on the train! 😊

        Can you provide links to works you’ve had published, if they’re available on line? I’d love to read!

        Liked by 1 person

      9. What wonderful, conscious choices, including looking to reconnect before full school days start! I miss working (almost as much as school) and know my wife would like more time with my son, but her working has made the most sense for us. So good you like your current daycare… Was thought we found a great preschool, but the teachers were not a great fit for a spirited and sensitive child.
        We are also similar in wanting to give our sons a warmer relationship than we had with our parents. Here’s to the heart.
        Would love to share some of my writing. Do you have an email you could send through my contact form? I’ll cobble together a selection. ☺️

        Liked by 1 person

      10. Thanks WREADITOR. Sounds like conscious choices you snd you wife have made to meet your particular family needs. Lucky boy to have folks that consider whether teachers are a match for him as opposed to expecting him to conform to their approach. I was thinking you’d publish in your blog, but please do email if you prefer 10000hoursleft@gmail.com

        Have a great weekend 😊


      11. What a kind reply. Parenting and all of its concerns are definitely the toughest job we’ll love, no? As for the writing, I definitely plan to link more on the site after the hard launch. Please don’t feel burdened by samples. 🙂
        Looking forward to reading much more here as school starts.

        Liked by 1 person

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