I’ve been thinking a lot lately about NaNoWriMo. If you’re not familiar, NaNoWriMo is an affectionate nickname for National Novel Writing Month, a sort of annual creative writing event where participants attempt to write a 50,000 word manuscript between the beginning and end of November. A lot of libraries will plan events around NaNoWriMo, like reserving space for anyone who wants to gather and work on their writing together. It’s fun and challenging and if you’re successful, you get a cute little downloadable certificate at the end.
I used to participate in NaNoWriMo every year. I don’t quite remember when or why I dropped off, but if memory serves, I probably did it somewhere between 5 and 7 times and even though some years it was definitely a big struggle, I managed to meet the set goal each time. I actually still have some of the certificates I got for “winning” hanging up in my office (if you ever talk to me on Zoom, you can see them in the background if you squint).
I thought about taking it up again this year but even though I always enjoyed it when I did in the past, I decided against it partly because of the way my relationship to writing and productivity has changed since my original run with it.
I first participated in NaNoWriMo in 2011ish as part of a program that was being put on at the public library where I was working at the time. I’d always been curious about NaNoWriMo after hearing about it on the internet for years and thought it sounded like an interesting challenge. I was also looking to get back into a writing habit after getting away from it while in grad school.
That first year I wasn’t expecting much. In high school and college, I’d written long works before and even completed drafts of novel-length stories but I’d never, as far as I remember, tried to measure my writing productivity in any sort of way, whether through word count goals or butt-in-chair time. Though I was busy during those times with school and work, writing always just seemed to happen. I didn’t need the extra motivation.
But then grad school happened and my writing dropped off, not only because of the pressure of completing my degree while working 2-3 part time jobs at any given time(1) but also because I didn’t have much in the way of story ideas during that period. I didn’t work on my fiction writing because I had nothing to work on.
Part of the reason I decided to participate in NaNoWriMo that first year was because I did have a story idea and I thought this was a good opportunity to explore it. I had no expectation of reaching the word count goal but as the month went on and I got closer and closer, I definitely felt a bit of a thrill. It felt really good to be working on something creative again and racing toward a word count goal meant there was no time to second guess myself. I just had to keep going.
And I did! That first year, I reached the 50k word count goal and felt really good about it. Not only that, I kept writing for the next few months and ended up completing a full draft of the story I started as my NaNoWriMo project. It was great!
It took another few years for me to build back to any sort of regular writing habit but when I did, I used NaNoWriMo’s emphasis on word count as a model. I set a goal each month for 30,000 words (except during November when it was 50,000) and for about five years I never failed to reach it.
To be clear, nothing I was writing during this time was meant to be publishable or even particularly good. I was writing mostly just as a creative outlet and to entertain myself. And to prove to myself that I could.
Then the pandemic happened and, well. At first, I tried to stick to my writing routine just as a way to cling to something that felt normal. It might have worked but I’d run into sort of an unexpected problem. Like I said, most of the stuff I wrote during this five years of writing productivity was intentional garbage, meant mostly as a form of play. But in February 2020, I finished a draft of a story that I…actually kind of liked. I wanted to spend more time with it. So I decided to revise it.
That’s when I discovered the main challenge of basing your writing productivity on word count: it’s not conducive to revision. At least not for me. For me, revision is always one step forward and two steps back. If I’m doing it right, I’m losing more words than I’m producing as I hone and shape my story. That makes reaching a word count goal pretty much impossible.
The other challenge was that in order to meet my word count goal every month, I had learned how to push through story-related problems in order to keep going rather than stopping and thinking them through. If I was writing a scene that wasn’t working, I’d mark it in my mind as something to fix later if I came back. Or if the story started going in a direction that wasn’t working, I’d let it go there for a while and then figure out a way to bring it back. Learning to push through problems rather than give up is important but also because I wasn’t fixing the problems in “real time” that meant I had a manuscript that was basically a giant mess of problems. I wasn’t revising so much as writing a whole new story over the one that was already written.
It took me a while to figure out a new routine that was more conducive to this type of work. For a while, I worked without any sort of set goal but found that when I did this I would stop writing for long periods and by the time I got back to it, I would forget where I was or what I was doing. I needed some kind of goal to be working toward.
I decided on a time-related goal rather than a word count goal. Each week, my goal is to write for a total of 300 minutes (or 5 hours).(2) For me (as someone with what is probably an unusual amount of autonomy over how I use my time but who also still works a full time job and has a life), this goal is challenging but doable. It’s enough to keep me productive without taking the fun out of what is for me still basically a hobby. To be sure, meeting the goal is easier some weeks than others but so far I’ve been able to keep at it and with the new idea I started working on over the summer,(3) it’s allowed me time to solve problems and do research as I go, which will hopefully result in a stronger finished draft at some point.
So because I’m still sticking to my time-based goal rather than a word count one and because I want to be more thoughtful and deliberate with this new story, I’m not doing NaNoWriMo this year. At least not for writing.
I did challenge myself, however, to do a NaNoWriMo-like activity focused on cultivating a newer creative habit. Back in February, I bought an acoustic guitar (as part of a creative research project, actually) and have been having some fun learning how to play. But like my writing a few years ago, the habit of playing had fallen by the wayside in recent months and I was trying to get myself back into it. So I decided to treat this November as a NaNoWriMo for guitar playing. The goal is still time-based—I’m aiming for 500 minutes of playing time by the end of the month, which has been quite challenging! But the experience feels like it’s doing for me what my first NaNoWriMo did all those years ago: giving me an opportunity to spend time with a creative activity that I enjoy and creating a habit that I’ll hopefully be able to continue even after the month is over.
Anyway, Happy NaNoWriMo to all who celebrate!
- This wasn’t as bad as it sounds. My jobs were all library-related jobs that gave me a certain amount of flexibility with my schedule and work load, unlike (for example) waiting tables or working in retail. It was definitely stressful but it was all experience that was directly relevant to what I ultimately wanted to do. In fact, one of the jobs I had back then was as a grad assistant in the same department I’m now head of. So, you know. It worked out for me.
- This applies only to the fiction writing I do for fun, not my work-related or scholarly writing.
- After almost three years of working on it, I decided to retire the story I’d been revising. I completed one revised draft and had started a second round of revisions but as I was working on this second round, I was starting to confuse myself and felt like I needed some space. I might go back to it someday. At the time I decided to stop working on it, I didn’t have any new ideas, which was kind of scary but luckily one came along and it’s one I’m really excited about at the moment.