NaNoWriMo — One Writer’s Experience

I started a NaNoWriMo  (National Novel Writing Month) privately with a few of my writing students on Dec 25th, 2011, completed a rough first draft of some 52,000 words in 30 days and the result eventually became my first published novel, ART IN THE BLOOD, A Sherlock Holmes Adventure, HarperCollins, October 2015.

Here’s some advice from the trenches.

Why should you do a NaNoWriMo?

The real question; why not? Do it because it’s worthwhile, it’s fun, it probably scares you, and if you’re a writer trying to break through in some way (by that I mean old fears, old patterns, old ways of working), it can be liberating… and did I say fun? If you do it full out, and you really should approach it no other way, then you will profit by it creatively, psychologically… and may even end up with a first draft you can use. It strengthens you as a writer and as a person.

But in some cases… you really shouldn’t, not now.  

The NaNoWriMo organizers recommended (and still do, I think) a kind of contract you write up and sign. You must be willing to do this. The carrot is having a first draft. The stick is the negative promise you make (see below), which is what you vow to do if you do not achieve the 50,000 words in 30 days.   Live by it. REALLY, if you are half assed about your commitment, it can harm you because you will be reinforcing “giving up”. Do this full out or don’t do it.

However consider first if it’s the right time for you. Do NOT attempt this at the same time as other unusually challenging things such as starting a diet, trying to finish your thesis, recovering from an illness, working two jobs, grieving, going through a move, divorce, separation, etc.

Doing a NaNoWriMo is not therapy.

It is more like a very demanding job.  You are asking for failure if you couple it with major stressors…and you don’t need that. Do it when your head is clear, your body willing, and your desire is strong… and you have at least two or more hours free a day.

What about that negative promise thing? Do I really need to do this?

Yes, because it works. This means you vow (and it’s written out in your contract) to do something you REALLY don’t want to do if you give up or do not make the 50,000 word deadline. This cannot be a thing that harms you or others. Something benign but really something you’ll avoid at GREAT COST. For me… I vowed to donate $500 to the political party which is NOT my choice. I was damned sure they were not going to get my money, and I made my quota.

Another friend (healthy and young, but who hated exercise) vowed to run/walk a 5k if she failed. She did fail (and only because she tried to do this while working a 16 hour a day film industry job while also completing a screenplay – see my advice above). She did the 5k (with me) and while she hated doing it, it did her no harm… and in fact, may have done her some good.

Other choices might include donating your hair to Locks of Love, visiting a far off family member you’ve been neglecting, taking that dancing class with your spouse, etc etc. No harm done…but you would strongly rather not do this.   You MUST keep your promise if you fail… must. It helps scare you into completing the task.  Do it.

What if I don’t have a plot?

You don’t need a plot to start. You do need a character and a premise and a genre in mind. Like this: Contemporary mystery set in Boston. A divorced female PI. First person. A famous doctor has gone missing. You can start with as little as that.

Shouldn’t I outline first?’

If you want an excuse not to begin, this isn’t one. While some successful Nanowrimo-ers pre-plot, I’m willing to bet that most do not. Just begin. You’ll be doing what is called “pantsing” that is, flying by the seat of your pants. The result will likely be a bumpy first draft, full of holes, and things that don’t quite tie together but hey, that’s the very definition of a first draft.

But I’m a perfectionist! Can I still do this?

Yes, I’m one and understand. You’ll have to put that on hold during the thirty days. Perfection will not happen. Your goal here will be to generate, generate, generate There is no time for revision or perfection. As a perfectionist, I know that some of this is excruciating. But that is why most people never finish a first draft. Do a NaNoWriMo and you will have a first draft. But quite a bit of this process is very freeing. You are very, very permitted to write utter shit. But you might as well kind of make it pertain to the story you are telling. You can clean it up later. But do take the story to the end.

But what if it’s so bad that it’s irredeemable?

That could happen. But what have you got to lose? In 30 days, it will be 30 days later anyway. Your first draft might very well be the springboard to… another draft… that is very redeemable. And even if no, you will have proven to yourself that you have the willpower to grit your teeth and write 50,000 words NO MATTER WHAT. You’ll feel good about that, believe me.

Yeah, but I heard of somebody who did a first draft this way and published it, unedited.


How much time does it take?

To make quota you have to do 1,667 words a day. This took me between 1 and 5 hours daily with about a 2 to 2/12 hour average. But these are very concentrated hours. I did mine first thing in the morning while fresh. Clear some time at the best brainwork time you have available to you.

Anything I can do to prep?

I used Scrivener and highly recommend working in this program. If you don’t have it already, spend the $45 and download this and set up a document with project goals. If this is daunting, skip this and start in your word processing software and download Scrivener later if you have time. Have snacks and caffeine and water on hand next to you as you write. Let those you live with know not to disturb you. Set up your work area to be as comfortable and distraction free as possible. Don’t diet while doing this. Some people like white noise or music, I prefer neither. Protect your writing space as best you can; then make do with “what is” and go for it.

But I still think I’ll need to outline.

That’s okay. I found myself plunging in, then… when I didn’t know what to do next, I pulled out and outlined for a day or two, then plunged back in and had to make up word quota. This is a common practice. Don’t pull out for more than two days from word count, however. When in doubt, set up lots of plot threads. Even if you don’t pay them all off later, you can weed them out. But you’ll have plenty of starting points from which to spin out later scenes.

What if my project requires research?

Mine did, being set in 1888.  But be careful, that can be a distraction and a time sink. I made up a rule on the fly. If looking up something took more than 10 minutes, I put stars in *** and a summary of what I needed and just kept writing. I knew that later I’d search my  doc for *** and do the research. Sometimes, I did this after completing my day’s quota, and some I left for much later.

Do I have to do it on November 1 with the official site?

No. But don’t underestimate the power of group energy. Consider getting your own group together to do it at a different time if November is a bad month for you (it is for me). I gave the gift of this commitment to my work as a Christmas present to myself. Any time will work as long as it it becomes a top priority.  Some groups even schedule group writing sessions.  Don’t make this a condition, do it only if it feels supportive to you.

Will I get a published work out of this?

Who knows? You certainly won’t if you don’t write a first draft some way. A number of projects begun in NaNoWriMo have been published, some self-published but some by majors. Mine was bought by HarperCollins. It can happen. Full disclosure though, I’m an experienced writer in other media. Had one unpublished novel under my belt. Even so, I felt very challenged and learned a lot from doing this. And… I did more than a year of rewriting on mine before submitting it.

When you let go of the results and concentrate on the process which is putting words on the page, reliably, repeatedly, day in and day out… you will end up winning. And you won’t regret it. That I guarantee.


Now stop reading this and make yourself a promise.


  1. Harley
    October 31, 2015

    I’m in! Every year I think, “no, this is NOT what I need to be doing” but every year I get swept up by NaNoWriMo fever. I throw in everything but the kitchen sink and finish somewhere between 10:30 pm and midnight on the last day of November. I’m a NaNo addict.

  2. Kathleen Kaska
    November 26, 2015

    I was delighted to learn that Art in the Blood was the result of NaNoWriMo! I’ve never participated in the program, but I know many authors who have. What a commitment! I understand now how it can be a great motivating tool. Thanks for sharing this.


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