Five lessons from NaNoWriMo 2020

November has an interesting reputation in the writing world. It’s known as National Novel Writing Month, and those of us who’ve taken part in the challenge to write 50,000 words in 30 days both love and hate it.

We love it because it helps us get further ahead in our writing. We hate it because that jump ahead often comes at the cost of late nights, writer’s block, and a pile of frustration.

I’ve taken part in the NaNoWriMo challenge six times: in 2013 through 2017, and again this year. I’ve only won once, however, way back in 2013. Other years, I’ve usually hovered between 25,000 and 30,000 words. Though I won’t specify the word count that didn’t breach 5,000.

None of that prevented me from having high hopes for this year. I started the month determined to write every day, to reach that 50,000-word mark, maybe even reach 60,000 words and finish my current draft. I was excited. I was invested.

I was… over-shooting, as it turned out.

Don’t get me wrong, I am happy with how I did. Very happy. As I mentioned in my December writing update, I made it to more than 16,000 words, which is more than I’ve written in a single month in a long time. I can’t possibly be disappointed in that.

That said, it is worth looking at why I didn’t reach a higher word count, to help both myself and, I hope, others who may want to take part in the future. So here are my top five lessons from NaNoWriMo 2020.

  1. When I wrote, I wrote a lot—usually at least 2,000 words. It gave me some leeway at the beginning of the month, and likely would have meant ending early, if I’d kept up. Plus, for me and anyone else who finds a similar trend, it is a good sign for our writing overall. For me, it means I can do more writing than I had been prior to November, so long as I put in the same focus when I sit down with my laptop. And maybe engage in the occasional word war, either with myself or others.
  2. Because I wrote almost every day for the first week or two, I was able to keep better pay attention to when I best write—something I recommend every writer take the time to figure out. I already had a sense that I’m a better writer in the morning, but this year’s NaNoWriMo re-confirmed that. However, I also found that I did better on weeknight evenings than I expected; I still managed to get around 2,000 words those nights, though it took me longer than on weekend mornings. If you pay attention to your own writing trends, you may end up finding a similar surprise; or if you’re new to writing, you may learn that your best writing time is something completely unexpected.
  3. My streak and word count both fell off because I was simply pushing myself to do too much. Between work, NaNoWriMo, and my other commitments, something had to give. So my advice here, for myself and others, is this: Challenge yourself, but be somewhat realistic about it. Instead of jumping to 50,000 words, for example, I should have maybe aimed for 25,000 or 30,000.
  4. I’m going to re-emphasize the first half of that last one here: DO challenge yourself. Because I did try, even though I failed, I accomplished much more than I otherwise would have. Not only did I gain an extra 16,000-plus words, I also got significantly deeper into my characters’ heads. The words for this WIP are flowing much better now, and so it’s easier to write the draft when I do get the chance to sit down and do so.
  5. And finally, something I need to get better at myself: don’t be afraid to take time for yourself as part of taking the challenge on, and don’t be afraid to tell the people in your life that you’ll be doing the challenge. As I learned from the few people I told about NaNoWriMo this year, people love to encourage these sorts of things, and they love to hear how you’re doing. I think my boyfriend brought up my daily writing more often than I did, and I can’t begin to tell you how much that made me want to keep going. So please, bring others into your challenge circle, even if they’re not taking part in the challenge themselves.

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