In November 2016, I wrote my very first novel during National Novel Writing Month. This is a mouthful so it gets abbreviated to NaNoWriMo, which really is only slightly less of a mouthful. Each year, in November, thousands of writers all around the world take up the challenge to write a 50,000 word (approximately 180 page) novel for NaNoWriMo.
I can now count myself as a NaNoWriMo ‘winner’. Winners succeed in getting 50,000 words written before the end of the month. Other participants have varying levels of success up to that magic number.
The point is quantity of words, possibly organized in sentences and paragraphs and hopefully in some semblance of a story with characters, settings, dialogue and maybe even a plot. You are to ignore your inner editor and critic and plough on regardless. Just get those words down. My silly little romance may never be seen by anyone else but it more or less contained these essential elements that make it a complete work of fiction.
I understand that doing something like this seems perhaps too ambitious or too ridiculous or certainly quite pointless, but that is exactly why I did it. And I must say, I am extremely proud of achieving this big, hairy, audacious goal.
Here are three surprising lessons from writing a novel in a month:
1) Goal Setting is Key (it really is)
Goal setting just makes sense. Set a goal, write it down and commit to doing it. I heard about NaNoWriMo seven years before I actually did it but only completed a novel when I made it a must in 2016.
All the stuff that goes along with goal setting – having a deadline (30 November), taking action every day (writing some words even though I would regularly think they were awful), focused commitment (unimportant things like the watching TV, interacting with my family and showering were reduced to a minimum) and rewarding milestones (mmmm chocolate, I have never loved you more) are essential facets to achieving a huge goal.
A particularly important part of goal setting is accountability. When you aim to do something big, hairy or audacious, tell everyone about it. They don’t have to understand or even like it, but, by golly, they will have a great time holding you accountable to your lofty ambitions.
2) State of Flow
Creating something, anything at all, feels great. Sometimes it is frustrating, sometimes it is fun, but the great feeling comes from being present with your creation. Yes I have written non-fiction books and blogged now for years, but it took writing a big hulk of a novel to really drive this point home.
Being in this state of flow is what humans want and need more of and it is becoming increasingly rare these days with constant distractions only a tap of the finger away. Flow is always there for the taking. In the throes of creativity you can’t help but be in flow, be really present. And it feels amazing.
Sure, all I have is one gigantic Word document sitting on my computer, but the journey to creating it still felt darn good.
3) Leap Off the Cliff
It is perfectly okay to start something with absolutely no idea of how the process will go, how it should look or how on earth you are going to finish it. This doesn’t just apply to creative projects, but a lot of things in life. As the old adage states: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.
Sometimes it is better not to have the whole thing perfectly mapped out. Trust the process; let yourself be pleasantly surprised by where the project takes you. I am a very organized person and thought I would have a perfect outline and screeds of character notes before I started NaNoWriMo. In fact all I did was draw a giant mind map which I then proceeded to ignore and instead ‘pantsed’ my way through my novel – essentially wrote it from the top of my head or from my proverbial, if you prefer that image.
After all, the journey never goes exactly how you think anyway, so why try to control it? I thought I would be god-like in maneuvering my characters through the plot, but instead they took on a life of their own and surprised me with things they said and did. I thought writing every day would be a hard slog, but instead I had a really awesome time.
I learned a lot from writing a novel in a month and I was particularly surprised with how effective goal setting can really be, how amazing being in a state of flow is and how sometimes it doesn’t matter at all to have an outline or strategy in order to complete something.
Most of all, I was taken aback that such hard work could make me so happy. Time to sign up for this year’s NaNoWriMo. Who is with me?
No Plot? No Problem! – A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days – Chris Batey (USA, 2004)