10 Lessons I Learned From NaNoWriMo 2018

NaNoWriMo 2018 has come to an end, and for only the third time in eight tries, I won!

But whether I win or not, every attempt at NaNo is a learning experience. Even if the only thing I learned is that I don’t actually want to write the story I’ve started. So here are ten lessons I learned from this year’s NaNo:

Starting is the hardest part.

Chuck Wendig has the most accurate take on starting stories that I’ve ever read. He says that the blank page is perfect, and your job as a writer is to fuck up that perfection with your words. That first moment of staring at a blank page or screen, realizing that whatever you put down is not going to be as perfect as you imagined it, is the absolute worst. But the only way to get past it is to just start throwing shit at that blankness.

But middles are really fucking hard too.

The Muddy Middle, the Second Week Slump, every Wrimo knows it well. No matter how much you think this year or this story will be different, it won’t. The middle sucks. But much like getting started, the only way to deal with it is to make like Hamilton and write your way out.

Long flights are prime writing time.

I traveled a lot this November. A ten-day trip to Spain and Portugal plus my annual trip to New York for Thanksgiving added up to more than 24 hours in transit, not to mention layovers, delays, buses, and trains. And honestly, that was some of my most productive writing time all month. Without the distraction of the internet, and nowhere to go for such a long stretch of time, I was able to immerse myself in my story for hours at a time.

Clean endings make difficult beginnings so leave something for tomorrow.

I’ve always hated the advice to stop a writing session in the middle of a scene or leave something in the tank. If I knew what I wanted to say, why not just get it out now? And what if I forgot what I wanted to write next? But because a lot of my writing during November was sandwiched between other things, I didn’t have the luxury to keep writing until the tank ran out. A lot of times I was forced to stop, whether I wanted to or not. But weirdly, I found that on days when I was forced to stop before I was ready, the next day’s writing came easier. I knew what needed to happen next and story-problem solving ended up happening when I was in the middle of the flow, instead of staring at a blank screen at the beginning of a session.

Create breadcrumbs for Future You.

I quickly learned that days when I had to start a new scene where the hardest to get going, and it was even harder when I was moving from one stage of the plot to the next. Luckily, I had created a super high-level rough outline for myself during October that acted as a general roadmap for me to refer back to as I wrote. And a lot of days, when I finished a writing session, I would write myself a little note detailing my ideas for what came next.

Focus on each day, scene, step, session.

There’s a really great E.L. Doctorow quote that goes, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” NaNoWriMo is really great at pounding this message into your head. Because unless you’re one of those crazy people that knocks out 50k words in a week, or even a day, you can’t win in a single session. All you can do is tackle the next word count goal, plot point, or scene. Knowing that I was going to be really busy this November, I had to put blinders on and not think about what a massive task winning would be. Instead, I focused on that day’s word count and whatever scene I had planned to write, and then went about the rest of my day, knowing that if I kept up with these small chunks, it would add up to a win.

Go at your own pace.

Again, because of my crazy travel schedule for November, I knew there were going to be a lot of days when I just wasn’t going to be able to do the regular 1,667 words. So instead, I created a plan using a tool called Pacemaker that allows you to set an overall goal, and then adjust your approach to your daily word count. So while I was abroad, I dropped my daily word count much lower than the usual average and then set aside a week when I got back to write nearly double the daily pace. It was incredibly helpful to see that I could have these low wordcount days and still build toward a win.

Adjust your plan as you go.

Of course, no plan survives contact with the enemy or the real world. So there were days when I didn’t write at all, and days when I blew my planned word count out of the water. By adjusting my plan throughout the month, based on what I was actually writing, I could stay on track and continue to focus only on what I needed to tackle that day.

You don’t need to write full-time, even if you’re a full-time writer.

Before NaNo, I had been working on a different story and struggling a lot with it. And because I don’t currently have a full-time job, I thought I should be focusing on writing with as much time and energy as I would a 9-5. So when I got back from Spain and finally had a full day to write again, I expected to write like it was literally my job. But what I realized was that I could usually reach my daily word count in about two to three hours and I could max it out in four. Which left me the rest of the day to do…what, exactly? It was incredibly weird to realize that I could be as productive as a full-time writer without actually spending 40 hours a week writing.

What worked before may not work for this story.

This might be the hardest lesson to learn because it feels so fucking unfair. Once you’ve written a novel, once you’ve won NaNo once, you should be able to apply the same approach and repeat the success. But no. Stories are like children (furry or human). They are unique little snowflakes, and while you may grow wiser and more skilled with each one, you still need to approach each with curiosity and an awareness of its individuality.

Did you win NaNoWriMo this year? What did you learn from this crazy writing whirlwind?

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