Reflections on my first NaNoWriMo

Caption 'I've just finished my first NaNoWriMo... now what?' on yellow background

I’ve just finished my very first NaNoWriMo.

Sort of.

NaNoWriMo – National Novel Writing Month – is an annual endeavour in which people all around the world attempt to write a novel in a month. A novel, in this case, meaning 50,000 words, or around 1600 words a day.

I haven’t actually written a novel, I’ve written non-fiction. I suppose that means that if I’d been doing NaNoWriMo officially, I would have been a member of the NaNoRebels group. But as I didn’t sign up to the website as a formal participant, I can’t even claim that.

What I can say is that throughout November I did some creative, unpaid, focused writing on every day apart from two. And now I have just over 75,000 new words sitting in a document on my desktop.

I’ve found NaNoWriMo a hugely interesting and rewarding process, and one that I think will have an ongoing impact on the way I write. My key takeaway – one that sounds so obvious that it’s barely worth saying – is that the only way to write is to put words on a page.

Like many writers, I tend to overthink things, and often make them more complicated than I need to. I’ve had an idea for a non-fiction book floating around in my head for the last few years, but never felt that I could justify paying attention to that instead of chasing down paid work.

Earlier this year, I finally got around to writing down an outline of what that book might look like. I applied for an Arts Tasmania grant, hoping that I could buy myself a few solid months of time to get stuck into it. Although I got some great feedback, I didn’t get the grant, so had pretty much decided to put the book on hold indefinitely.

I had this idea that the only way to write something so substantial was to dedicate myself to it full time.

But very few writers have that luxury of undisturbed writing time (especially women writers – as this great article by Brigid Schulte notes). So rather than spend more time and effort on more grant applications, residencies, or conferences, I thought I might as well crack on and see how many words I could get on the page by squeezing a little bit of daily writing around all the other things I was doing. NaNoWriMo gave me the boost I needed to start.

Here was my process.

Because I wasn’t writing a novel, I didn’t feel that I needed to start out with a clear narrative arc. Instead, informed by all the work I’d done on the outline and application earlier in the year, I wrote a list of 30 writing prompts. Some were quotes from other writers. Some were very broad topics (islands, cities, water). Some were specific places (Edinburgh, Bruny Island, London). And some were intentionally left open (just sit down and see what you feel like writing today).

Each day, I would get my work obligations out of the way first. But I committed to leaving at least 40 minutes to an hour, immediately before school pickup, to selecting one of the prompts at random and writing as much on it as I could. Sometimes, I only reached 800 words, so I’d pick a second topic and begin that one until I’d reached somewhere between 1500 and 2000 words. Some days, I’d reach 3000 words and not want to stop. My record was 4800 words in one day.

I reached the NaNoWriMo target of 50,000 words on Tuesday 19th November. In official project parlance, that means I am a NaNoWriMo winner! Once I hit that milestone, I went through my document, removed the word counts from each section, and kept on writing… because the numbers no longer mattered.

It’s clear even at a glance that not all of the words I’ve written in November are good ones. Some of them are – some of the writing led me to an idea, thought or question that I hadn’t considered before. And there are probably a few nice phrases and expressions. But others are just a rambling stream of consciousness, that I will be able to delete with ease.

However. They are words on the page that didn’t exist a month ago, and that is the only way to write.

My plan for now is to keep writing until I feel like I have exhausted all my topics, and then I will go back and start revising, researching, digging a little deeper.

I know that the process of editing will take very many times longer than the process of writing. The loose structure I began with in my head may not be the structure I want to use after all. There are paragraphs that I have highlighted in yellow, with a big note typed alongside in capitals saying MORE ON THIS! There were also times when I found myself writing around difficult things instead of confronting them head on, and I made a note to myself to return to those when I’m feeling less cowardly.

I know that a book, especially a non-fiction one, cannot be written without research. I have amassed on my computer a folder with more than 120 research documents within it. But I have flipped around the process that I thought this book would require. I thought I would do the research first and then begin writing. Instead I needed to do the writing first, and then fit the research into that.

I have had features and copywriting projects on the go this month too, and an unexpected benefit has been that the NaNoWriMo process has made all of those easier. That freedom to write without the expectation of excellence seems to have freed up my brain a little. Instead of agonising over writing perfect first sentences, I’ve been doing braindumps, starting to write without overthinking it, and only once I’ve got a significant number of words on the page have I gone back to refine, edit and improve.

I’m delighted to have (sort of) completed my first NaNoWriMo. But I don’t feel like a winner. I feel like a sculptor who has an enormous chunk of clay sitting in front of them. It’s better to have the clay than not have the clay, but at the moment I don’t know what it’s going to turn into.

There are many more months of work ahead, and hopefully they’ll help me find the answer.

Photo by Joanna Kosinska on Unsplash

4 thoughts on “Reflections on my first NaNoWriMo”

  1. Congratulations! That’s fantastic! I won my second NaNoWriMo this year and once I hit the 50,000 words I just stopped. I was exhausted. You sound like you’ve done things in exactly the right way for you and you should be incredibly proud of your achievement!


  2. I woke up this morning with this thought ‘when I see Ruth next, I’ll ask when are you going to write a book?, then this blog arrived to my inbox! Love the serendipitous nature of the moment.


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