Notes On My First Attempt at NaNoWriMo: Writing a Novel in 30 Days

It has been five days since I reached the goal of writing 50,000 words, a draft of a novel, in a single month. I wrote, to be precise (sort of), 50,139 words during the month of November, and according to my goal tracking page on Novelpad (an online novel writing application I discovered through the NaNoWrimo website), it took me 4,208 minutes. Now that the dust has settled, I thought I would take a few more minutes to do some MORE writing! So the following are some notes or reflections or takeaways from my first ever attempt at “winning” NaNoWriMo.

I’d like to talk first about that 4,208 minutes. I had zero idea how many minutes or hours it would take me to complete this task. As I’ve said in previous posts, I’ve finished three novels previous to this and it has taken me anywhere from 6 to 10 years to do that for each book–mostly because of this thing the kids these days call “working.” When I was a full time teacher, I wrote in fits and starts–I would do a thing, say, fifteen or twenty pages, and a month later I’d come back to it, have to reread everything I had done, and then dive back in to the best of my ability. I would sometimes carve out entire weekends to do this, but those weekends would come far and few between. Perhaps my most productive run was during those years when I was in an MFA program, because, you know, I didn’t have a choice if I was to succeed in that program. So my experience with writing long-form fiction is that it takes a long-ass time.

The Math

I did the math. It meant that in thirty days I would have to write 1,666 words each day. I asked myself, do I want to write every day for 30 days? While that is not entirely an unpleasant thought, I suspected it would be wise to build in some breaks. I decided to take Saturdays off. No writing on Saturdays. On those four days I would write not a word. So that meant that over 26 days I would have to produce 1,923 words each day. How long would that take me, I wondered. I know that when I have written a blog entry that fell between 1,923 and 3,000 words, it has often taken me the better part of a day–at least several hours at a stretch or spread out over a day or two. If I divide the number of minutes I spent by the number of days it took me, it looks like I wrote for about 161 minutes, or almost 3 hours every day. I think on some days I worked longer than that and on other days I worked less. One of the lovely math features of the Novelpad website is that, if you write more than your goal on any given day, the number of words required for each subsequent day is reduced–kind of a little reward! On the first few days I was kicking ass–exceeding my word count goal by several hundred words–and so my daily word number goal shrunk as the month went on, happily, making it a little easier as things got more difficult. In terms of my overall daily word count goals, there were only two days the entire month where I did not meet or exceed my daily goal.

The Schedule

Pretty consistently I was writing in the morning, first thing. Shower, put something in the gullet, brew some coffee, start writing within a half an hour of waking. For the first week or so I was almost religious about this. I became less religious about it when I realized that on occasion life-stuff would intervene. An early appointment somewhere, a need to go to the grocery store, some home project that needed immediate attention–these things sometimes prevented me from the morning routine. And here’s more evidence of the incredibly beautiful gift of leisure (I am retired): I’ll just write later! And I would, sometimes at night. Rarely, but on occasion, late into the night. For the most part, I stuck to mornings. My mind is most alive then–and it needed to be alive, let me tell you.

Why Does The Mind Need To Be Alive?

About two weeks into the process, I started to worry. I didn’t know where I was going. I had seemingly exhausted forward motion. It felt like I was coming to the end too early. I had one day in my third week when I only wrote 600 words (In my defense, I think that was Thanksgiving). So I developed a strategy of writing miscellaneous little bits in sections labeled by subject. And the bits I was writing, I thought, could later possibly be placed somewhere in the body of what I had already written. The key lesson here, I think, is that when writing fiction under the gun, there is no requirement or necessity in writing things IN ORDER. In fact, that strategy (for most people, I’m guessing) might be a recipe for disaster. Flexibility in your creative thinking, especially with regards to sequence, is absolutely crucial. So, I have made for myself a kind of puzzle that will need piecing together once I arrive at a place where I want to begin the revision. I’m actually quite excited about that.

Realistic Expectations

When I started, I had a fuzzy notion of what I wanted to do. No detailed plot maps. No character list. No sequence of “scenes.” Some people do all of this stuff before November begins–but I have never been a planner when it comes to fiction writing. I’m the kind of writer that needs a germ of an idea or a spark or a voice or a thread–and I just follow along in a kind of mad improvisation. And I had no delusions about writing something great. Realistic, or even LOW expectations are really the best approach to this challenge. It’s really ONLY about the word count. Well, ONLY might be too strong a word. Some attention to doing the best you can do IN THE MOMENT seems like a reasonable expectation. Any monkey can write 50,000 words. But I remember watching the thread on the NaNoWriMo discussion groups and listening to people get downright miserable about the quality of their stuff–and it made me sad. But there was almost always a wise voice that would chime in with some positive affirmation, the essential nugget of which was always something like, “You’re writing. That’s what you wanted to do. You’re doing it. Bravo!”

Cheating

I cheated a bit. Let me explain. In my real life, part of how I have been occupying myself lately is by playing with finger puppets. Specifically, shooting 60 second videos for Instagram in which my finger puppets perform scenes from Hamlet. First (and this was my germ of an idea), it struck me that I could write a novel about a man whose chief occupation would be performing Shakespeare using finger puppets. I was desperate and I was grabbing at straws. This had just been on my mind and I thought I could put it to use. Outside of that, I stated publicly on social media that, as I was preparing for NaNoWriMo, I had Zero Idea. Many of the comments in that thread expressed some enthusiasm for that statement as a possible title for the work. So I took that on, as well. I had a title, Zero Idea, for a novel about a guy doing finger puppet videos of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I knew that that wasn’t enough–that I’d have to give my narrator some other kind of problem to face–and that came to me pretty quickly–but it was kind of a non-sequitur–like how am I going to connect these two very disparate things, or do they even have to be connected, or would I discover that they were not all that disparate after all? Well, we would soon find out.

But the cheating to which I refer had to do with the liberal way I was allowing myself to quote Hamlet directly–so, in the process of my narrator putting on his little production of the play, the story of Hamlet unfolds–and lines from the play find their way into the puppets’ mouths. So I had a plot already to use–or at least, a trajectory of action, and, I had some of the greatest writing in the English language at my disposal. Not only that–but the finger puppets in question are in the likeness of famous people! There’s MORE material to work with.

Now, I’d like to figure out, but I have not yet figured out, what percentage of my 50,139 words are not really my words. I might venture to guess that the number of words I borrowed might be in the thousands. It’s kind of cheating. I mean, creatively, it’s not cheating, but as far as the word count goes, yeah, it’s kind of cheating. But maybe not. . .

I will not really know until the next time I try a NaNoWriMo activity, but I’m still trying to assess whether or not having Hamlet as a template and having lots of famous people at my disposal actually made things easier for me. On the one hand, it was more difficult, because I had to do “research.” I had to find material. I had to choose and order this material. And those words may have flown from my fingertips faster if the only material I needed was the stuff spilling out of my own brain.

And a word, a kind of defense, just in case you want to get critical with me, about this strategy–this mode–this genre: I have become interested lately in genre-busting and general literary rule-breaking. I love the essay that reads like poetry, or the fiction that incorporates “found” material, or novels that take on new forms, or books of non-fiction that are discursive, associative, free-ranging, full of possibility. I love the anecdote, the flash, the aphoristic, and while I am under-read in the genre, I am interested in the phenomena of the “retelling.” A few things stand out for me. David Wroblewski’s The Story of Edgar Sawtelle (another Hamlet retelling–or reframing), and Addie Tsai’s Unwieldy Creatures, (a Frankenstein retelling–or reframing), and almost any non-fiction by David Shields, in particular, Reality Hunger, How Literature Saved My Life, or The Thing About Life Is That One Day You’ll Be Dead–these three writers have been liberating and inspiring to me. It makes me think that I am in pretty good company. Whether what I have written during the month of November works or doesn’t work, is good or isn’t good, is a question for later. I’m giving myself a pretty wide berth before even attempting to read all those words again. At least I feel confident that the kind of cheating I’ve confessed to here is a worthy and sound artistic choice.

Overall, the experience of attempting a draft of a novel in a month was a wonderful one. I learned that I could do it. I learned that I could do it joyfully. I learned that I could carve out the time and not feel overwhelmed or feel like I couldn’t do anything else. It didn’t take over my life. But it did give me a feeling for the possibilities, just in terms of my own productivity and output. If I did this every November, say, I could be generating a new book every year! And that’s a kind of creative success that I have only been able thus far to dream about. I am nearly 100% sure that I will do this again. Onward and upward. Thanks for reading.

Published by michaeljarmer

I'm a public high school English teacher, fiction writer, poet, and musician in Portland, Oregon

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