I was nineteen the first time I participated in National Novel Writing Month (Nanowrimo). I wrote about 2 thousand words and quit. It had been a whim and I was by no means surprised that I hadn’t finished.
I’d never finished a story in my life.
Not really, anyway. I’d been writing for around a decade, and I could count the number of things I’d finished on one hand. And I wouldn’t have needed all the fingers. I’d certainly never written anything close to 50 thousand words.
The next year I purchased Chris Baty’s book No Plot, No Problem. I read it from cover to cover. I decided I was going to try again.
It was 2005 and I was in the process of moving to New York State to live with my sister. My laptop had broken in October, so I was waiting for my new one to come in the mail. I spent the first two weeks of the month with a pink notebook, scribbling until my fingers were screaming and writing the word count at the top of each page (I literally counted each word separately).
When I finally got my laptop, I was behind. I wish I remembered how far behind, I just know it was a lot. I had to type in two weeks of words as well. It seemed impossible.
A couple hours before the deadline, I validated my novel.
That last week was a blur. I remember sitting cross legged on my bed, with trashy court television shows playing in the background, typing as fast as I could. Somehow, I had made it.
The feeling was indescribable. I had never written that much in a year, let alone a single month. I couldn’t believe I’d done it. I ordered a winners t-shirt to commemorate the occasion. (That t-shirt finally became so transparent it had to be thrown out a couple years ago. I wore the heck out of it.)
Over the next 11 Novembers, I participated in Nanowrimo ten times. I won nine out of those ten times. I completed eight novels (2014/15 was the same novel). In 2016 I had to give up at 40 thousand because my mom had knee replacement surgery.
Nanowrimo changed my life. My writing life at least. I learned how to turn off my internal editor and just write. I learned how to let go and let my characters do my own thing. I learned how to finish.
I left that first novel alone until January 1st, when I printed it out and eagerly read it. It was terrible, as predicted, but something amazing happened.
There were scenes I had no memory of writing. Best of all, I wasn’t as terrible as I’d expected. I’d learned so much about my characters. I suddenly saw the holes in my plot. Best of all, there were some gems in that first draft that I never would have seen if I hadn’t finished writing it.
In 2014 (and 2015) I decided to revisit that first Nanowrimo novel. In two Novembers I achieved a new personal best: 100 thousand words on a single novel.
I couldn’t have done it without Nanowrimo.