By Anna Marcus
In the fall of 2016, I was newly unemployed, mourning the loss of one of my dearest friends, and feeling quite depressed. A writer friend of mine had participated in this crazy thing called National Novel Writing Month (NanoWriMo) the year before, when people around the world write 50,000 words in thirty days over the month of November. She had produced a rough draft of a novel in that time. I was so impressed with what she had done, but I didn’t think I would ever have the time to do such a thing. Then, by the next year, my life had changed dramatically. All I had was time, and 20,000 words of a novel-in-progress that I doubted I would ever complete. I needed a big hairy audacious goal to pull myself out of my funk, and NanoWriMo gave it to me.
Counting Words Obsessively
When I signed up in late October 2016 I didn’t know what I was getting myself into. NanoWriMo isn’t just a writing challenge, it’s a bootcamp, social network, learning platform, and Fitbit for words all-in-one. Messages started to flood my inbox about webinars I could take on every aspect of the writing and planning process. Famous writers were tweeting out motivational words. Every day I clocked my new word count on my personal page on the NanoWriMo website, and they would calculate how many words a day I would need to write thereafter to reach my goal. It was like a Weightwatcher’s Weight Loss Journey graph, but in reverse.
Finding a Community of Writers
I joined The Southern Dutchess County of New York local chapter of NanoWriMo on Facebook, which actually covers a much larger region encompassing Dutchess, Orange, and Sullivan counties. Every week the group held live write-in events around the area, and I joined some of these, crowding myself and my laptop around tables pushed together in the back of a chain restaurant with a bunch of fellow Wrimos. One of the exercises we did was writing sprints. The coordinator (or Municipal Liaison in Nano-speak) would call out a word count goal like 350 words in ten minutes, and she would start a timer. All you would hear was the clacking of fingers on keyboards (and the occasional scratching of a pen in a notebook) as we raced to the finish line.
The great thing about those speed exercises was that they pushed me out of my critical headspace. I didn’t have time to think, “Is this good?,” I just had to write. And I have to say, I wrote some of the best passages of my novel during that month. When the goal was just to pile up the words, I was forced to do more free-writing, which pushed me to take more risks with my story. I’ll never forget one afternoon when I stopped a writing sprint and I realized I had literally just made my protagonist jump off a roof. I laughed at myself and almost deleted the scene, but I needed the words so I kept it in. That crazy derailment shook my plot up and helped me find a more authentic path to my heroine’s final resolution at the end of the book.
Reaching the Finish Line
By November 30, 2016 I had written 60,000 words, and while my novel was not finished (not yet), I had successfully beat my depression and I was a more confident writer. In fact, I participated in NanoWriMo again in 2017, for the express purpose of getting to the end of my novel, and I did that by November 30th of that year, rounding off at 108,000 words.
I didn’t do NanoWriMo the classic way, starting from scratch and writing 50,000 words in one month. I had a novel already in-progress, I just needed a kick in the pants to complete it. Now that I’ve done that, and I am nearing the end of my two-year revision process, I am so grateful for my NanoWriMo experiences. Writing a first draft of a novel should be fast and messy. There is no sense in making it polished, when you’re just going to have to rewrite it many times anyway. NanoWriMo, while a bit gimmicky and silly, was exactly what I needed to get out of my own way, and learn how to write fast.
Writing a novel is a marathon, but it’s absolutely doable if you break it up into small pieces and have a supportive team to cheer you on. If you have always wanted to write a novel or a memoir, this is a great time to do it. I challenge you to join NanoWriMo this November, throw yourself into the process, and when you reach 50,000 words you can get one of these nifty certificates too (and a great sense of accomplishment).
I want to give a shout out to the wonderful, tireless Municipal Liaisons who volunteer their time to run the Southern Dutchess County chapter of NanoWriMo: Rebecca Ramaglia, Tracy Elizabeth, and Rachel Coleman. Thank you for organizing our regional community of writers in addition to writing your own 50,000 words every year. Remember, pantsers are awesome but planners rule!