Surviving My First NaNoWrimo: Lessons Learned

I wrote and published one, single, lonely book. I chose the self-publishing route for this very personal, non-fiction story in which I open up about my struggles with anxiety and weight by facing a very big mountain, equipped with nothing but a bicycle. During this time, I found myself starting to encounter a whole new world – the world of writing. Many a time I heard the word NaNoWrimobut never really understood what it was.

20180331_110417About a year ago I made the decision to embark on the long, daunting, unknown journey of writing my first fiction novel. There were many stops and restarts due to, well, life. However, I found myself wanting, even needing to continue with this journey I had started, and to see if I could indeed write a novel.

As November approached, I again heard murmurs of this mysterious NaNoWrimo thing. Then, a dear friend of mine, and very accomplished editor and author, told me I should just do it with the goal to reach a word count that would complete my first draft. The premise of NaNoWrimo (National Novel Writing Month) is to write the first draft of a novel in a month. But, you can frame the challenge in your own way.

Scouring through the portions of the manuscript that I had so painstakingly obsessed over, I realized I had a solid 50 thousand words. I also realized that a good portion of those 50 thousands words had matured beyond a first draft. OK, then. Why wouldn’t I commit to that last 30K?

WHY??? Because I was afraid to let go, to take that final step and plunge myself into the world of letting my story come out. I was holding back. I couldn’t trust myself to write the story that was swelling within me.

Alpe d'Huez

I tend to work well with concrete goals. In fact, I think that a lot of us do, even if we don’t realize it. It’s like breaking a big mountain (like my Alpe d’huez) into pieces (such as the 21 switchbacks clearly marked on Alpe d’Huez) and conquering each piece at a time (one switchback at a time, one pedal stroke at a time). When something seems incomprehensible, simply breaking it down can transform it into something doable.

I like to examine a goal, and plan out the pieces. I think this is a good way for anyone to plan out the steps they need to take to accomplish a goal they of set out to do. Looking at the very concrete and measurable goal of writing 30 thousand words between the dates of Nov. 1 and Nov. 30 was a very good framework for this completely daunting task of finishing my novel. Further breaking it down into bite sized pieced, I needed to write about 1000 words each day to finish.

Once something becomes doable, even comfortable, why not push ourselves a little further? I thought to myself, hmmm, if I am going to write 1000 words a day, why not try for 2000 words a day? I could try, see how it goes, and always revert back to the 1000. Why not?

I also knew that I was going to be away for a few days starting Nov. 3. So, I set some time aside on Nov. 1 and 2 to make sure I got a good start at this Nano thing.

Day 1 came around, I started writing, and guess what happened?

  • let myself go! I just let myself write!!
  • I found a new trust in my abilities as an author to simply tell the story within me!
  • I realized I knew my characters and I knew the story! All that hard work paid off.
  • I wrote 5000 words on Day 1 and another 5000 words on Day 2.
  • I started to really believe in myself! 
  • I had fun!!
  • My writing become exploratory and I was discovering things about the story and the characters that I didn’t know!!

Did I write 5000 words everyday? No. Will I keep all the content I wrote? No.

Did my skills as a writer improve? Definitely. Did I learn something about myself? For sure. Did I have fun? A million times yes. Will I do NaNoWrimo again? Absolutely!!!

Did I finish? YES!! I finished on Day 18. I reached 30 thousand words by Day 12. I decided to massage out another 10 thousand and reached 40 thousand by Day 15. Then I took the plunge and reached 50 thousand on Day 18 during which I wrote over 9900 words in about five hours. It was very freeing and a tonne of fun! For me, this was a big step.

I do recommend doing at least some planning to best use your month. Here are MY TIPS for you to successfully finish NaNoWrimo and have FUN doing it.

  1. KNOW YOUR MAIN CHARACTERS. At least an outline for each. is my favourite for character templates.
  2. KNOW YOUR MAJOR PLOT POINTS. Don’t obsess over it. has some great timeline and story line templates. Even just list the major events.
  3. TRY WRITING BY SCENE. If a an exciting, vivid scene flashes into your mind, bullet point it out so you can write it later. A great scene can end up being a huge building block for your story.
  4. EXPLORE AS YOU WRITE. Allow yourself the freedom. Do not worry about what you will have to cut or the changes you will have to make. Just let it come out!
  5. SCHEDULE TIME. I use a calendar. I schedule time for writing. Like an appointment, stick to it. Even a fifteen minute timeslot can make a difference.
  6. CLEAR YOUR MIND. Take time out when your mind gets cluttered. Even a 15 minute hot bubble bath or a walk outside can leave you fresh and ready to go again.
  7. PRIORITIZE. It is OK to shift some things out of November so that you can spend time writing. This is the whole point. We can’t do everything, but we can make time for what is important.
  8. BREAK IT DOWN. Set your own goal for your total word count, and break it into pieces. Plan out the month according to the days that you will more, and less time, and set goals for your word count each day.
  9. GO MOBILE. Enable yourself to write anywhere. I have a really old, crappy phone, and I was still able to write in the airport, on the airplane, and in the hotel. I use Docs To Go. It’s free. It’s easy.
  10. CONNECT. There is a whole NaNoWrimo world out there. Connect to other writers suffering through it, and encourage each other. Both locally and online. The community is amazing. Look under Regions, Inspiration, or Conversation on the main NaNoWrimo page.

highly recommend reading How to Finish NaNoWrimo in Two Weeks. This concise and well written article provides great tips regardless of how quickly or slowly you want to complete NaNoWrimo. Konn is very inspiring, and his approach was well planned and steady. I am definitely going to use his tips for next year.

I also highly recommend reading Write 500 Words in 15 Minutes. This is how I was able to achieve a consistent 1000 words in an hour, and thus why I chose to strive for 2000 each day during NaNoWrimo. Angela is deeply passionate about helping other writers, and her resources are amazing.

If you have tips you would like to share, leave a comment!!

Remember…you can talk yourself into, or out of, anything.



6 thoughts on “Surviving My First NaNoWrimo: Lessons Learned

Add yours

  1. Congrats on a successful NaNo! That’s wonderful progress! I hope you write about the story! I have learned a lot about my writing processes and writing self this NaNo. I’m at about 9,000, but I know that I can’t rush the scenes or the research (it’s a historical), or else it’s wasted words. Also, I learned that I need to schedule my own NaNo not in the month of November (when I host my sister-in-law and celebrate my boys’ birthday and Thanksgiving (I just hosted 11 and am so tired!). However, I realize–as you say–that even a 15 minute block can produce some good writing. Persistence is key!


    1. Thanks Rebecca! I love your idea of scheduling your own Nano. I think I should consider that myself and not wait till November 🙂 I understand your need not to rush. I did a lot of research at the beginning, and the first parts of the writing were slow. But, that really worked and was needed. I think what I took from Nano is that at a certain point, you’ve done enough research, and you can let it fly 🙂 Good luck with your writing !!!


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