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NaNoWriMo: What You Will Learn

Last week, I shared my reasons for joining the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) Challenge to write a 50k book in 30 days. But I have more to say about the benefits of taking on such a large writing challenge.

Anytime you can set aside a chunk of time to write is a good thing, but dedicating an entire month to a huge goal allows you to be heroic about it. Humans can’t sustain a pace that’s required in NaNoWriMo for the long haul. But the challenge is one month. Just one month. Sure, it’s a hectic month with Thanksgiving right at the end when you need all the time you can get to cram more words onto the page. But if you do this challenge, it can be a good writing month. No, a great writing month.

NaNoWriMo lets you give yourself permission to put your writing first.

Sometimes permission is the only thing standing in your way. I remember thinking there was no way I could write all day for clients and then write a novel after, especially with a family to take care of too. I would be too tired. There wouldn’t be any words left. It would be too hard.

I was wrong. It was great to steal off to write in cafes while my husband watched our son. It was liberating to steal time in between clients to capture a hundred words or so and watch that word count creep toward the goal. But those weren’t the only benefits of doing NaNoWriMo.

Here were the top takeaways for me:

NaNoWriMo helped me establish a good practice for my work. I’d always looked at my writing as project-based or client-based. I wrote and then got paid. Or nearly always so. (There was that one director who went to Thailand to shoot our documentary and never returned. And two clients who declared bankruptcy and never paid. Oh and…yeah, sometimes people don’t pay. It stinks, but that’s another blog.) NaNoWriMo forced me to set aside time to write for me without promise of payment. It allowed me to take back my writing and do it for myself.

This practice became a habit. I never gave it up, even when I decided the story I’d been writing wasn’t going anywhere. After NaNoWriMo ended, I jumped into another story. My habit was set. When I tried to go back to writing only for clients, I missed my work.

It got my butt in the seat. Now this may be similar to forming a habit, but not entirely. Some days it’s easy to say I’m not in the mood or not “feeling” it. It happened a few times during NaNoWriMo, but if I wanted to win the challenge I didn’t have the choice of skipping a day. This taught me to sit down and write even when I don’t feel like I have any more words in my head and no ideas. I’d done that for client work, but it’s a different beast when you have to find the discipline to write for yourself.

The challenge made me focus on goals for my writing and set up a schedule like I would for any client. Now I’m the first to admit I don’t always reach those goals. I have a horrible habit of underestimating how much time I need to do things. It’s why I always pad my production schedule for clients. I haven’t learned how to do that for myself as well, but I try to be kind when I miss a deadline or realize I need more time to fix a chapter or add a scene. But having a goal helps me stay on track and moving toward the finish line, which in this case is a polished manuscript. The point is to keep working and making progress, not when it’s finished.

I learned that “pantsing” is not for me. I need to see the big picture and establish the throughline before I start writing. I need to plot, which I didn’t do the first NaNoWriMo. While I still love the character and many scenes from that story, it had serious structural issues that would have meant a complete overhaul and rewrite to fix. I decided the story wasn’t strong enough to warrant that much effort. I still love my character and may revisit him in the future, but for now, he sits in my digital archive waiting. My new character came to me quickly, but then was planned and structured and he’s faring better for it.

My failed story taught me the value of writing myself into a corner though. It taught me to allow scenes to flow organically and to write them when I come up with the idea for them, even if it means writing them out of sequence. I learned to think about story logic and character development. Would my character do this? What would he do next? Why? I also learned to be flexible with my plot to allow for moments of inspiration.

Failing taught me too. Writing has a steep learning curve. Some things come easily, while others don’t. For me, setting and description were the issues. Dialogue and characterization came easily to me. Creating scenes was fairly easy too. But after years of writing scripts and speeches, description was not natural to me, beyond EXT: Night or INT: Studio, which won’t fly in a book. My failures in that first NaNoWriMo helped me do better the next time.

Hitting my goal and winning NaNoWriMo taught me too. I saw I could do it. I could write an entire book in a reasonable amount of time while working for clients. Obviously, the editing and revision process take a good deal longer, but I still considered hitting that 50k mark a success. To be honest, I wrote more than 80k words that month. It was a great feeling.

I hope you give NaNoWriMo a try. I know you will learn a lot too.

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