NaNo is over. Here’s what worked for me

Last year, I decided sometime in early October to give it a try. My professional obligations always kept me from participating in the past, so when I realized I’d finally have the time to try it, I jumped in with both feet.

50,000 words? In 30 days? Piece of cake!

That’s what I thought at the time, anyway.

I had a seed of an idea I tinkered with (a sci-fi WIP I wound up finishing later), and even wrote out a few trial chapters while I was off work for a couple days in October. My suspicions were confirmed at that time, and I thought it would be a cakewalk to get to the vaunted number by November 30.

And then November came.

If you’ve ever gone a spell without going to the gym, or having a run/bike ride/etc., you’ll know exactly what’s coming next. Try to max out on the first day, and you might actually die. In my case, it turned out that cranking out 1,667 words (on average) every single day wasn’t nearly as easy as I thought it would be when I took on the challenge. I don’t remember the exact numbers, but I want to say I was closer to 500-600 words a night. I hadn’t outlined prior to the start of November, believing myself to be a pure panster, able to cook up a masterpiece off the cuff. My confidence in my own abilities carried me to about the middle of the month before I hit the wall like a crash test dummy. My word counts dwindled further, and I saw my stats on the website dipping below the water line. The discouragement that followed was enough to sink my efforts for good. I finished the month with about 21,000 words – good, but far short of what I had imagined.
This year, I learned from my mistakes. On Wednesday, the day before Thanksgiving, I cleared 50,000 words for the month, sealing my first ever NaNo victory! What follows here are some things I tried this time around:

Prepare ahead of time. I realized after last year’s debacle that I was not, in fact, a panster. Once I settled on a new idea, I took Preptober seriously and made myself plot out the major beats of the story start to finish using a beat sheet from here: It wasn’t perfect, and still lacked important details I could have used like why characters did what I wanted them to do. Still, having the bones of the story allowed me to operate when the time came, and if all else failed, I could improvise in small spurts to find my way to the next beat.
• Good habits. Back to the exercise example above, good habits are built over time. Some days it sucks, and I want to do literally anything else but write. A year ago, I’d use this excuse to give myself a “day off,” which was really little more than a convenient crutch because the writing had lost its shine and felt too much like work. This year, I sat down every single day from November 1 until I finished on November 27. I found a favorite spot in the house where I felt most comfortable, put my headphones on, and listened to an album that allowed me to stay in my groove while I got down to business (the album, if you’re curious, was Lindsey Stirling’s Artemis). Additionally, I made use of word sprints. Last year, I’d push and suffer until I got bored or frustrated. This year, I set a timer for 15 minutes, and let my fingers fly until the timer went off. After a couple tries, I knew I could get about 400-500 words in a sprint – not bad at all. Doing this 3-4 times a night, depending on flow and energy level, got me to my needed counts. In the last week, I was putting out 2,000 words a night with no fear. This brings me to my last point:
• Don’t be afraid to fail. My first time around, I was in search of the perfect word, and I lost a great deal of time if the sentence I put down didn’t inspire me to continue. As you can imagine, I didn’t feel very inspired much of the time. My motto going into this year’s attempt was to Embrace the Poop. I acknowledged that what I put into my first draft wasn’t going to be the highest quality. Some nights, I dare say they weren’t quality at all. But I learned to accept that, knowing that I would be making another pass with edits and redoing the sections that needed it most. I didn’t aim for perfection this time, and it paid off with a NaNo win. Those words you put down don’t have to compete with Hemmingway; they just have to be there.

So that’s what worked for me. Your mileage may vary, but if you haven’t tried any of these things before, maybe they’re the key to unlocking your next big gains. Whether you won NaNoWriMo or came up short, keep on trying! And keep in touch too. Writing, like weightlifting, is better with a spotter.

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