Thinking of NaNoWriMo? The Truth About Writing a Novel in a Month

Thinking of NaNoWriMo?

Well, it’s October, and you know what that means: yellow leaves, a chill in the air, and a growing buzz about NaNoWriMo.

If that just looked like a goofy jumble of letters and not a word, allow me to explain.

NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month, a yearly event where people from around the world dedicate themselves to writing 50,000 words of an original novel during the month of November. If you meet that goal, you’re considered to have “won” NaNoWriMo.

It’s part contest, part social event, part personal challenge.

It’s almost a rite of passage in the novel-writing world.

But is it the right thing for you?

Writers have a lot of opinions on NaNo. There are the optimists encouraging absolutely everyone, everywhere to give it a whirl. There are the skeptics who see it as a little gimmicky and not necessarily helpful.

You’ll even run into gatekeepers who get upset that newbies try writing a novel in a month, like it’s making a mockery of their slow-cooked literary perfection. (But let’s be real, you don’t need that kind of negativity in your life!)

So what gives? Is NaNoWriMo the best thing you could possibly do as a writer? Or should you let it pass?

My Story

As I’ve been writing for a long time, I finally decided to give NaNo a whirl in 2017. I won, meaning I wrote over 50,000 original words. I came away from the experience with a whole lot more of my book completed, access to some cool writer-sites and resources, and a lovely travel mug, gifted to me by my biggest fan (who happens to be my husband—lucky me).

While NaNo was certainly valuable to me as a writer, there were some real downsides to it as well. I liked the lessons it taught me, but I don’t like everything that happened to my manuscript because of it.

The truth is, I think NaNo is great for a lot of people. But I don’t think it’s necessarily for everybody. If you’re considering participating this year, whether for the first time or the tenth, here are some things to consider before you join. These are things that I wish I would have thought through, and would consider if I choose to participate again:

Truth #1: Your writing is going to suck

If you’re totally new to NaNo (or are just plain new to writing!) perhaps the most important thing to understand is that during November, you’ll be fast-drafting. 

Fast-drafting a book is where you write down your first draft as quickly as possible. No agonizing over word choice. No editing while you go. The words just come streaming into your head and you jot them down as they arrive.

For most of us busy humans, fast-drafting is the only way to feasibly write 50,000 words in a month.

Great, right?

Well, it’s great in that you make a lot of headway in your draft and learn to silence your inner critic.

It’s not great in that you need a firm resolve to edit after you’re done with NaNoWriMo.

When you fast-draft, it’s normal to face massive re-writes during the revision process. You’ll end up scrapping and replacing thousands of your words with better ones. That’s okay.

For a lot of writers, the extra-awful first draft (because all first drafts are already awful) is worth it. The excitement of seeing the multitude of pages you’ve written can be the motivation you need to know that you can do it.

When you get all those words down and saved, suddenly the idea of finishing a novel seems a whole lot less outlandish.

And who wouldn’t want that super-confident feeling after 30 days?

But your fast-draft is just that: a fast-draft, and nothing more.

I say all this because every year agents and editors receive unsolicited NaNo manuscripts come December. As in, people fast-draft and then submit their unedited “book,” thinking that’s all that’s needed to get published.

Don’t do that.

Admit that first drafts suck, and commit to spending some good time revising what you wrote. And if you’re even happier after the revision process, consider working with a freelance editor to get your book in top shape for indie publishing or submitting to an agent.

Truth #2: It’s hard, but not that hard

Some of you may want to slap me when I say I really didn’t think that writing 1,667 words a day was all that hard.

Granted, I’m a person who can get very focused on my writing when I have some sort of deadline or goal.

Also, I don’t work overtime and am not in school and don’t have kids. Some of you do. And I do know that under 20% of entrants actually write over 50,000 words every NaNo, so it’s clearly not the easiest feat for everyone.

But it’s not as completely impossible as you would think either.

For me, writing the average 1,667 words typically took an hour on a good day with no interruptions. Sometimes it’d be closer to two hours. And sometimes I’d write a little here and a little there throughout the day to get the word count without having one solid block of writing time.

But the truth is, if you’re truly fast-drafting and aren’t scrutinizing every word or second-guessing yourself, it doesn’t have to be a giant time commitment.

Yes, some things do have to give during NaNo. I will never be one to get up an hour earlier to write (sleep is too precious!). But I can sacrifice Netflix for the month. And browsing through Instagram. And falling down rabbit holes of reading random articles.

An hour a day was very possible for me. Maybe not long-term, but for a month it was.

If you’re already used to writing quite a lot, I don’t think NaNo is something to feel anxious about. It really can be within your reach.

Truth #3: You can (and maybe should) set your own goals

All that being said, you may be one of those people in school full-time, working full-time, with a family and a dog and who knows what else on your plate.

Or you may be brand-new to writing and aren’t used to writing every day.

Whatever it is you have going on in your life, that’s totally okay. But that doesn’t mean you have to forgo signing up. For you, it may be better to set your own personal goals for the month: a smaller goal you can start with that will help you feel more confident, not less.

While the basic idea of NaNo is to write 50,000 words, there are some people who get too hung up on the numbers and feel discouraged because they can’t meet that goal.

NaNoWriMo is a great tool, but it’s not something that should turn you off to writing. Adjust as needed.

Maybe you set the goal to write 100 words every day. Or to write for 10 minutes on your lunch break. All of that is great.

Enjoy the victory of writing 10,000 words, 50,000 words, or whatever you wrote, however big or small.

Truth #4: It’s not suited to every writing style or every manuscript

Oh boy, did I learn this one the hard way.

Traditionally during NaNoWriMo, a writer is supposed to plan a new novel in October and then set out to draft it in November. You’re working on a brand-new project specifically planned and crafted to be written within a 30-day time frame.

I however, didn’t do that. I ignored the rules and registered as a “Rebel” to the program. And in my rebellious ways worked on a novel that wasn’t new, but was one I had been working on for over three years.

Yes, I added the 50,000 words. But…

I don’t know if I’ll use any of them.

I’ve written about this problematic WIP before, and entering it in NaNo may have been part of the problem. Why? Because it was a novel that was not designed to be fast-drafted.

I Am the North is complex and character-driven, and is one that I had been carefully planning and writing over the course of several years. Then comes NaNoWriMo. Without the slower pace to plan and develop as I went, (like I normally do) I just kept writing. And like a ship slowly getting off course, I finished up the month miles away from where I would have wanted in the storyline, and in a place where it would be really difficult to steer it back.

The reason NaNo didn’t work magic for me was that I already had a method of writing that worked well for me, but I tried to change it for NaNo.

I really think your NaNo project will be most successful if you design a project that’s meant to be fast-drafted, or if you’re working to develop a writing habit rather than disrupting one that already works for you.

Additionally, I think some genres lend themselves better to being NaNo projects—books that are more plot-driven and action-packed may be better for a 30-day fast-draft than a slow, character-driven work that needs time to mature.

If you’re already on the right track with your writing habits, or your manuscript wants to be developed more slowly, then don’t fix what’s not broken.

But if you have a book that’s outlined and ready to be drafted and you just need some extra motivation to make it work, then by all means go for it!

Truth #5: Despite what they say, you probably won’t end the month with a finished novel

NaNo’s advertising tends to revolve around the idea that you’ll end the month with a finished novel.

And you won’t.

True, you may end up with a finished rough draft. But there’s still a long, long way to go with revisions and editing and the like before you’re anywhere close to done.

Further, if you’re looking to publish your book at any point, 50,000 words is a little on the short side for modern adult (and even YA) novels. To give a sense of how many words a novel is, The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton is pretty close to the NaNo goal at around 48,000 words. The first Harry Potter book is about 77,000 words. The Fault in Our Stars comes in at around 92,000, while Divergent and The Book Thief each total about 144,000 words.

Chances are your book won’t be done at 50,000 words, but even if it is, NaNo is just the beginning to the even longer road of revisions and edits.

Truth #6: It’s really about the camaraderie and fun

NaNoWriMo can be an effective way to build writing discipline, and winning is an awesome accomplishment. Several bestselling books began as NaNo projects. There is a lot of good that can come from it.

But for me, what I would miss most about not participating in NaNo is the community.

While I write year-round, there is something especially exciting about November and knowing that hundreds of thousands of people across the globe are celebrating and practicing writing at the same time. There’s an extra boost knowing that you’re not alone in your endeavors and that many others are experiencing the same ups and downs you are.

At the end of the day, it’s all about the fun.

One of my favorite pieces of advice on drafting comes from author Libba Bray:

“Have fun, for heaven’s sake! It’s not brain surgery. You won’t kill anyone if you choose the wrong words. You can just fix ’em later. Writing is power. You are in control of it. You are able to say whatever you need to say, long to say, must say. And that is an amazing feeling.”

So this November, enjoy the journey of writing.

Personally, I still haven’t decided if I’m in or out this year. I don’t currently have a book in the drafting phase, and I’m not sure I want to make one up from scratch for the event. At the same time, it was a lot of fun last year, and I would feel like I’m missing out if I’m not part of the celebration!

If you’re deciding to jump in, then cherish the company. Achieve whatever goal you set. And above all, let writing be a source of fun and joy.

What about you? Have you done NaNoWriMo? Are you committing this year?

Do you want to learn more? Subscribe to my newsletter to get your free self-publishing roadmap and to receive more articles like this one. 

Photo by Debby Hudson on Unsplash

7 thoughts on “Thinking of NaNoWriMo? The Truth About Writing a Novel in a Month

  1. I agree with your points. Despite being a writer I never got involved in this. I like to write with meaning, not just for the sake of it. Sure my first drafts still need work, but I feel they are still better than if I simply cranked crap out just to say I wrote 10K words in a day.

    1. Writing with meaning is a great philosophy, and I agree that writing something with purpose is a much better motivator than cranking out words just because!

  2. Good points to consider on NaNoWriMo. I briefly thought about entering it this year, mostly for the idea of joining a lot of other people. But right now I’m better off letting it go. My work schedule is irregular, and so is the rest of my life. I write devotionals, blog posts, and short stories, and I’d rather spend the time writing more of those and doing them better. I’m with R. Michael in that I’d rather write something with meaning (however short or long) than write words just to fulfill a word count.

    1. Thank you! I like what you said about writing better, and that sums up where I’m at this year too: focusing on writing well rather than writing more. Both can be helpful, but writing more is just not what I need right now.

    1. Thank you, and your writing journey sounds neat! I find poetry a challenge and have a lot of respect for people who write it. Looking forward to hearing where the short stories take you!

Leave a Reply