NaNoWriMo and the Art of Eating the Elephant
“How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.”
Writing a novel is a massive undertaking. Whether you’re a planner, a flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants-er, or somewhere in between, it takes a vast measure of passion, time and commitment to get all the way from Page One to ‘The End’. It feels as though there’s endless advice on how to start writing, how to edit, and how to improve – Kurt Vonnegut said “Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about;” Stephen King advises to “write as truthfully as you can […] one word at a time,” and of course there’s William Faulkner’s ever-present call to “kill your darlings!”
The consensus is that only way to be a writer is to write – unfortunately that’s often the most difficult part. As Ursula K Le Guin pointed out, “it takes quite a lot of vigour and stamina to write a story, and a huge amount to write a novel,” and she’s right. 50,000 words? 180,000 words? These are huge numbers and can easily seem insurmountable, especially when you’re up against writer’s block, self-doubt, lack of time, or that awful blank page we all face at the beginning of a new writing journey.
What is NaNoWriMo and How Does it Work?
National Novel Writing Month (shortened to NaNoWriMo by creators and participants alike) began as a challenge: to write 50,000 words over 30 days. Since that first November in 1999, the project has grown and developed into a non-profit organisation that runs challenges, talks and forums with the aim of helping creatives tell their stories. In their own words, “NaNoWriMo believes in the transformational power of creativity. We provide the structure, community, and encouragement to help people find their voices, achieve creative goals, and build new worlds—on and off the page.” The NaNo website, its home base, is active year-round, but the peak activity comes each November when thousands of people sign up to write those magical 1,667 words each day, with the common goal of hitting 50k by midnight of the 30th.
The core of the NaNoWriMo site, and one of the things that makes it so fantastic to use, is its word count tracker. As they put it, “NaNoWriMo tracks words for writers like Fitbit tracks steps”. You create a project on your account, and every day you can log how many words you wrote towards it. The website tracks your progress against your objectives: how many words you wrote, and how many you have left in order to reach your goal. You can change the display to show your stats as a chart, as a cumulative word count per project, or just your daily count. The site also keeps track of your lifetime word count: how many words you’ve logged across all your projects. Seeing that number grow is a fantastic feeling.
One of the most useful elements of NaNoWriMo is that it lets you set your own goals. You can set your own goals and time periods and have multiple projects running at once. If you want to write 20,000 words over two months, or 100,000 in 10 days, you’re welcome to set it up that way. The tracker will adjust accordingly, giving you the daily goal that will get you there bite-by-bite. The site also keeps your motivation up with progress badges for milestones like writing your first 10,000 words, writing 14 days in a row, or writing your goal number every day of the month.
It’s a great network for writers of all experience levels to find their process and kick their writing habit into gear.
NaNoWriMo has also expanded to include community forums and events. These forums are open for discussions about the writing process, and can help you make writing buddies to keep your motivated. During events there are also local, national and international write-ins, check-ins, and minority group creative spaces. Various authors have run pep talks and mentor events – past events have had input from authors such as Gene Luen Yang, Roxane Gay, Kacen Callender, John Green, Andy Weir, N. K. Jemisin, and Veronica Roth.
What are the Stats?
In 2017, NaNoWriMo November challenge saw 402,142 participants sign up with a project to complete. In 2018, 295,396. 2019 saw 280,098 writers take on the challenge, and in 2020 the site recorded 383,064 participants. Statistics from these last several years tell us that nearly 4,000,000,000 (four billion!) words are written by NaNo participants every November.
Hundreds of NaNoWriMo novels have been traditionally published, too. Among them are Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, Hugh Howey’s Wool, Rainbow Rowell’s Fangirl, Jason Hough’s The Darwin Elevator, and Marissa Meyer’s Cinder.
The numbers from NaNoWriMo 2021 haven’t been released yet, but we know that before November even began:
- 427,653 writers participated in the various NaNoWriMo programs, including 90,561 students and educators in the Young Writers Program.
- 842 volunteer Municipal Liaisons guided 671 regions on 6 continents.
- 406 libraries, bookstores, and community centres opened their doors to novelists through the Come Write In program.
- 51,507 people worked on projects during Camp NaNoWriMo in April and July.
All this isn’t to say that completing NaNoWriMo is easy – it’s still a base goal of 1,667 words every day, and many participants find it difficult to hit that mark. In fact, only an average of 13% of participants “win” the challenge and reach 50,000 words. That’s around 45-50 thousand writers, and those who don’t “win” NaNo still finish with substantial development of their projects, but it’s still not a very encouraging statistic.
Burnout, loss of passion for the project, and feeling inadequate as a writer are the most commonly cited reasons for quitting the NaNo challenge. It’s understandable but unfortunate—after all, the purpose of the challenge is to help writers finish the month feeling encouraged and accomplished.
So what’s the best way to approach NaNoWriMo? Is there a failproof method? Is it worth doing?
You can just dive in on November 1st, but a more sustainable approach might be to try dipping your toes in first – build the habit at your own pace. Camp NaNo is run twice a year (during April & July) and is, as the name suggests, a sort of training camp for the daily writing habit. At the time of writing this article, the July Camp is coming up on the NaNo calendar and I’d encourage you to consider giving it a try – there’s no better time to start than now!
A few ways to prep (for Camp, the November Challenge, or other writing endeavours) are to:
- Figure out how you write (are you a staunch planner, or do you discover as you go?) and account for that – have your plan/resources/playlists/ moodboards ready before the start date so you can hit the ground running with a head full of inspiration.
- Find the time of day that works for you – do you work best early in the morning, during the afternoon, or in the evenings as the day winds down? Decide how you work best, or even just where you have a reasonably consistent time slot to work in, and start building the habit.
- Find a writing buddy (or group). Motivation, consistency and accountability are all exponentially helped by having someone to report back to.
- Remember to take advantage of NaNo’s write-ins and other events – it’s easy to squirrel yourself away when you’re power-focusing on a project, but it can be immensely helpful to stay connected with other writers (even if only at intervals) along the journey.
For many writers, I would recommend setting yourself the simple goal of just getting words on the page. The order of the day is quantity over quality. Quality will come with practice, and practice can only come from doing. In the words of Louis L’Amour, “Start writing, no matter what. The water does not flow until the faucet is turned on.”
Our published NaNo authors from earlier have given talks alongside other well known names, and their advice leans in a similar direction:
I think NaNoWriMo is a brilliant idea and gives you two magical things: company and a deadline. Before NaNo I was the sort of person who would write a page and hate it so I’d stop, when really you need to keep going and write more pages and NaNo is a wonderful way to learn that.Erin Morgenstern, The Night Circus
I can do this. WE can do this. However far behind you are, take comfort in knowing that there is somebody else out there in the same boat, and look for that next fun scene. And then the next. And if that doesn’t work, set someone on fire. In your book, of course.Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants
Here’s the pep part of my pep talk: Go spit in the face of our inevitable obsolescence and finish your @#$&ng novel.John Green, The Fault in Our Stars
Make a plan and commit to doing the thing. Even just trying out Camp NaNo can be a gamechanger for people struggling to find a writing habit, and can lead to great new progress. For me personally, the key was finding the right strategy. When a friend and I decided to try Camp Nano for the first time we found our rhythm doing daily write-ins – setting synced 20-minute timers and doing writing sprints together, messaging each other between sprints to ask about synonyms, dialogue, plot beats, or just to complain about how freaking hard writing can be.
On that note, don’t underestimate the power of writing sprints – it’s surprising how quickly you can write when you put yourself under bursts of focused pressure. Set a 15 or 20 minute timer and see how you go just putting words on the page. It can be the kickstart you need to get your head in the game. It doesn’t matter what goes there, so long as you keep your fingers on the keys for 20 minutes. Sometimes just two 20-minute sprints can get you to your daily goal, and the more you practice getting in the focused mindset, the easier it becomes. The faucet just needs turning on, and all the rusty water a chance to clear out.
For many, the challenge to “write a novel in a month” is too daunting to seem feasible, but that’s why it’s such a good goal to work towards. Commit to writing daily for one month—decide on a goal, chisel out an hour in your schedule, and make it happen. The short timeframe makes us less likely to feel burnt out midway through, and even completing half of the November challenge leaves you with 25,000 words to move forward with. The NaNo structure encourages us to write those words, no matter how imperfect they might be.
Is NaNoWriMo for me?
Something to keep in mind is that your NaNo writing project can be pretty much anything – a novel, a memoir, fanfiction, a research project, a script for stage or screen. As long as it’s word-based, NaNo can help you sit down and get it written.
It can also be eye-opening for writers whose projects tend to peter out after a few months or a few thousand words. Some projects aren’t ready to be written yet, and sitting down to write them is the first step towards recognising that. Only the flip side, some projects are over-baked in our minds, and we get so nervous about them not being good enough that we never actually write them. In both these cases, the best way forwards is to just start. If a project doesn’t have enough steam to reach 50,000 words, you’ll know pretty soon. If a project has been your baby for a long time now, this is the moment to start actually writing it – there’s no other way to do it. One of my favourite sayings is that “you can’t edit an empty page”; even if a project isn’t turning out the way you imagined it, very often the only way to improve is to get it written and then get to tinkering.
Finally, keep this in mind: The final NaNo goal of 50k in a month just may not be for you. Some people just need to tap out after 500 or 1000 words in a day—no better or worse than someone who writes 3000! Everyone works differently, and habitual effort is the only way to improve (whether it be quality, efficiency or word count; everything takes practice). Writing 700 words a day will net you around 21 thousand words in a month, which is a really good goal to start building up a body of work. Slow and steady can be a great way to go, especially when first starting out or easing back into the habit. Remember, you never have to associate your project with the official NaNo events – decide for yourself how you want to utilise the tracker. The NaNo website is for you to use however works best for you. Start small and work your way up, or just throw down the 50k gauntlet and see how far you can make it.
In the words of Stephen King, “Try any goddamn thing you like, no matter how boringly normal or outrageous. If it works, fine. If it doesn’t, toss it.” In the end, the NaNo approach might not be for you, but it’s absolutely worth taking the time to try.
Margaret Atwood says, “A word after a word after a word is power.” Neil Gaiman agrees: “This is how you do it: you sit down at the keyboard and you put one word after another until it’s done. It’s that easy, and that hard.”
The more we practice, the easier words come. Whether you’re a beginner, a practiced pro, or an long-absent lover of words returning to a set-aside craft, it seems like the secret is just to keep writing. To come back to L’Amour’s faucet analogy, it’s about making the decision to get the water—the words—flowing. That comes with time, patience and fortitude. Let yourself write the terrible, nonsensical, one-star words. Read a lot: broaden your vocabulary, expand the way you think about stringing words together, and let yourself experiment with replicating the styles of authors you love. The words will come flowing from that faucet with less and less difficulty, and eventually you’ll find that they become better, too.
I particularly love this quote from Ursula K. Le Guin:
Once in a while, none of that sweat and trial and error and risk-taking is necessary. Something just comes to you as you write. You write it down, it’s there, it’s really good. You look at it unbelieving. Did I do that? I think that kind of gift mostly comes as the pay-off for trying, patiently, repeatedly, to make something well.
So what is the best way to write? How do we tackle that elephant of a passion project and finally get those words out of our heads and onto the page? NaNoWriMo’s answer is the same as King’s, Atwood’s and Gaiman’s: one word, one bite, at a time.
What do you think? Leave a comment.