Empty Pages – NaNoWriMo (Episode 7)

Empty Pages – NaNoWriMo (Episode 7)

Empty Pages
Image ©2021 by Ian MacTire, all rights reserved.

This episode talks about NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) and my experience with it.


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This is episode 7, and the first episode of November, which is NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. In this episode, I’ll talk a little about what this is, and my experience with it. I know this is a bit late, but that’s because it took me a little longer to get this podcast started than I had originally planned and as such, I didn’t take that into account when doing these episodes. My bad! Anyway, let’s continue, shall we?

Per their site at nanowrimo.org, “NaNoWriMo is a nonprofit organization that provides tools, structure, community, and encouragement to help people find their voices, achieve creative goals, and build new worlds, on and off the page.”  It was started in 1999, with the goal of simply writing 50, 000 words of a novel within 30 days, in the month of November.  The people participating in this challenge aren’t just writers. They include people from all walks of life, from teachers to janitors to doctors, and more, I imagine. I came to it as a credentialing specialist (in my current non-writing day job). As to why they chose November, a month that includes Thanksgiving and is in the midst of the holiday season, I don’t know.  I can only surmise that they either didn’t think it all the way through, they are sadistic, or they simply like the fact that NaNoWriMo in November has some sense of alliteration to it. I could be wrong though.

So with a renewed sense of purpose, I began to research NaNoWriMo and what it would take. I found articles and videos that were all over the place. There were some that were saying it was great, while others were saying not to bother because of “insert reasons here”.  While most of it ended up being fluff and of no real use to me, my take away from all of it was  that I was simply going to have to do it for myself. I decided that I would make the attempt, and just do the best I could. I would give myself grace, that if it wasn’t for me, then I could quit, provided I gave it an honest shot.

One of the great things about NaNoWriMo is that they provide tools, structure, community and encouragement. If you listened to previous episodes, then you will have listened to my story about the creative writing class I took in college that ended up derailing my writing for several years. I was coming into this with the belief that I simply didn’t have what it takes to write a story, much less a complete novel. The past few decades are littered with writing projects started and abandoned because  while I had the desire to write, I did not believe I had the ability. So this is where I was at this point in time. I was also coming into this with some seriously bad habits that I was not fully aware of, but more on that in a bit.

October turned out to be a prep month. They offer exercises to help you get an idea, flesh it out, outline it, etc. I did participate in case I was missing something, but I already had the novel in mind that I wanted to do. It wasn’t the werewolf novel, because I wanted to knock the proverbial rust off by using something that I wasn’t (at the time) all that concerned about seeing the light of day. I was also anticipating that the experience would be pretty horrible (judging by my past experiences with writing), and I did not want my werewolf story tainted by such.

Because I had already had done some work on my novel (the one I’m currently working on), I spent more time prepping that than fully doing their prep exercises.  Along with the prep exercises though, they had articles that talked about various writing related things. It was these that made me fully realize what I was up against in the form of my bad habits.  My biggest ones were self editing. to the point that I would eventually give up, and I had the habit of writing sporadically, and eventually forgetting to write altogether until days durned into months, which turned into years.  I’ll go into more detail about self editing in another episode. For now, we’ll keep to NaNoWriMo.

In my research, I found that the way to “win” is to write at least 50,000 words in thirty days. Before I continue, I should be clear that “winning” NaNoWriMo doesn’t really bestow upon you any great accolades. Just by showing up and writing, you’re winning, because you’re making progress on your writing project, which doesn’t necessarily have to be a novel at all. It could be a collection of poems or short stories, or even a biography. NaNoWriMo is essentially a huge group of people with the desire to write, who are collectively cheering one another on. From my understanding, there would often be meetups from various local groups, but since the pandemic was in full swing, everything was  online, so I can’t really speak to how NaNoWriMo normally functions in that regard. I can say that whenever I posted on their forums, I did get support from my fellow would be writers, and it was very much appreciated on my part.

NaNoWriMo doesn’t tell you how to write, or when to write. It just tells you that you need at least 50,000 words by the end of the month, and how you achieve that goal is completely up to you. I did the math, and in order to reach that goal, one must write roughly about 1, 667 words each day. If you write that many words for 30 days, you reach just shy of over that 50,000.  The goal of 1,667 words per day was not a bad one, for me at least.

1,667 words, in 12 pt Times New Roman font and single spaced, would produce roughly 4 pages, give or take. I had already previously set my personal daily word count goal at 2,500 words, which under the same parameters, would equate to 6 pages, give or take. Why I set it at 2, 500, I don’t know. It just seemed like a good number to shoot for, one that I thought I could achieve  while working a regular job. So I decided that if I shot for 2,500 words, then it was quite possible that I would hit the 1,667 words needed.

Okay, so now that I had a baseline for the word count, I now had to figure out some other things. I knew that to reach that winning number, I couldn’t self edit, because if I did that, I would lose both time and words and thus would not stand a chance to win. I also knew that I needed to be in the chair writing that minimum amount every day. As someone who also suffers from depression, PTSD, and chronic pain, I had some additional roadblocks that had the potential to derail me.

I began to see that by participating in NaNoWriMo, I could not only cross off a bucket list item, but I could possibly end some bad habits and instill some good ones.  According to a 2009 study that had been published in the European Journal of Social Psychology, it could take anywhere from 18 to 254 days to establish a new habit.  NaNoWriMo was only 30 days, but it did fit with the 18 plus days. If I spent 30 days not doing any self editing, there was a very good chance that I could break that habit. In addition, 30 days of writing every day should theoretically break the bad habit of going days or more between writing, and instill the habit of writing every day, or at least every other day.

At this point, I still wasn’t convinced I could write for shite, but in all this, there was also a chance I could actually complete something. I began to realize that it would mean a lot if I could complete it. Where previously I couldn’t complete any story I started, I began to understand that if I could complete at least this one thing, then I could complete others.  What I didn’t realize at the the time was that the self editing, the sporadic writing, and thus not able to complete anything were all intertwined, and once one thing was solved, the rest would fall in line rather quickly.  However, there was still the depression, PTSD, and chronic pain. These last three I could do nothing about, beyond what I normally do for it. I resolved to continue taking care of myself, and that I would again do my best, and give myself grace if these things interfered in some manner. After all, I had already decided to do the best I could, and if I didn’t “win”, it would be enough that I saw it through as far as I could.

After all this, and remaining determined to do NaNoWriMo, I signed up, registered my project and spent the remainder of October doing everything I could to set myself up for success. This included making sure my novel was as ready as it could be for me to start writing it, making sure I had stocked up on anything I might need health-wise, and letting friends and family know what I was doing, and that I wouldn’t be as available as I usually was.  I also worked on my laptop to get it ready, as I had rarely used it and needed to make sure it was up to date  so that it wouldn’t need to restart in the middle of a writing session. During the process, it completely died on me and I had to rush to find one. This being the pandemic and a lot of people working or doing school from home, there was not many options for a laptop.  I was finally able to secure one, and got it set up in the nick of time.

On November 1st, I began what would become the first draft of a novel that I actually do want to see published at some point. I won’t go into lurid detail about every day, because that would be seriously boring, so I’ll give you the highlights. I wrote every day after work for roughly two hours in the evening (which was about all I had the energy left for).  On the weekends, I would write after I was done with my guitar lessons and any chores and errands I needed to get done. I did manage to write every day save one, so all total, I wrote for 29 out of the 30 days. I had a few days where I managed to write well over 2,500 words. My depression did hit, but luckily the episodes were few and not very bad. My PTSD did trigger a few times as well, but those episodes didn’t derail me. I did have some pain flare ups, and because of that, there were some days I didn’t get much writing done at all. In fact, one day, I managed to write all of 24 words, just so that I kept writing every day. Another day only saw around 170 something words. In both cases, that writing was absolute shite.

Somewhere in there, one of NaNoWriMo’s guest writers that they bring in to answer questions and provide inspiration gave us something that helped me with the self editing part, which I’ll cover in the episode on self editing. Up to that point, I had been struggling not to self edit, and it was only because I wanted to “win”, that I didn’t do it, even though I seriously wanted to trash everything that I wrote and, depending on the day, either start over or toss my laptop and give up. What that guest shared was actually pretty mind blowing for me.  In the end, I finished with 63,170 words written, and an uncompleted manuscript that I would go on to finish in the month of December.  All told, I’m pretty proud of myself.

So, that’s NaNoWriMo and my experience with it. Would I recommend doing it? I would say that depends on you. I know that’s not very helpful, but for every reason I could give you for why you should do it, I can give a reason why you shouldn’t. I think that overall, it was a positive experience for me. I will say that if you do choose to do it, certainly use the 50,000 words as a way to measure your progress, but don’t dwell on it. Instead, I would advise you to figure out how to use NaNoWriMo to your advantage to reach your own goals, and if you happen to meet or exceed that word count, that’s just the proverbial icing on the cake.

NaNoWriMo helped me to break my bad habit of self editing, it got me in the chair writing on a consistent basis for the first time ever, and I discovered that I can complete a writing project. Along the way, I learned some valuable tools and lessons that can only help me going forward. Am I any good at writing? I can definitively say I’m not horrible at it and thus feel some hope and confidence, but it’s going to be the readers who decide whether it’s any good.  If you do decide to participate, hit me up on Twitter and Instagram and let me know about your experiences.
In the meantime, stay classy and write those stories.

© Copyright 2021 Ian MacTire, All Rights Reserved, except where otherwise noted.

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