NaNoWriMo: One Woman’s Recipe for Success

My relationship with NaNoWriMo began in 2009, at the beginning of my freshman year of college. Just out of an intensely toxic relationship– my depression and alcoholism beginning to blossom– I clung to the idea of writing a novel the way a drowning man clings to drift wood.

I sat outside of the coffee shop across the street from my university, chain-smoking cigarettes and tip-typing away on my old dell laptop. I thought I was writing my magnum opus– four people with little in common take a road trip to nowhere in particular, after a party gone terribly wrong, and they do absolutely nothing. It was brilliant, I thought. No one would have to know that the characters were all me– all of the small, traumatized parts of my psyche howling to be heard. It would be a sensational masterpiece. I dreamed of being read, and admired, and asked to sign hard copies.

Lacking discipline and beginning to feel the weight of my depression, I fell off the writing wagon within a few days, and never returned to the novel. So much for becoming famous.

I’ve attempted a few other novels over the years, using NaNoWriMo as the excuse to get them done. The pattern held, and within a week I was always too behind and too anxious to work up the endurance and catch myself up. Sometimes, after creating novel profiles on the NaNoWriMo website, I never even started.

This year, in a stunning display, I am half way through the month and still writing. It feels unbelievable, magical, completely out of left field. I can’t hear your round of applause, but I’ll take it gladly.

When you find yourself suddenly succeeding where you once failed, it’s always a good idea to take an inventory. What’s changed? What’s stayed the same? How can I continue to cultivate those positive changes? Here are the three changes I’ve seen in my life– ones that have helped me get half-way through NaNo– along with tips on how to apply them to your own writing practice.

I got medicated.

Looking back on that freshman year of college, I can see myself struggling, and wish that I’d taken action sooner to help myself out.

Writing a novel is hard, and requires a lot of time and energy. If you feel lethargic, or empty, or anxious, or otherwise unable to write even when you really, really want to, please ask for help. See your doctor, take walks in the afternoon, start a meditation practice, eat a damn multi-vitamin. There’s common a myth that creativity perches itself on our misery, and that a good mood takes the bite out of otherwise poignant art. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t.

I started writing for myself.

“The first draft is just you telling yourself the story.”

Terry Pratchett

Type. Delete. Retype. Delete. Retype. Delete. Check Facebook.

There’s the saying that everyone is their own worst critic, and writers are no exception. One of the sticking points in the NaNoWriMo vision is to resist the urge to edit while writing the first draft of your novel, and plow through until the end. My solution, in my infinite freshman wisdom, was to write each sentence as carefully and poignantly as possible and eliminate editing altogether. As you might expect, dear reader, this was a failing strategy.

It took years of failed writing experiments and a lot of self-searching before I realized the obvious: Fear of being judged was keeping me from really writing. Writing with authenticity means stepping out of your comfort zone. Writing with courage means forgetting any looks of disapproval being fired from the peanut gallery. The truth is, those looks are usually all in your mind, and even if they aren’t, they don’t matter.

Write the story for you.

I set my own modest goals, and kept them.

NaNoWriMo suggests that participants write about 1,666 words per day, which is meant to divide the intense load of 50,000 words into a slightly less intimidating number. For me, 1,666 words is anywhere from an hour and a half to two hours of writing. On an average work day, after working an 8-hour job, walking my dog, making dinner, and my other miscellaneous tasks, I often look up at the clock to find that it’s already 8:00 PM.

Now, I could use my last tired hours of the evening to squeeze out 1,666 words. Likewise, I could wake up earlier and make my strategically relaxing morning a little less relaxing for the sake of the daily goal. But here’s the truth: I’d resent it.

Being tied to a goal that isn’t my own–in particular, regarding a process that is supposed to be enjoyable– takes the wind right out of my sails both physically and psychologically. My mind rebels, I become frustrated and discouraged, and then I quit.

So, I’m holding myself to a simple goal: Write. Every. Day. That’s it.

If I only find time to write 54 words in a day, I log those 54 words, and I throw any doubts regarding my abilities out the window. I catch up when I can on the weekends or at work when I’m aimless or task-less, and if I never catch up, I’ll know that 50K was someone else’s goal, and not mine.


  1. Good luck with your Nanowrimo project! I’ve been trying for years and failed every single time lol but I’m going to use you as inspiration to get mine started now! Better late than never, right?

    Liked by 2 people

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