NaNoWriMo: Lessons Learned

PhotobucketThis year was my first year to participate in the hugely popular NaNoWriMo. (I figured that since my youngest just turned 2, I finally had a prayer of achieving the target 1667 words per day). Now, let me say first of all that I am a NaNo ‘rebel’–if you go to the NaNoWriMo website you’ll find as I did that there’s a whole special category for us rebellious types–meaning in my case that I’m adding to an existing manuscript rather than starting from scratch. But all the same, at just over the halfway mark of both the month and of my goal of reaching 50,000 words by November 30, I feel like it’s been a fantastic experience, one that’s pushed and expanded my boundaries as a writer.

I remember reading once that the rigorous training that Navy SEALS go through is designed to show recruits that they’re actually capable of accomplishing 30% more than they ever thought they could. I think that’s first and foremost what NaNoWriMo has shown me–that the limits on my writing are largely of my own construction, and just in my head. Even without NaNo, I’m a little–okay, maybe more than a little–compulsive about making my daily writing goals. I work 7 days a week, and have a basically ‘no excuses’ policy about making my word count–doesn’t matter if I’m sick, tired, whatever, I still don’t let myself off the hook of sitting down to work. And yet this month I’ve discovered that I was putting more limits on myself than I realized.

Firstly, while I’m a definite believer in having a daily word count goal, I’ve realized this month that I should assess and adjust my goals more often than I have been. For ages my goal was 1000 words/day. But that was when my kids were tiny. Not that their ages now of 4 years old and 2 years old are exactly grown up–but it is easier to fit writing time in these days, and I realized that I could adjust my goals upwards accordingly. Not that my goal is to churn out a novel as fast as possible, of course. Faster doesn’t necessarily equal better, something every writer learns at some point. But I want to make sure I’m setting the bar high enough to challenge myself, too.

Secondly, I’ve discovered that my writing routine can just as easily slip into more of a rut than a routine–something that limits how much I can accomplish rather than helps me meet my goals. I like to write in the mornings–I’m a morning person by nature, and that’s definitely my most productive time. And I also have the above-mentioned 4 and 2 year old home with me full-time, which means that by the time they’re in bed in the evenings, just about the last thing I want to do is sit down and work. But November 12 was a holy day for my family, which meant that I didn’t work from sunup to sundown. But then the sun went down, and that little bar on my NaNo progress page hadn’t moved for the day–so I sat down at my computer and thought, Well, let’s see if I CAN get anything done. And I did–that night after my girls went to bed, I easily wrote (well, as easy as any writing ever is) 1700 words. Morning is still my preferred time to work, I don’t imagine that will entirely change. But still, it’s good to know that I don’t have to turn that into a self-imposed limit. Shake the routine up, and the words will still come.

All in all, I’m heading into the second half of NaNo with a manuscript I’m feeling great about and a whole new energy to challenge myself into achieving higher goals. And a definite determination to do NaNoWriMo next year, too!

What about you? How is your NaNo experience going? What have you learned?


About Anna Elliott

Anna Elliott is an author of historical fiction and fantasy. Her first series, the Twilight of Avalon trilogy, is a retelling of the Trystan and Isolde legend. She wrote her second series, the Pride and Prejudice Chronicles, chiefly to satisfy her own curiosity about what might have happened to Elizabeth Bennet, Mr. Darcy, and all the other wonderful cast of characters after the official end of Jane Austen's classic work. She enjoys stories about strong women, and loves exploring the multitude of ways women can find their unique strengths. Anna lives in the Washington DC area with her husband and three children.


  1. says

    Fantastic post. Thanks. Nanowrimo has taught me that when you have to find the time to write, you do. I’m more of a late night writer, but I have gotten up early on the weekends to write. I’m at 32000 words with 11 days left. Good luck reaching 50000
    CG Blake´s last blog post ..Lessons from Joe Frazier

  2. says

    I totally agree about the self-imposed limits thing. My biggest limit was self-editing as I wrote – an agonizing and not terribly productive habit. I think I’ve managed to shake it off over the last few weeks and it’s so freeing.

    I’ve attempted NaNo two or three times before but this is the first year I took it seriously. It’s been a wild ride. I blogged about the project I’m working on (Project: Not A Fanfic) – an idea that came to me roughly three days before NaNo so I guess that makes me a NaNo conformist? Hehe.

    One thing I learned this year is to Just Keep Catching Up. Yeah, that’s been my motto. I’m one of those dorks who lives in squalor and watches deadlines fly by because I just can’t bring myself to do anything until the last minute. But this year I really committed to NaNo and by proxy committed to catching up instead of letting the word count fall farther and farther behind. As a result, yesterday was my very first 5k day! Pretty cool for someone who usually needs a nap and a day off after writing 2k.

    I’m so glad I did NaNo this year – here’s to 50k and beyond!
    Dasia´s last blog post ..Project: Not A Fanfic

  3. says

    I had very similar discoveries when I first did nano several years ago. I think it’s really beneficial for a writer to try it at least once, as you said, so we can really find out what we’re capable of.
    Raquel´s last blog post ..Friends, Bread, and Wine

  4. says

    I’m so glad to hear your NaNo journey is going well.

    This was my first year doing NaNo. I had no idea what to expect. I held off on writing a manuscript I was excited about so that I could start it on Nov 1st. Then…ten days into November…I wasn’t excited about it anymore, not at all. I was 20,000 words in and it was just…wrong.

    But this new idea exploded in my mind and I thought…why not? Eight days later I have 36,000 words for my new manuscript and I just can’t wait to dive back into that world every day.

    NaNo taught me that this is a passion, I thing I have to do. And I know when I’m writing the right story, my story.
    Kelley Lynn´s last blog post ..Updates: Cousin and NaNo

  5. says

    I don’t NaNo, for personal reasons I’ve recently outlined on my blog (see link below), but I think you’re spot-on about its goal: to teach people that they CAN write, and in fact can probably write more than they even believe themselves to be capable of. It’s a great program and has turned into a wonderful community. I’m so glad you’re getting so much out of it!
    Kristan Hoffman´s last blog post ..NaNo? Nah, no(t for me)

  6. says

    Great post! I like the part about being able to do 30% more . . . cool Navy SEAL training fact.
    I learned huge amounts about my writing last year during NaNo, and this year I’ve applied what I learned and I’m still learning more. I think it is a great experience. This year, I have learned that I can meet the daily word counts and surpass them, as long as I give myself at least one time daily to write, but 2-3 times a day works even better. I am more of a sprinter than a marathon writer. I write 1,200 words and then . . . it’s best I get up, and come back for another 800 later.
    Tyrean´s last blog post ..Treasures, Shoeboxes, and Operation Christmas Child

  7. Vaughn Roycroft says

    I’m all for anything that teaches us what we’re really capable of accomplishing. I still prefer sitting at my desk, working on my desktop computer, but I used to think it was the ONLY place I could write. Due to a recent unforeseen obstacle, it was proven to me that I absolutely can write on a laptop, away from my house, and out of my comfort zone. I haven’t tried NaNo yet, but posts like this one make me want to try it next year. Thanks and good luck, Anna!

  8. says

    I don’t NaNo either, but I appreciate hearing from another mom/writer who does her best work in the mornings.

    I am toast by eight p.m.

    I am adult enough to admit my limitations, and SO tired of people saying, if you want to write you need to get used to not sleeping. Nonsense. Nothing I’ve ever written while sleep deprived has been worth keeping.
    Mari Passananti´s last blog post ..Turkey "Italiano" and the Grape shops for stemware

    • says

      Exactly! I get so sick of the “you can’t sleep/have a hobby/do anything else if you want to be a SERIOUS WRITER” attitude. Yes, you can. In fact, you should. Your brain will work better when it’s well-rested, healthy, and experiencing other things out in the world for inspiration and time to recharge. If you don’t do these things, your writing will eventually be stale.
      Kristin Laughtin´s last blog post ..On library research for your writing

    • says

      Mari, I’ve found that getting up an hour or two before my kids is a help in getting that crucial morning writing time in. But I SO agree, you can’t write while sleep deprived and exhausted. I definitely wouldn’t want to always rely on the evenings to get my word count in, but it was really good to know that I can, once in a while. Good luck to you!

  9. says

    I’m also not a NaNo-er, but I like that you stressed the possibility of shaking things up. I think it’s important that we do, even if we have a preferred writing time and/or place, because those things are not always available to us. If we’re only able to write at one time or in one location, we’re not going to get anything done when life alters our situations, as it is wont to do. A little flexibility makes us stronger overall.

    And yes, humans can handle a lot more than they think. I work full-time, am in grad school, and am trying to write, and there are times where I think I’m going to die, but I get my stuff done, or readjust. I don’t always get as much done as I want–I worked on revisions for a while and then was stuck in a writing rut, where I didn’t like any of my ideas, for longer than I would have liked–but slow progress is better than no progress.
    Kristin Laughtin´s last blog post ..On library research for your writing

  10. says

    This is my 3rd year participating in Nano. Last year (did not win) I learned that no matter what else you do, DO NOT go back and read what you’ve written to date–just keep cranking out words. I have also learned to simply skip ahead if I get stuck or write myself into a corner.

  11. says

    Doing NaNo for the fourth time, I’ve learned quite a bit about the way I limit myself (not being able to plot without losing interest in the project), and I hope I’m starting to learn how to write my way out of it. And no matter how bad it gets as a whole, I’ve always gotten some writing with at least a nugget of promise to it.
    NaNo is meant to give you many things, including a first draft. Glad you are getting that!
    Exploding Mary´s last blog post ..Oktober Thirty-First: Her Wifely Duties