NaNoWriMo Showed Me Writing a Novel Is Easy, Writing a Good One Is Hard

How my NaNoWriMo turned into NaNoWriYear.

We’re all told that we’ve each got a book in us, usually by people who have never actually read one. But when do we find the time to write it? With all the apps, forums, groups, and how-to articles online — it’s easy to get overwhelmed by advice. I always meant to write a book … I just needed to read through these 20 think-pieces on the topic first.

Then along came NaNoWriMo. A non-for-profit project designed to motivate your lazy ass toward a finished first draft. It’s a solid idea to connect people in their shared mission to write 50,000 words in a month. This isn’t just a platform for you to upload work for later critique by professionals. You don’t even have to pay to sign up. Support for your 1,666 words a day comes from the thousands of other participants all striving to do the same. User-driven feedback the perfect way to confirm that all that matters is hitting that all important word count. You can edit later.

In 2013 I had made up my mind. Enough! By November 30 I would have in my possession a first draft of my novel. I wasn’t planning to go in completely cold. A vague plot lurked in my mind, some half-cooked idea I’d scribbled on the back of a paper grocery bag years ago. Write what you know seemed to me the easiest way to get this thing down. And so I fleshed out the bare bones outline of a sci-fi comedy … set in a library. Ten years of being an information steward in a central public library meant I had stores of anecdotal material waiting for the right time to shine. This was that time.

My daily target Post-it and my actual word count for that day. Score.

Something in November happened, I can’t remember what, and I wound up pushing back my start date to December 1. The extra day, a sweet procrastinator’s reward. Each morning my alarm woke me an hour earlier than normal, and I’d pad out to the dining room — my writing corner — and start. The daily process of writing wasn’t terribly difficult. The days when I had packed schedules and social commitments I couldn’t sneak out of, I’d tack on the 1,666 unwritten words onto the next day’s target. By the end of the month I had 50,000 words. Done. AWESOME. December 31 I celebrated the birth of the new year and my new novel.

I’d smashed my target, even going over by a thousand or so words, but the story wasn’t finished. Not by a long shot. To do the story justice, I estimated another 50,000 words would do the trick. Seeing as I’d worked so hard, I gave myself a month break to collect my ideas for how to navigate the next act in the novel. One month turned to six. And then another. I tapped out “THE END” on December 27, 2014.

The occasion warranted a photo.

Except it still wasn’t quite ready for consumption. Desire to hit the daily target dominoed, and I found myself adding in extra plot points, characters, unnecessary twists. All of which needed to be addressed, hence, it took a whole extra year just to finish the first draft. We’re talking warts n’ all. With terrible, first-timer descriptions like this:

“‘When did it last move?’ said Kate. Kate IS a librarian but dresses like a hooker from the ‘80s. She’s pleasant. She’s built up a poorly disguised resentment held against the entire world. For what? Who knows. Her face does her no favors, her features pulled together in the middle. A few years back we all went out for her 30th birthday but she cannot be a day under 50.”

Around this time, I bished that this method of writing didn’t really live up to my expectations. It’s awesome if you’re the type of aspiring scribe who wrestles with the discipline of word counts. Each day hitting your target. That’s who NaNoWriMo is designed to help. Those who participate in all the fist-pumping and high-fiving on the forums, message boards, and social media. I mean, that’s great and all, but ambition for greatness seems lost in all the congratulatory flimflam and ‘badge’ earning. Literary standards are not a requirement. They’re barely even mentioned. “Valuing enthusiasm, determination, and a deadline, NaNoWriMo is for anyone who has ever thought about writing a novel,” reads the official mission statement. Enthusiasm and determination shouldn’t be ignored, but the satisfaction that follows isn’t based on what you’ve spent a month churning out. Just that you have churned it out.

So what if you aren’t interested in hammering out any old cobblers? That’s not the point of NaNoWriMo. It’s about purging.

That saying about monkeys eventually churning out Shakespeare if you sit them in front of a typewriter long enough? The same applies here. Write enough, on a regular basis, and you’ll eventually flush out toxins. Did you really need to tell the reader that Joe told Mark to go fuck himself “angrily”? Probably not. Once you’ve written that over and over again, maybe you won’t make that lazy adverb your friend.

This reminds me of something my driving instructor once told me, as we set off for my final lesson before the test. I asked him what was the point of the lesson. “If I can’t parallel park very well now, what difference will an hour make?” To which he replied, “You’ll get all your mistakes out of your system now, with me, and not during your test with the examiner.” That sentiment holds true for writing. Getting the crap out of your system, hammering out all those brash similes and endlessly detailed descriptions, clears room for decent stuff.

NaNoWriMo makes no claims about shaping you into the next Faulkner. Great literary figures would have balked at the notion of hurrying along a process that many authors took pride in extending. Hemingway? On average he wrote 500 words a day. An anecdote about James Joyce alleges that the Dubliners author took pride in carefully crafting each novel from the off; for him a good day’s writing was completing three sentences.

Joyce's elation after three sentences. 

One thing that no author will dispute is the need for discipline. It’s tough to be strict, especially when embarking on a solitary task. Setting clear goals and in this case, securing a good, hard pat on the back from your fellow NaNoWriMers serves a purpose that it took me 12 months to realize. Embracing the habit of writing every single day. A practice that’s believed by proponents of healthy lifehacks to positively affect your overall disposition. The Happiness Project author Gretchen Rubin champions the daily habit, explaining that “what we do every day matters more than what we do once in a while.” You can’t sit down at your computer every now and again and expect to produce the Next Big Thing right off the bat. Take the time every day and you just might in a few years.

Once I reached the last month of writing, I found that my end-of-day read-throughs and morning refreshers weren’t accompanied by “Oh my god, that’s fucking AWFUL!” Along the way I’d become a stronger writer. I’m still editing the book, another process that’s taking its sweet time due to the tonal inconsistencies across a year’s worth of writing. As I near the end I slouch lower in my chair during edit sessions, flipping the pages with excitement rather than dread. My red pen remains capped for longer. It might not be that fucking awful after all.