Believe It or Not, NaNoWriMo Isn’t All About Word Count

Another year, another NaNoWriMo, and me urging people to do at least a little prep before they start writing on November 1st. For the numbers? A little, but more for learning to be a writer. In the end, what’s vital is not quitting.

National Novel Writing Month

National Novel Writing Month

This will be my fourth NaNo. I passed 50K each time, but more important to me is that I wrote for 30 days. My approach changes a little from year to year, but some level of planning is the constant, as is allowing for inspiration. It’s a balance. Whether you choose to weight the scale a little more one way or the other, both elements are necessary.

Inspiration is the spark that starts the engine. Planning is the fuel to carry you over distance.

Unfortunately, until someone is in the situation it’s difficult to visualize why planning is so important. One reason people ignore planning is because they’re told to plan and aren’t shown the alternative.

Lett’s look at that a little more…

Let’s assume you’ve cleared out 2 hours/day to write. NaNo requires 1,667 words/day on average. Miss a day and that jumps. And let’s not forget distractions. In the U.S., for instance, there’s Thanksgiving late in the month (the 23rd this year). Life, too, happens. Last year I became seriously ill on the 10th (I still wrote every day, but my daily average plummeted).

So, here, for your learning and entertainment enjoyment is a case of showing:

You intend to use your 2 hours/day to write a mystery. You have a protagonist, a few other characters, a great hook, and there are a few great scenes you can’t wait to write. For instance, the inciting incident where your female protagonist is cornered by several men on a rooftop.

On the 1st that great hook you’ve been thinking about flows out of you, as do your words. It all comes alive and you’re seriously excited. It’s happening! You’re doing it! Too, those other fantastic characters you had in mind slide into the story just like you thought they would. You kill it and break 2K words, or maybe 3K or 4K as you complete the chapter and head into the next.

Your word counts slip down around the normal average over the next few days, but you figure that’s to be expected because the story becomes more complex with each chapter.

Depending on how much you stored in your head at the outset the problems start to creep in near the end of the first week. Inspiration introduces characters you hadn’t expected. Where are they from? How do they fit? Do they have relationships with existing characters? Some mysterious guy named Frank enters the story. It turns out he’s from the same town as your protagonist. Did they know each other? Will it cause problems if they did? Oh, but that’d be such a great twist!

Photo: CA Hawthorne

Photo: CA Hawthorne

And where did that 2 hours go?

The next day there are more problems. Is Frank connected to the killer? Is Frank the killer? Is Frank being manipulated by someone else? His girlfriend? His wife? Maybe he’s gay and it’s his partner. Oh wait, what about that scene you already wrote where your female protagonist and Frank had a fling…?

Shoot! That’s words lost instead of gained.

It gets worse. Your protagonist already established that Frank broke female hearts through high school. Wait! What? Was he in denial then? Your protagonist remembers that Frank knew something important long ago that would help the case in the present, but what’s the state of their relationship? Speaking of relationships, wouldn’t it be interesting if the victim was Frank’s partner…?

And where did those 2 hours go?

All of a sudden your daily average has plummeted. The first week is gone and you find yourself behind. No problem, you say. You’ll make a massive push in week two and catch up.

Courtesy: Pixabay

Courtesy: Pixabay

And then you catch that bug going around and you’ve reached that rooftop scene to discover the players involved don’t look anything like you’d envisioned. At the moment the word count is urging you to charge ahead you’re stuck in the rear brainstorming.

It’s day ten. You’re way behind. Maybe it’d be better to try again next year…

I see this happen year after year. It isn’t worst case scenario. This, or a similar story, is the norm. The majority don’t finish NaNo, let alone win. There are even those who take the same approach year after year and don’t finish year after year.

I’d encourage all of them to keep going regardless of word count.

Learn from the experience. Better a 25K NaNo where you have the start of a book and a wealth of learning than giving up.

NaNo isn’t about giving up! It’s more about learning to be a writer than words written. The pressure they put on you with a word count is to force you to face that learning experience.

Winning, on paper, is 50K. Winning, for the writer within, is finishing the month!

Okay, but—whoops!—you haven’t planned at all. Don’t worry, all isn’t lost.

There’s still a week until NaNo. That’s A LOT of time to start sketching out ideas and ironing out some of those troublesome details. You can even jot down some crucial facts about your characters. Plot twists won’t twist you into a corner if you’ve had a little time to consider them.

Photo: CA Hawthorne

Image: CA Hawthorne

For my first NaNo I literally decided to participate on Halloween—in the evening. I fortunately had a story in my head and spent a couple of hours on either side of midnight brainstorming and making notes. Each day after that for the entire month I’d devote a small chunk of my time updating what I call a rolling outline where I’d project the next several days of writing and make outline adjustments. I still encountered some massive headaches, but managed to finish the book and write about 65K. It wasn’t a great book (it was intended as an experiment in genre), but the learning experience was priceless.

Needless to say, I plan now. Last year, despite struggling to breath, I limped to the finish with over 90K because I accomplished so much the first half of the month.

Do yourself a favor, start making notes, read different approaches to planning, and promise yourself you’re in NaNo to finish, no matter what your word count.

You can do it.

This NaNo—this one you’re about to try—isn’t a once-in-a-lifetime month of writing, but a true writer’s first step.




3 Replies to “Believe It or Not, NaNoWriMo Isn’t All About Word Count”

  1. Pingback: Believe It or Not, NaNoWriMo Isn’t All About Word Count | Christina Anne Hawthorne

  2. I agree, planning will go a long way. The very first time I attempted Nanowrimo, I knew how I wanted the story to start. I had notes for a couple of days of writing at the most. I wrote the rest on the fly and I actually made it. The story was a mess, of course. The most recent time I did it, two years ago now, I spent October prepping. That time, the story was better and actually complete. So, prepping definitely helps.

    • Congratulations on your success. There are a lot of variables so it isn’t impossible to make it even if everything goes wrong, but that’s rare. Regardless, it’s a learning experience that’s helped us both.

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