Thoughts on the Month-Long Novel Writing Challenge

I sit here, surrounded by the dark during a week of October rain. The sun has yet to rise, and even if it does, the rain clouds seem intent on swallowing it whole. It’s fittingly spooky, and a blisteringly cold Halloween seems like just another part of 2020. And NaNoWriMo is swiftly approaching.

I’m going to attempt to do something new. Life is busy. We are all bombarded with a million images and sounds and things each day.  2020 has ramped that up to 11. So I want to try to focus my attention a little more, and allow time for more creative pursuits. I’ve missed it, really.

I’ve picked up watercolors again. I’m excited to sit outside and paint, though the weather has yet to cooperate. I’ve been writing. Wrist deep in pulling the guts of this draft apart and shaping it into something better. Excited enough to start thinking ahead to the next draft, polishing, refining, narrowing 80k+ words down to an elevator pitch. As with most things with writing, it is both terrifying and thrilling. ‘Tis the season.

Which brings me around to NaNoWriMo. For those who have never heard of it, NaNoWriMo happens every year in November, and it stands for National Novel Writing Month. The goal for people who choose to participate is to write a complete draft of 50k words in a month. It’s a daunting task, but filled with hope and the kind of pressure akin to cramming for a final exam the night before.

I won’t be participating in NaNo this year, but I will be cheering on writers from the sidelines, and sharing my experiences from last year to hopefully help someone along.

Please ignore my chipped nail polish


I cheated on NaNo last year. I didn’t start with a new idea or concept, but instead started a new take on an idea I’d been playing with off and on for a few years. I was actually so excited to work on it, I wrote 10k words in October before NaNo even started. It gave me a good foundation, and took away some of the panic of looking at a blank page. It’s ok to work on something you’ve already started on. You can do as much or as little prep work as you like. The only one keeping track is you.

Plotting or Pantsing

Some writers like to plot and some like writing by the seat of their pants. And some are a mixture of both. It’s all fine! The key was understanding my own writing style and using it to my advantage. I’m a pantser (also called discovery writing) who has vague plot ideas. I find if I try to outline too much of the story, I get lost in the details and never get start. I have gotten better at outlining as I’ve written more, but there will always be something thrilling about seeing where the story takes me. In my own writing, I find an outline is most useful for me in the second draft to wrestle the words back into something story shaped. Because the goal of NaNo is words, the best way for me to get that done was to just start writing. Which brings me to…


The most important part of NaNo: the writing. The goal of NaNo is to write 50k words in the Month of November, with the thought that 50k words is a good foundation first draft. Most manuscripts that are published today are longer than that. If publishing is your end goal (it’s ok to write for fun!), you will need to clean and polish and most likely write a lot more than what you end up with after NaNo. You should also research the genre you want to write in to get an idea of average word counts. But NaNo is an excellent way to get words on the page. In order to succeed, you need to write nearly every day, if not every day. The best part of NaNo for me was that it made me find time for my writing. If I wanted to meet this challenge I’d decided to participate in, I had to find ways to make it work. Some days I wrote a measly few words. Other days I hit a few thousand. But every day I was writing something. The NaNo website has tools for tracking word count so you can see your stats. I also liked logging my daily numbers in an excel sheet. It was motivating to see visuals of the progress. And I also knew just how far I had to go.

Find what works best for you, but writing needs to be a priority.

Turst Your Gut

The manuscript I wrote is a YA high fantasy. Initially, I started it in 3rd person POV. When I hit about 25k words, I also hit a wall. Words weren’t following and something didn’t feel right. My gut said this story should be in 1st person POV. My brain said that was ridiculous to do right now and I should focus on moving forward. But words continued to be slow. So I spent a day of writing changing the POV. After that, words were flowing again and I was much happier with the feel of the story. Usually, I’m an advocate of writing forward. Done is better than perfect. But If there is something that is stopping that forward momentum, I think it’s worth it to go back and adjust. Ultimately, it comes down to knowing yourself and your writing, which can take time to learn. NaNo is a great way to figure that out.


I don’t think this part gets enough attention. You should have fun with NaNo. Write something you enjoy. Something that makes you sit down and want to work on it. By your choosing, you’re with this project for 30 days and 50k words. It should be fun for you!

Winning NaNo

Technically, I won NaNoWriMo last year. That meant I wrote 50k words in November. I finished my draft at 61,025. That manuscript is the reason I won’t be participating this year. I love the story, I love working on it, and I’m in the midst of another draft of it. I’m excited to keep polishing. Maybe one day you’ll get to read it.

But there have been years I haven’t won. Where I didn’t hit that 50k mark. And that was ok. 50k is a LOT of words. People have lives, emergencies happen, things come up. But each time I’ve participated in NaNo, I’ve learned about my own writing habits, tendencies, and pitfalls. I’ve learned more of what works for me and what doesn’t. I’ve even learned better times of the day for me to write and how to look ahead at a week and manage my time. And each time, I ended with more words than I started. My writing grew stronger overall. I also found a great community on the NaNo message boards and with the writing community on Twitter.

So yes, to win you need to hit that word count. But it is not the only takeaway from NaNo and it is so much more than winning. Ultimately, you get out of it what you put in.

If the stress of writing 50k words in a month sounds like too much to you, that’s ok! The NaNo website still has a bunch of fun tools and resources for writers. It’s worth checking out even if you don’t want to participate.

I won’t be participating this year. I’m loving my manuscript, even on days I hate editing. But I will be cheering on anyone who does decide to give NaNoWriMo a shot from. You’ve got this. Write those words and tell your stories. I hope my own experiences help you figure out your own goals. In the end, make it your own.

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