The first time I did NaNoWriMo AKA National Novel Writing Month, I was one of those “I think maybe I could do this?” guys.
At one time I had enjoyed writing until 7 years of literary criticism and film theory classes drummed that out of me and replaced it with a knack for churning out analytical essays.
I’d certainly never finished anything longer than a short story, let alone the novella/short novel length of 50,000 words required by NaNo.
Drawing inspiration from a few of my friends who had been successful in the past, 5 years ago I set out to win my first NaNoWriMo victory and claim my meaningless folder of JPEGs that said I was a winner.
I totally did it…and at the end, aside from those fun JPEGs, my life was a bit of a mess. And it got worse before it got better.
WHAT’S ALL THIS THEN?
NaNoWriMo is a multi-national speed writing event taking place during November, originally started by a couple of guys that wanted to pick up girls in college.
I really wish that last sentence was a joke.
Essentially, the goal is to write 50,000 words of fiction in the month of November. You can pick other genres or forms of writing, too. To track this, you can sign up on their web site and compare your current word count against your friends. You can also donate to their nonprofit, which supports kids writing programs and other nebulous things.
Watching my daily word count numbers go up had the same Skinner Box pull on me that loot-based video games do, without the fun storylines or graphical effects.
I quickly became hooked on making the numbers and the bars get bigger, and doing so faster than my friends.
On some days, I even wrote more words than I needed to.
Before I knew it, it was the end of the month, and I had one of the most ungainly, gangly, nightmarish novels ever written. A book I’ve only shown to one person to this day, and they kindly read the whole thing out of charity.
I also had a newfound addiction to writing and watching numbers go up that was suddenly left unfulfilled.
So I started writing stuff every day. That eventually lead to me posting things here on Medium, mostly random babble about headphones and technology. But for the first couple of years, I was just banging out stuff over on Tumblr or one of a million other discarded blogs.
It was kind of a problem. I bought a new cheap laptop, for writing. I started buying new headphones to listen to music, while writing. I started drinking coffee every day, so I could write in a place that wasn’t the home office I do my “normal” job in.
Before I knew it, I was writing a ton of stuff every single day.
Sometimes I enjoyed this content…but just as often, I kind of hated how it turned out. But I forced myself to publish it anyway, all to keep those numbers going up.
I’ve attempted NaNoWriMo three more times in the last four years. Two times I finished it, and one time I bailed because I caught a bad cold and it derailed all my progress.
Ironically, the project I was writing that year was the one with the most promise.
The other two are comical trash fire nonsense piles, full of contradictions, overlaps, and weird in-joke madness.
I posted the most recent one online, in part to keep me honest and in part to help justify replacing my “regular” habit of uploading daily tech content.
Since that first completion 5 years ago, I’ve never truly felt satisfied. It proved to me that I still like writing, and it proved to me that if I set my mind to it, I could really pump out some text of sometimes-questionable quality.
But it also showed me that daily writing is a luxury that very few can probably afford, unless they’re doing it full-time. And the lengths I would go to for no real reason, just to keep writing.
The NaNo web site likes to make it sound oh-so-easy to write 1667 words a day, and they tell you not to worry about the quality.
I’m here to tell you that even if you literally type gibberish every day, it’s still a surprising struggle. And I’m in a unique position to have even made it happen three times. A lot of my friends have had to bail out before the end over the last few years, and with that comes a deep sense of frustration and self-loathing that’s just as bad as my numbers addiction.
My “regular” job isn’t all that regular. I work in radio, and I work a morning shift and an evening shift, with a big old 6 hour hole in the middle of my day. So, I use that time to feed my at-one-time-crippling numbers and word-writing addiction.
If you have a job that requires you to work regular hours, and/or any kind of prominent social life, NaNoWriMo is going to be tough. It’s almost like it was designed by some dudes trying to pick up women in college without any thought for how it might work in the real world of jobs and lives.
NaNoWriMo is a struggle, then, and unless you’re an absolute literary genius, you’re going to end up with an incredibly rough first draft at the end. It’s not something to be proud of, rather, it’s now an additional project that needs even more work.
Rewriting is always at least half the job. You wouldn’t want to watch a movie before any editing, sound design, or special effects had been done, right? Same thing with text.
BREAKING THE CYCLE
I don’t write every day any more. At best, I write every other day.
I came to this new plan in a very simple way: I noticed I had stopped doing the other things I enjoyed.
I used to listen to multiple podcasts per week. I used to play and enjoy video games. I used to go for walks. I used to go to places I enjoyed just for kicks.
At the beginning of this year, I realized I had cut all of that stuff out of my life to stay on the desperate treadmill of writing every day. It was a real “stare into the abyss” sort of a moment. For every headphone review or fun piece of content I managed to finish…I had a satirical article where I talked about my favorite chip.
Don’t do NaNoWriMo. Even if your schedule is weird like mine. Find a healthier way to establish good writing habits, in a way that works for your own schedule. Use a gentler method of accountability and progress tracking than bar graphs and friend competitions so you won’t establish skinner box number-increasing addictions.
Otherwise you might find yourself surrounded by a pile of headphones, writing about your favorite chips, and wondering when you’ll have the time to finish a single video game and edit those novels you have a vague memory of writing.