“What NaNoWriMo Taught Me” by Rin Simpson

Rin photographed by Pippa Joyce

On the afternoon of Sunday 31st October this year, I sat in a riverside café in the centre of Bristol wondering if I was making a huge mistake.

In just a few short hours, as November dawned, an epic literary adventure would begin. Around the world more than 200,000 people would set off to write a minimum of 50,000 word each – a staggering 10 billion in total – by the end of the month.

And I would be one of them. The girl who struggles to find time to cook and clean and sleep between juggling three jobs and going to college. The girl who is so afraid of failing as a fiction writer she often chooses not to write at all, preferring the relative safety of hope to the crushing realities of putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard).

I had signed up to take part in National Novel Writing Month – or NaNoWriMo to those in the know – in the hope that I might finally write the murder mystery that had been nagging at my creative subconscious for several months. And I was, in all honesty, terrified.

Around me, roughly two dozen writers from my local chapter discussed plot skeletons and character profiles, swapping tales of previous NaNo victories and wondering whether this year they should perhaps attempt 100,000 words instead of 50,000. Just for fun, you understand.

Yes, I was very much afraid I had made a mistake.

But, following the advice of NaNo’s cheery American organisers, I had told pretty much everyone I knew about my challenge, like a smoker hoping to shame herself into giving up. There was no backing out, not without serious embarrassment.

So the following morning I woke at 6am and began writing, aiming for the daily target of 1,667 words needed to make it to the final deadline. I banged out 2,000 words in two hours. Result.

The following day, those same two hours resulted in just 800 words. I cursed my muse and went to work, then came home late that night and wrote another 800 before bed.

The next 28 days followed a similarly unpredictable pattern and taught me an awful lot about myself, about writing, and about the effects of extreme workloads on a person’s sleeping habits. This is what I learned:

  • When you write fast, your characters do more of the work
  • Crime fiction contains a lot of dialogue, or at least it does when I’m writing it
  • I am not very good at dialogue
  • There is something liberating about ignoring grammar and spelling issues until later
  • 4am is a surprisingly productive time to write
  • Surrounding yourself with other writers can be inspiring
  • Surrounding yourself with other writers who are well ahead of you can be depressing
  • Setting your alarm for, say, 20 minutes and racing to write as many words as you can without thinking is an incredibly effective strategy for upping your word count
  • Typing “xxx” any time you can’t remember a name / think of a word / formulate an idea helps you maintain a flow
  • Missing a day is a very, very bad idea
  • Missing two days is an even worse idea
  • The times you least want to write are the time when, having slogged through the pain and come out the other side, you find the sweetest gems of prose
  • There is something to be said for leaving a scene unfinished and moving onto a new one when you hit a block
  • Mild sleep deprivation can be good for productivity
  • Extreme sleep deprivation is bad for productivity

I’ll be honest, it wasn’t an easy journey. At the end of week two, I was roughly 2,000 words ahead. By the end of week three, I was 3,000 words behind. I very nearly gave up.

One of my plot threads had completely changed. Characters were appearing who did not belong in my novel, in any self respecting crime novel. All the dialogue had started to sound the same and every time I tried to sit down and bash out a few words – any few words – I was seized by the overwhelming and paralysing belief that I would be better off watching Friends and drinking wine.

But I managed to resist. I managed to keep going even when the only thing that made me fire up my laptop was the thought of those pitying faces when I shook my head sadly in response to their well meaning questions at the end of the month.

And now? Well now I have 50,000 words of a novel. They’re not particularly good words just yet, I’ll admit that, and I still have some way to go before the story is finished. But I did it, I hit my target. I wrote 50,000 words in 30 days.

So what did NaNoWriMo really teach me? That with enough dedication, elbow grease, encouragement and pressure, I can achieve what I set out to achieve. I can do it.

Now let’s see if I can edit the literary tangle I’ve created into something worth reading before NaNo 2011 rolls around.

Check out Rin’s blog here!

2 thoughts on ““What NaNoWriMo Taught Me” by Rin Simpson

  1. Rin

    Thanks Heather, glad to have inspired you. I’d say it’s definitely worth trying NaNoWriMo at least once. You may discover that the mad rush and general non-editing policy isn’t what works best for you, but I found the strict deadline incredibly helpful.

  2. Heather

    Inspirational – in about 18 different ways! And well done you.

    My sister also completed the challenge – maybe I’ll have a bash next year.