The Writers Circle

creative writing community, craft and inspiration

My First NaNoWriMo by Chet Ensign

I jumped into NaNoWriMo this year the way I jump into a pool on a hot summer day. Standing with my toes on the edge thinking, “It’s gonna be cold, it’s gonna be cold, it’s gonna cold.” Then taking the leap, feeling that first splash and finding it’s not as much of a shock as I’d expected.

crest-05e1a637392425b4d5225780797e5a76NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month, an annual event that challenges you to write your novel in 30 days. Or, to be precise, 50,000 words. It was started in 1999 in San Francisco by Chris Baty and has been going every year since then. I’d heard about it ages ago and but kept shying away, thinking that I didn’t have that much story to write. 50,000 is a lot of words!

Then, in October, I read an article in Writers Digest by NaNoWriMo Executive Director Grant Faulkner, One Way NaNoWriMo Can Lead To a Lifetime of Better Writing. He said, “Constraints keep perfectionist notions from eating away at you: You dive in and just start writing because you have to.” That sounded good to me. I had files of raw material I have been wrestling with for a couple of years for my novel-in-progress, Toby Blood and the Theory of Grownups and the perfectionist me kept going back and fiddling with it. Why not leverage the force of NaNoWriMo to push the story forward? I signed up for an account on October 30th and started typing November 1st.


Lesson #1: Aside from the 50K, set achievable goals.

Let’s be clear: I didn’t go in expecting to get a novel out of this. I have way too much of a mess on my hands to think I’d have a novel at the end. So I decided to spend my 50,000 words figuring out how my story ends. Toby Blood would not be finished, but if I had the story basics in hand, I would be satisfied.

Lesson #2: You can write 50,000 words in a month if you make it your first priority.

50,000 words works out to an average of 1,667 words per day. Yes, that is a lot. To find out how much, I tried an experiment on day 1. I started on a new scene, sat down at my usual morning hour and typed non-stop. No going back, no fixing typos, no stopping to think about what comes next. And working at that fire-hose pace, I found that I can write 1,667 words in a little over an hour.

Ok. You’re not Jack Kerouac and neither am I. The reality is that neither of us is going to write that way every day. Two hours turned out to be a more realistic and manageable pace.

In his article, Faulkner wrote, “NaNoWriMo is a crash course in time management.” You can make two hours. But you have to put your writing at the top of your to-do list. He advised making Facebook, email, Snapchat, whatever your reward for writing your word count that day, and it worked. I was amazed how much I could get done with the social media put away until later.

But to do it, you’ll also have to come to terms with Lesson #3: You will write dreck.

You will write lots and lots of dreck. It will make you cringe, the insipid, sappy, conventional fluff will flow from your fingers. Trust me, there will be times you’ll want to shut off your computer and then run an industrial magnet over the hard drive so that there is no danger that anyone will ever actually see any of it.

But then, maybe, on a day when you’ve actually churned out over 2,000 words and you are feeling a tiny bit of satisfaction from that and you’ve cracked open the second Bordeaux over dinner, you maybe go ahead and read a little of it to your significant other, or to your best friend whose always encouraged you to do this, or to the guy next to you at the bar who just wiped the beer off his beard and said “So your a writah? Waddah ya write?” So you read just a little and you know what? This doesn’t actually sound as bad as you were afraid it did. And surprise-surprise, beer guy stops guzzling and starts looking at you like he’s taking you seriously and then surreptitiously wipes a tear from his eye and says, “Tell me about the mother’s motivation in this scene. What does she want? I think you’ve got it, you just need to draw us in a bit more.”

So then you realize that this is a lot like pottery. Before you can make that nice earthenware bowl, you have to first splat down a big lump of mud on the wheel.

NaNoWriMo teaches you to how to put a lot of mud on the throw wheel of writing.

Then you’ll be feeling pretty good. So you won’t see the next lesson coming until…

Lesson #4: You want to quit.

 No, no. Don’t say it. You will. I know, not because I wanted to quit (I did), but rather because half way through week 2, when it started feeling too hard and it was feeling like dreck again and the election didn’t go the way I’d hoped so I had a household of depressed family members to cheer up, that’s when the pep talk emails started coming from NaNoWriMo.

Oh. I get it. They’ve seen this before.

I guess after seventeen years of running something, you start to see things coming. They have. They know that everyone wants to quit. It’s too hard. We’re tired. Nobody at home likes us. Wait! Did someone say “Super Moon?” Whatever.

Which brings me to Lesson #5: NaNoWriMo is a community full of other excited writing people who want to help you make this happen. There’s your dashboard to check into and the regional scoreboard where you can see where you rank against everyone else. And there are forums where you can throw out plot questions and such and other people jump in with ideas and answers. There are write-ins, physical and virtual. I didn’t try the half of it.

They know that if you are writing, you’re special. You have something inside that you want to express. Whether you’re doing this hoping to get published or just hoping to leave a memoir of your life for your kids, that story wants to get on the page and be read. You wouldn’t be trying if you didn’t have that inside you.

They know. They get that. They’ve built a nice platform and a warm community to help.

You got eleven months to get ready. Go ahead. Jump in.

Chet Ensign is a long time member of the Monday evening Adult Writers Circle at Sparkhouse in South Orange where he writes short stories, short-short stories and lately whatever Toby Blood is up to on any particular day.

About Judith

Judith Lindbergh's latest novel, Pasture of Heaven, is about a nomad woman warrior on the Central Asian steppes in the 5th century BCE. (And there really were!) Her first novel, The Thrall's Tale, is a literary historical novel about three women in the first Viking Age settlement in 10th century Greenland. The Thrall's Tale was a Booksense Pick and a Borders Original Voices selection. Judith is also the founder and director of The Writers Circle, a creative writing program offering workshops for children and adults.

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