Temporary Insanity: 10 Lessons Learned from NanoWriMo

In less than three weeks, over 200,000 people will allow themselves to go a little crazy for a month. They will gnash their teeth, smash their heads, and possibly destroy their livers. What can we learn from them?


A little over a year ago, I stumbled across something called Nanowrimo: National Novel Writing Month. The task is this: write a 50,000 word novel in one month.  This averages out to 1,667 words a day.

After your month is up, you copy and paste your text into a little word counter. If you reach the goal, nothing really happens except that you’ve written 50,000 words in a month. Nanowrimo is free and offers plenty of forums for people to talk about their WIP (work in progress).

Most people who start don’t finish. In 2008, there were 119,301 participants and 21,683 winners.

Last year was my first year and, I’m happy to report, I finished. I’ll be the first to admit the work I created is not fit for the eyes of rabid dogs, but I sure had fun creating it. I’m looking forward to getting started this year, trying to finish up some old projects and reduce other commitments.

Nanowrimo has its detractors, and some of their reasons are valid. I remember a publisher blogged about how many terrible novels they received every December and January. Most were around 50,001 words. Hmm…wonder where those novels came from. Summer babies?

For me, the true rewards of Nanowrimo are the lessons you learn when you write over 1,667 a day, every day. Since Dec 1, 2008, very few days have gone by when I haven’t written at least 1000 words. Before that, my writing habits were sporadic. Now, I’m consistent in my output. Just like Nanowrimo, most of the work I produce doesn’t see the light of day, but some of it does, and I get a hell of a lot more ideas than if I just waited around for inspiration to strike (read here). The lessons have stuck, and they didn’t cost me a dime.

Here are ten of those lessons, in no particular order.

  1. First drafts are usually garbage. Produce without being perfect and you’ll surprise yourself. You can always edit later. When you learn how to silence your inner editor, you have a lot more freedom to create.
  2. Consistent, daily effort is guaranteed to give you at least a little good material. Quantity will produce quality, but you’ll still have to edit.
  3. Doing is more powerful than planning. You can plan and dream about writing a novel all your life, but until you start doing it (and name it), it doesn’t exist.
  4. When you sort of know the beginning and end, your mind will fill in the middle. The hardest part isn’t writing; it’s knowing what to write.
  5. Surrounding yourself with thousands of other people trying to achieve the same goal as you is terribly helpful.
  6. Even the biggest goals can accomplished when chipped away at a little bit at a time. Seoul wasn’t built in a day (more like a couple years).
  7. Just because you’ve written a novel doesn’t mean you’re a novelist. I can take a scalpel and slice open my leg, but that doesn’t make me a surgeon; it makes me a masochist. Maybe the difference between masochist and novelist isn’t that big.
  8. You learn to show up. Writing 1,667 words in a day isn’t that hard; writing 1,667 for 30 days is. You must write when you’re inspired and happy as well as when you’re tired, hungover, sick, and stuffed on turkey.
  9. Word meters, status bars, and visual feedback tools are surprisingly effective motivation tools.
  10. Negative sanctions work. In this case, Dr. Wicked’s Writing Lab set to Evil, Kamikaze mode will keep you focused. EK mode eats your words if you go too long without typing; you can only pause once.

You can check out NanoWriMo.org  here.

Here are some fresh articles about NanoWriMo I enjoyed:

Alegra Clark @ Editor Unleashed talks here about how she’s sometimes a nano evangelist.
Marelisa @ Abundance Blog has what looks like a crash course in nano novel writing here.

What can you add? I’d love to hear from some participants from previous years.

Photo Credit: RustyBoxCars

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • JA Lineberry October 13, 2009, 9:28 am

    I would absolutely do this if I had the time.

    Some of the issues you mentioned above often plague me, such as planning and editing too much. It really bogs down the work. This is why I can only write short stories. Every time I try to write a novel, it becomes a short story.

  • Seth October 13, 2009, 7:38 pm

    Surprisingly, it doesn’t take all that much time, make 40 min to an hour a day. Last year, I was still doing a lot of other stuff. Once I decided to edit later, I cut my writing time almost in half.

  • Michelle October 14, 2009, 8:50 pm

    Oh man…I’m so tempted to do NaNo. I *think* I could handle it…but I’m right smack in the middle of a first draft right now, and I don’t want to start a new one.

    Still. Tempting.

    And the masochist thing – very, very true. 🙂

  • Seth October 15, 2009, 7:36 pm

    I think you could handle it.

  • Ang October 18, 2009, 1:47 am

    Hey there! I’m one of your friendly Seoul MLs – followed the link from your posts on the forum, just wanted to say great run-down of the program. Thanks, too, for the book suggestion – I’ve no doubt people will find that useful as dialogue is hard to write on the fly (well, it is for me anyway)! We’ll be looking forward to meeting you soon =)