When I was in high school, I was introduced by a friend to the excitement and terror of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), a project in which thousands of people come together online and in person in November to attempt to write a novel of 50,000 words in just 30 days. At fifteen, I was a passionate writer and reader of fantasy, and had never been able to finish writing a story. I started everything from short stories to novels, grappled with the first few paragraphs or pages or chapters, and eventually lost interest and moved on. After a failed first year in which I forgot that I was participating, I latched onto NaNoWriMo in 2006. I wrote almost every day, and the days I skipped, I made up for with marathon writing sessions over weekends or late at night when I was supposed to be sleeping. I wrote while I was supposed to be working on homework. I wrote before school in the morning. And on November 29th, I wrote my 50,000th word.
I’m telling you this because I don’t want you to think I don’t love NaNoWriMo, and I don’t want you to think that what I learned from it in high school wasn’t worthwhile. I had never reached the end of a personal writing project before NaNoWriMo. But for four years in high school and college, I completed an entire novel draft every November. And they got better, too. My last winning novel was the best complete novel manuscript I’ve written to date. But that wasn’t last year — that was four years ago. At some point, NaNoWriMo stopped working for me.
I’m sure part of the problem was losing all the spare time I used to have, and exiting the academic environment where all of my peers are passionate about creative works, too. Perhaps it also had something to do with the sense that 50,000 words was achievable and therefore not worth pushing myself over. But I think the majority of the issue was about something else: I wasn’t a high school writer anymore. I was in college, workings towards a degree in English with a writing emphasis. I was taking literary fiction short story workshops and reading exemplary modern works. The concept of clinging onto the backs of your hastily-invented characters as they raced around willy-nilly with barely a plot to guide them was no longer appealing to me. Yes, I could write a novel in a month…but it was awful, juvenile, and unstructured.
Keep in mind, this is just how I felt at the time. Everyone uses NaNoWriMo for different things, and for some people, it’s the freedom, the silliness, and the spontaneity that makes it so beautiful. But for me, “dares” and “randomness” were the leftovers of an era where I watched Invader Zim and referred to myself as “hyper.” I didn’t want to write 50,000 words of just anything. I wanted to write a novel. I wanted to write something that was worth reading.
For two years, I groped in the darkness for the passion I used to have for NaNoWriMo, starting lackluster plots that I wasn’t attached to, restarting, cheating by pasting in short stories I had written for class (“I wrote them in November…”), and still ultimately failing to reach 50,000 words, or any sense of achievement. Last year, I just skipped it, thinking I had grown out of NaNoWriMo and was finished with it forever.
But that’s ridiculous. You don’t have to grow out of anything if you don’t want to. Water for Elephants was a best-selling book and recently a movie starring Robert Pattinson, and it was drafted as a NaNoWriMo novel. And it’s far from the only success to stem from the program. So this year, I am determined to use NaNoWriMo as the motivational tool that it is intended to be — and define it however I choose. After all, the only rule is that you have to write a novel in a month. How much more flexible can it get?
I know I’m not the only one who wants to take NaNoWriMo to the next level. This Friday, I’ll tell you guys all about my plan. Meanwhile, what’s your NaNoWriMo origin story? Tell me all about it in the comments!
And don’t forget to add me as a writing buddy!