What I Learned From My First NaNoWriMo

As the calendar foretold, December has arrived.  For most of the past few years this has surprised me.

Once upon a time December was an arrival.   Nights drew in from the start of October, temperatures dropped, winter clothes came out and I would start to miss summer evenings despite myself.  The journey through winter had begun.  But December 1st was a cheery harbour to steer towards; there, winter would be brighter and warmer; plans to make, people to see; anticipation of newness as the month came to its end.  I could see it coming from miles away, and was ready to jump onto the pier and get festive.

But in seasonless tropical climes, November is no different from September, and my outfits remain layerless.  Here in Congo they of course ‘do’ Christmas, but without the early-bird excesses of the west, and when shops do start stocking trees and chocolates, they just feel out of place to me.  And anyway, it’s all in another language, so that the view is a little different from my own Christmas landscape.

So December surprised me again this year.  I knew it was around somewhere, but I ran aground.  I pulled out the Christmas box just yesterday, hung up the advent calendar, and scrambled around for something that could be discovered in the first little pocket.  Yet in just 10 days I’ll have to be ready to make the actual journey to my December.  I’m desperately looking forward to winter, and a ‘proper’ Christmas (my first in a couple of years, our first ever in our own house, and probably the first winter-Christmas my children will actually remember); and it will all happen anyway no matter how ready I feel today.


During the approach to this December I was additionally preoccupied with my NaNoWriMo attempt.  If you follow my facebook page you’ll know I’m not a winner.  About half-way through I knew I wouldn’t meet the 50k word target, and reset to 10k, which I did achieve.  This is all good.  My main reason for taking part was to give myself a writing task with the pressure of a deadline, and to experiment with the idea of writing a novel.  I don’t have a novel that I’m bursting to write, although I have a few serviceable ideas.  After doing a couple of creative writing courses I was left with a tacit expectation that writers write novels – I wanted to confront the expectation and make an attempt at it without committing, say, two years to a project with an unknown outcome.  Thirty days of my time was dispensable enough.  Now I have something – not even an opening of a novel, but 10k words of raw novel material – which I will revisit next year and decide whether to mine it for short stories or stick with it.  I do still have confidence in the story idea, and now I have a better idea of how to develop it.

Here’s what else I’ve learned in the past 30 days:

  • I love love love Scrivener – I’ve never got on board with a new (to me) software or app so quickly before. I am completely hooked and even using it to write this blog post. (Compile > just that one thing please…)
  • Scrivener has a name-generator tool! Discovered this around week two – total game-changer.
  • I need an outline. Strictly speaking I was already fairly certain of this.  But I only stopped reading, researching and watching videos about how to plan, and started trying to make my own plan, on maybe October 25.  So my outline was vague.  Perhaps if I was someone who could sit at a laptop all day and think of nothing else but my art, I could be, as the inelegant term puts it, a ‘pantser’.  But when you are relying on small pockets of time through an otherwise busy day to get the words down, you have to know straight away what those words are going to be.
  • The process of novel-writing, therefore, is about so much more than writing the words. It is about building a story.
  • The building process is one I am really looking forward to embracing, whenever I decide I’m going to do it.
  • Character and plot are the foundations of the process. I won’t be able to explore deep themes and employ a cleverly satirical form until I have an actual story to tell.
  • But without the scaffold of an outline, it’s OK that I jumped around, describing characters and settings, writing scenes I wanted to work towards, experimenting with different points of view, etc. All of it helped to spark ideas and will help build the story later on.
  • What I’m really itching to do just now is shorter pieces: short fiction, travel and memoir.
  • Accountability is important, sure. But the problem with telling people is that they want to talk to you about it…*
  • World-shattering political events can be a distraction.

I didn’t learn anything about how the demands on my life as an expat parent in Central Africa, along with the fact that I have a paid job this year and that I like to do All The Things as well as writing, are not very compatible with such a big project: I already knew that.  Then again, I’m not even convinced it’s true.  The days where I had some flow and boosted my word count were usually no less busy than the other days.  And what I did learn is that choosing to sit down and write for however few minutes of the day it may be, is the only antidote to thinking there isn’t time.  (And that drunk words are still words.)  Meanwhile, although I wanted the pressure of the deadline there were days where it was a relief to remember the pressure was self-imposed and I could just give myself back that time.  The result was still more output than most months, and a body of work I wouldn’t otherwise have produced.

Now, for a birthday party, a performance, travelling and Christmassing.  And fitting more words in between it all.

*…and even offer really really useful advice like, ‘Why don’t you write about what you know?’…

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