With November fast approaching and another #preptober well underway, it occurred to me that I never did write anything about my experience of completing National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) last year. I’ve watched from the sidelines for many years as writers all over the world took the plunge – I even create a NaNoWriMo account about three years ago – but never screwed up the courage to actually commit to it. I mean, let’s face it: the whole premise of it is completely ludicrous. Write a 50,000 word novel in 30 DAYS?!
Impossible. And yet people were doing it. So last year, I finally decided to take on the challenge. 50,000 words. 30 days. And (hopefully) something resembling the first draft of a novel at the end of it. I will hold my hands up and say I hedged my bets a bit. I made a deal with myself that although I would aim for the big 50k, it wouldn’t matter whether I hit that target as long as I wrote something every day in November. To hit that many words in that few days you need to average around 1,667 words each day. I promised myself I’d write at least 100 words a day. Not much but that would give me at least 3,000 words more than I had at the beginning of the month (which would be a big improvement on my average output!) and would mean I’d have built a daily writing habit.
I decided all this in the last week of October. I had no outline. I had no planning. I had no clue where my story was going to go. All I had was the kernel of an idea that had sat in my brain for six years and 10,000 words of exposition waffle that I’d written months and months before and hadn’t looked at since. Those 10,000 words were my starting point. I wasn’t including them in my NaNo word count but it did help me overcome the inevitable blank page fear that comes with starting something new – the beginning is often the hardest part, after all.
To help me on my way, I bought myself a copy of Chris Baty’s No Plot? No Problem! – I highly recommend this book to anyone who is attempting to write a book, whether you’re doing NaNoWriMo or not. It’s a fantastic, but-kicking resource for anyone who wants to write a novel but has no clue where to start. Especially good if, like me, you (for some unknown reason) you decide to pants the whole thing and plunge in head first with no planning whatsoever. Split into handy chapters that follow each week of the 30 day challenge, it’s great for keeping you on track, offering down to earth encouragement and keeping you accountable.
One of the first things Baty tells you to do in the book is to announce to the world that you’re taking on NaNoWriMo – the idea being that if you’ve actually told people about it, you’re more likely to get on and do it! So off I went to social media, to tell all my internet friends what I was about to embark on. Telling my real-life people was weirdly harder to do. I felt a bit…silly. So I was very selective in who I told. Very tentative about it. And, if I’m honest, kind of presented the whole thing as being a bit of a laugh – nothing too serious. One group of people I did present it seriously to was my students. At the time, I worked in a school and ran a creative writing group as part of my job. It was well attended by lovely, enthusiastic students who were always up for a challenge themselves. So I told them what I was taking on and challenged them in return. Now, these kids were between the ages of 11 and 15, and they all had school and homework and life as a teenager to worry about so I didn’t go in with the full 50k each challenge. I knew, for many of them, the writing club was the only chance they got to do any writing of their own and I wanted it to be fun for them. So I challenged them to write 50K words between them.
We set up a NaNoWriMo classroom through their Young Writers Programme – which is a great, free resource for educators and student writing groups – and agreed that each week, during the writing club’s usual meeting time, we would do writing sprints. We’d all – including me – sit with laptops or notebooks and pens and write furiously. Anyone who wanted to could join in and there would be little prizes for the students who wrote the most words in that time. I also agreed that anyone who wanted to could come to my classroom any day after school and use the space to write.
This was honestly one of the most amazing and inspirational things I have ever been involved in. You should have seen these kids! Their enthusiasm bubbled over, their fingers flew over keyboards and across paper! They were incredible to watch. Whenever a writing sprint was in session they fell completely silent, 100% focused on what was in front of them. When the sprint was over, all their excitement would erupt in a storm of chatter as they shared how many words they’d written or what ridiculous thing they’d made their main character do. They didn’t doubt their stories. They didn’t worry about plot holes or character development or technical accuracy, because – unlike when they normally had to write in a classroom or for homework – I had told them to forget about all the things they normally had to worry about. I told them I didn’t care if they spelt things wrong or put commas in the wrong place and that it didn’t matter if their work didn’t have any similes in it. All I wanted them to do was write. Find a story and put it on the page. Which is exactly what they did.
Seeing them embrace the core of the NaNoWriMo challenge – just to get words on the page – with such gusto and openness was incredible. The first time I sat down to write with them I was still riddled with my own self doubt. Did this make sense? Had I used that word too much? Was this story even any good? Who was I to write a novel anyway? I stuttered and stalled over my writing whilst they flew. But after a while, their wild abandon to the cause started to rub off on me and I found myself able to shake off those doubts and just write the damn story. It was ridiculously refreshing!
The first week of the challenge, I was on fire! I went enthusiastically to my laptop every day and worked away at the story that was gradually unfurling on the page. I easily met – and often exceeded – the 1,667 word target each day…the extra words I churned out in that week turned out to be a godsend because weeks 2 and three did not go as smoothly. Having written nothing but the odd blog post for months, and after seven days of intensive blocks of writing, I was already starting to feel fatigued. When I hit a window of time, I wanted to read (or nap!) not sit and write. All those pesky doubts came back and I spent most of the week forcing myself to write the 100 words I’d absolutely promised myself I would do, with the odd day where I somehow managed to add 1-2k to my word count.
By the end of week 3 I’d fallen 6,000 words behind the 50k curve and panic was starting to set in. Despite my original promise that if I wrote every day and just added 100 words a day to my WIP I would be happy, having managed to write much more than I expected (I was at 36,000 words by this point), I suddenly felt that I really, really wanted to hit that 50k mark. I wanted to have a finished draft for this story. I’d written more in three weeks that I ever had on one project in my life, and I feared that if I reached the end of November without finishing it, I never would.
So, on Sunday 25th November, with 5 days of the challenge left to go, I announced to my husband that I was spending the day writing. And that’s exactly what I did. I wrote for hours and managed to hammer out 6,500 words, putting me back on track – in fact, just a little over the target – to hit 50k by the 30th.
It was exhilarating to be so close. It turns out that, whilst 8,000 words sounds like a lot before you start writing it doesn’t seem that much at all when you’ve got 42k under your belt!
In the final week, I hit a new surge of momentum. I was pretty sure my story had turned into complete nonsense and I was definitely shoving a lot of unnecessary words into my writing in an attempt to pad it out but I was writing and I finally got what NaNo was about. Just write the story. It doesn’t matter if it’s completely shit. Just write it. And make it good in the editing. If nothing else, I would have a 50,000 word brain dump to help me work out what I actually wanted this story to be.
My fabulous students were cheering me on, as well as each other. Many had already hit their personal targets and their collective word count had already exceeded the 50k challenge I had set them. Students would run up to me in the corridor at break to ask how many words I had left to go and cheer ‘You can do it miss!’ at me as they walked away. It was heartening and utterly lovely.
I arranged a special final write in for the writing group on 30th, for anyone who wanted a final sprint over the finish line. We all holed up in a room together and wrote out little hearts out. Cheered on by a room of rowdy teenagers, I laughingly wrote my final sentence and hit 50,095 words. Those incredible kids hit a collective word count of over 80,000 words. I was more proud of them than I was of myself…but I was pretty proud of myself too.
I felt completely elated. I had achieved something I was convinced was utterly impossible – for me at least. I had written the first draft of a novel. In 30 days.
I got my manuscript (my manuscript!) printed and bound so I had a hard copy to make notes on. And also just so I could hold it in my hands. The final count was actually over 60k, once I’d added the 10,000 words I’d had before I took on this crazy challenge. When I collected it from the printers, I was genuinely quite emotional and I wanted to show EVERYONE. So that’s what I did. I carried it round in my bag and showed it off to friends, family, colleagues – anyone I could, really. And said proudly “I wrote a novel”.
Even though it’s still in draft form, even though I haven’t got a clue how to go about editing it and turning it into an actual readable novel, it is still one of the biggest achievements of my life. And it just goes to show what you can do when you take on the impossible.