NaNoWriMo began in 1999 as a challenge to write 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November. Every year, hundreds of thousands of writers join together all over the world, virtually and in person, to support each other as they attempt to write 1,667 words per day. Does it work? Caroline Deacon tracked the progress of six participants.


This was the first time for Jason, husband and wife Fiona and David, but Claire had participated before and 2020 was Sarah’s sixth NaNoWriMo.


“A crit group partner has done it several years running and I’ve always been in awe of how she has produced a new draft of something so efficiently. This year I’m just at the right stage of starting something new so the timing works” - Fiona.


“I heard about it on the internet; friends-of-friends doing it. Having left a job recently, I have a tiny bit of personal time and thought maybe this was the year to give it a go” - Jason.


Jason Andreas (photo credit: Natalia Swiader Photography)


All three NaNo novices intended to meet that 50,000 word target, although Jason said, “Ideally I’d like to push closer to 2,000 words per day so that if I have to miss a day I’ve got a bit of wiggle-room.” David and Fiona were both aiming for a chapter a day, which would take them to the same place.


Fiona and David Barker


Claire had this to say: “NaNo fits in quite well with the way I work, which is to do a lot of planning and then put my head down and power through a first draft. However I find that writing 1,667 words every day without a break is hard - especially when the SCBWI-BI conference comes in the middle! Now I prefer to write on weekdays only and keep weekends clear.”


Sarah, our most experienced NaNoist, approaches it differently. “For my first three attempts at NaNo, I never quite made the 50,000 words which made me feel quite deflated. In 2018 I decided to do my own daily target and it seemed to work really well, so I have done it that way ever since. I may not write 50k words but I can be proud of reaching my personal goal.”


All of the participants knew what they were going to be working on before they started, and some of them had done a fair bit of preparation. “I’m definitely a planner,” said Fiona. “I’ve got a spreadsheet and everything.” Sarah had finished the first draft of her current work-in-progress and was using this year’s NaNoWriMo to concentrate on editing her next draft.


“I always do thorough planning using the Snowflake Method," said Claire, “which means that I have a route map before I start and I know what I need to write each day.” David had sketched out a vague plan for most of the chapters of his MG adventure. “The rough outline is clear, but lots of little details are complete blanks. I’m normally a planner, but trying to become more voice/character-driven pantsy.”


Jason: “At the start of lockdown I did a daily challenge of writing a story of exactly 300 words every day, and managed 54 days, so I’ll be taking some of those ideas and expanding them. I've never found planning to work all that well for me. I tend to do my best work by sitting in front of a blank screen and just writing whatever came to mind.”


Midway…. and the novice NaNos were finding it all a bit tricky.…

Jason’s word count was 17,863. “I had time set aside every day for the first week but then my job became super busy so it’s been quite 'ad hoc', writing in tiny, snatched bits of time which feels quite disjointed. I’m more pessimistic than I was at the start as I'm wondering how the heck I can possibly catch up.”


Fiona: “got to the first weekend and had a big crisis of confidence about my WIP. So I took the weekend off and had a good think. I didn't want to stop writing but felt I needed to change direction as I wasn't enjoying myself. So on the Monday I started something completely new. I'm still writing everyday but I've decided to take weekends off so I can relax and recharge.”


David was on track, with a word count of 25,358, having stuck to one chapter a day. He was “pleased with the word count but not especially in love with the plot. Lots of doubts are creeping in. I like having little breaks to mull things over, but there’s not time to do that in an intense month like this.”


Claire was also on target. “It's gone as well as can be expected. I've learned things about my characters that I didn't know when I started. Most first drafts are rubbish; I have to remember this and carry on.”


Sarah had this to say: “The last fifteen days have flown by. November seems to be a month with quite a few competition deadlines. My November goal of completing my second draft is still there, I have many pages and at least two new chapters to add, but with determination and lots and LOTS of tea, I'd like to think I will get there.”
Sarah Broadley


30th November…. 

Fiona didn't make the target. “I got distracted by picture book things in week three and my word count ground to a halt. I hadn't expected to completely change tack part way through and start something completely new but I'm glad I did as I've now got substantial beginnings to two very different things.


"The experience also made me realise the importance of writing everyday even if it's something random and not WIP-related. Just exercising the writing muscle regularly is good. My husband stuck at it; it was a bit demoralising that he was so good but I've seen that he struggled some days too and he's looking forward to a rest whereas I'm revitalised because it wasn't quite so intense an experience for me.”


Jason: “I had to give up about midway through week two because my day job got in the way. I had no time or energy to write and fell so far behind that I couldn't see a way back. However, I will take some positives from it; such as the fact I did spark a lot of ideas when I was thinking about what to write, which I can hopefully hold onto and carry forward.”


Sarah: “There was a week mid-month where life just got in the way. This was quite frustrating and it took me a bit of time to get back into the swing of my story after not looking at it for a while. But I am pleased with what I now have and it's given me the push to finish my draft in December.”


Claire: “I did get to the end of my draft. It was shorter than I expected but this is usually the case with my writing. A first draft is the bare bones. The story was much as I’d plotted it but writing it did expose some significant issues that I need to deal with. I have lots of work to do but the words are there on the page.”
Claire Watts


David finished today with 51,835 words. “The target of one chapter per day worked well, but it’s hard not having any breaks. I’m pleased to have a story I can now edit, but I feel it will need a lot more work than previous projects where the first drafts have been much closer to being presentable.”


Would our Nanoists do it again?

Fiona: “Yes, I think so. Just thinking about writing something everyday was really good discipline. Carving out the time to do that was sometimes tricky, but it did provide focus.”


Sarah: “Absolutely, regardless of where you are with your story, I think NaNoWriMo is a fantastic way to fully immerse yourself in the world you've created, to get your head down and get on with it with the support of others doing the same.”


Jason: “I would like to try again next year, and I'm hopeful that it won't be online only. Hopefully the pandemic will have passed and I can look to approach it in a more community-driven way.”


Claire: “In this form, yes. I do find it useful to set myself a target and know there are other people working alongside me.”


But for David, the answer was a resounding, ‘No’.


So there you have it! NaNoWriMo; a journey with a variable destination. It’s good to realise that all participants struggle but most find it’s worth doing. Perhaps the most interesting lesson is that the most successful NaNoist - the only person who achieved the 50,000 word goal - is also the person who doesn’t want to do it again.


Maybe part of it is about how high your expectations are. If you hope to have a bookshop-ready novel at the end, you’re going to be disappointed. But for powering out a rough draft, or to establish a good writing habit, Nano does seem to help.


Until next year then….



Caroline Deacon is a regular contributor to Words & Pictures. You can find on Twitter and at her website.


Here are all the links you need:


Sarah Broadley: Twitter


Claire Watts: Twitter Facebook Instagram


Fiona: Website Twitter Facebook Instagram


David: Website Twitter


Jason: Twitter


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