6-1/2 Things I Learned from NaNoWriMo

For many of you, NaNoWriMo is in full swing. Some of you are proud of your progress. Some of you would like to wipe out your hard drive to get rid of every shred of evidence. Despite being a huge fan, I haven’t done NaNo, but I can imagine that around this point, roughly 2/3rds of the way through, fatigue has set in. And maybe disgust. And possibly hypertension and a small aneurism.

Never fear, NaNo’ers! I’ve invited the most excellent Donna Gephart to share some wisdom and do a little pom-pom shaking. Hopefully, reading about her NaNo success story will give you that second (or third, or fifteenth) wind that will catapult you into December and NaNo success!

In 2009, desperate to emerge from my slump and write my third book, I discovered NaNoWriMo and signed up.

Two days before the November 1st start, I brainstormed ideas for two hours. At one hour and fifty-nine minutes, I scribbled these words: Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen.

The day before NaNoWriMo, I realized Olivia Bean was a trivia nut and wanted to get on the TV quiz show Jeopardy!

Armed with trivia books and autobiographies of former Jeopardy! champs and lots of internet articles about Kids Week contestants, I plunged ahead. Each day in November, I struggled to figure out Olivia’s external and internal struggles and get them on the page in an exciting, coherent way.

To keep myself accountable, I blogged about the experience daily, including my word counts and a fun trivia question. (Nothing like public humiliation to keep you on track with your writing goals!) My first blog post is here.

Despite a mid-month trip to California to attend our nephew’s bar mitzvah, I finished Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen in 29 days. My agent likes me to point out that revisions took months. They did.

Olivia sold in February of 2010 to Delacorte Press/Random House and went on to receive excellent reviews, including a starred Kirkus review. I was thrilled when Jeopardy! champ Ken Jennings told me his son loved the book, and Ken wrote a blurb for the back cover. I’ve even received fan mail from kids who were actually on Kids Week on Jeopardy!

All that from a novel I wrote in less than a month.

So, here are 6-1/2 things I learned about writing a novel in a month . . .

1. Hard work is good medicine. Not writing, false starts and “wasted” days made me feel crazy. Working hard every day on this novel made me feel decidedly less crazy.

2. Know when to say “No” but also when to say “Yes.” Writing should be your priority over watching TV, diddling around on Facebook and organizing your Chia pet collection. But family, friends and your health trump writing.

3. Don’t beat yourself up over unproductive days. Your brain might be doing important behind-the-scenes work. My “unproductive” days were often followed by fat page counts.

4. Don’t forge ahead blindly. NaNoWriMo suggests you keep writing and not go back over what you’ve already written. Not me. I needed to go back down my writing trail sometimes to make sure I hadn’t diverged from the path I’d created. The important thing to remember is don’t linger too long on those back pages; forge ahead!

5. You can accomplish pretty lofty goals one day (page) at a time. What’s your lofty goal?

6. A person can write a salable novel in a month. There is a list of writers who sold their NaNoWriMo novels, including Sara Gruen who wrote Water for Elephants, which landed on the New York Times Bestseller list. I was determined not just to write a novel in a month, but to make it to that list of writers who sold their NaNoWriMo novels.

6 1/2. Say thank you. NaNoWriMo came at the exact time I needed to sit down, shut up and write my next novel. What a valuable tool. I’ve sent them a donation. I also sent a donation to 826 Valencia because I love what they do to foster and encourage young writers.

So, don’t give up! Keep at it! And if you do decide to step back and actually breathe this month, don’t worry. There’s always next November.

Donna Gephart is working on her next novel. It’s taken a little longer than a month to develop. Ahem, three years. But she’s almost done . . . and is tackling NaNoWriMo again this year, along with her 18-year-old son.

(If you’re serious about writing well and quickly, get a copy of Rochelle Melander’s Write-A-Thon: Write Your Book in 26 Days (and live to tell about it). It’s an excellent resource.)

To learn more about Donna’s books and presentations and view a funny singing hamster video, visit http://www.donnagephart.com.


Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.
This entry was posted in Guest Post, Uncategorized, Writer's Attitude, Writing Craft, Writing Lessons, Writing Time. Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to 6-1/2 Things I Learned from NaNoWriMo

  1. Pingback: Nanowrimo Books Get Published and Here’s Proof #3 | Gabrielle Prendergast

  2. Donna, I just LOVE that one of your NaNo books is such a big success story. I’m hoping that your (and Olivia’s) story inspires some of our NaNo’ers to push through to the end. Hopefully we’ll hear more of these kinds of stories in the future :).

  3. Thanks for that timely encouragement, as I’m doing NaNo this year so I can get those words down!

  4. Add to that list Lani Diane Rich a very funny romance writer. The first of her novels was a Nano success.
    I’m not doing Nano this year, but I have done it 4 times and am spending this month revising my 2009 Nano Novel per suggestions from an editor who sounds very intersted. Whoopee! All of Donna’s advice is excellent. Among other things, Nano’s gift to the author is a deadline. Go Authors!!!

  5. Thanks, Angela and Becca, for hosting me. Love the comments. I had the pleasure today of speaking to high school students who are doing NaNoWriMo this year. They inspired me!

  6. takayta says:

    I can so relate to the first point. Even though there are some days I don’t feel like writing, I make myself do it anyway. Then I end up going to bed on a happy note and with more words written on my novel 🙂

  7. Kessie says:

    Thanks for the encouragement! I’m sitting at 29k right now (about a day behind). I’d love to set my sights on joining the list of writers who sold their Nano books (although after major revisions, of course!).

  8. This is definitely a NaNo success story!

    Hmm…maybe I’ll peek back–once I catch up to the word count I lost.

  9. Donna, I love reading stories like this! I have developed several of my Nano books, and know they will see publication some way, some how down the road! I am so glad you pursued your book–the world is better for it!

    I hope this is the nudge that all nanoers who are struggling need to keep going. I love nano! (and now I better get back to it!)


  10. I love sprinting with others and then we account for our numbers. I hit my 50k yesterday. Squeee!

  11. SA Larsenッ says:

    All fabulous advice, but I mostly relate to #3 and #4. I need to stop beating myself up for those unproductive moments. Tough, though.

    Writing blindly doesn’t work for me, but mapping it all out doesn’t either. I need freedom, but like you, I must look back at what I’ve written or I’ll end up in a ditch someplace.

  12. Beth says:

    So inspiring! Her first point is the most important to me. I’m not really in a “writing mood” right now, but I’m making myself write every day anyhow. Hopefully the mood will catch up with me!

  13. JeffO says:

    NaNo worked for me once, and I’m grateful for it. The timing hasn’t been quite right since then, maybe the planets will line up properly one day.

    Great post, Donna, and I want to touch again on one thing: point #3. One drawback to NaNo for the unaware or inexperienced is it can be very easy to put so much pressure on yourself to get those 1667 words/day. Relax. Chill out. It’s really not a huge deal to have an off day or two, and you’re right, a lot of times the wheels are turning behind the scenes, getting ready for something big.

  14. I’m like Stina. The timing doesn’t work for me to do NaNo. But thanks for the great advice because I think it applies to writing in general.

  15. I admire writers who participate in NaNo. I’ve never done it because the timing is all off for me.

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