A Breakdown of the Breakdown: The Inevitable NaNoWriMo Journey and How to Cope
Updated: Feb 17, 2022
How can you make the most of your NaNoWriMo experience? Kelly walks us through her strategy for staying sane.
NaNoWriMo. The nonsensical acronym that only writers deeply immersed in the madness of writing challenges can recognize. “It stands for National Novel Writing Month!” we beam at our mystified IRL friends. “It’s a challenge where writers attempt to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November!”
We watch with the wide-eyed expression of someone nearing insanity as our friends’ faces pass through confusion to land on utter terror. “50,000 words?” they say, incredulous. “That sounds like a lot!”
“It’s fun!” we insist, trying to convince not only them, but ourselves.
We can debate endlessly the pros and cons of a challenge like NaNoWriMo. It’s hard, it takes a lot of time, and the pursuit of quantity can sometimes come at the sacrifice of quality. But it’s also rewarding, exciting and a great way to make new friends. Opinions are mixed. But one thing every NaNo veteran can agree on is the inevitable journey of highs, lows, more highs and even more lows that come part and parcel with the event. Let’s breakdown the breakdown, week by week.
This is the beginning of our own hero’s journey. We embark on our quest armed with outlines, notes, vibes, coffee and hope. We announce our project on the NaNoWriMo website and spend significantly too much time online, cheering on our friends.
We’re feeling fresh, jumping into a brand new story in a brand new document. The words flow easily, and we have no problem meeting our daily 1,667 word count. We’re confident, hopeful. We’re starting to wonder why drafting takes people so long. I could do this forever, we think, I’ll probably be done early!
Pro Tip: Enjoy this week. Channel it. Use it to build a solid opening to your draft. Because things are about to get messy.
The morning of Day 8, we’re still feeling good. We’re a quarter of the way through our challenge, give or take! But then we open our document. We glance at the word count. And our hearts drop.
All of that work, a full week of fingers racing over keyboards, for 13,000 words? Our smiles falter, but we recover quickly. Progress is progress, we remind ourselves. And in just seven more days, we’ll have 26,000 words! Halfway!
We hunker down and get those words cranked out, but it gets harder every day. We turn to our writer friends, and together we muster encouraging words. We can do this!
Pro Tip: This is the week where it’s a good idea to establish some kind of reward system. Buy yourself some candy, some fancy bubble bath, anything to get you through what’s about to come.
The first day of week three is the halfway point, Day 15. We have 26,000 words under our belts, or more if we were smart. For a brief moment, we’re rejuvenated. That wasn’t so bad, we muse, I can definitely do that again! We’re at the midpoint in our hero’s journey, but those bad guys are about to close in.
We look at our outlines, realize our beats are more sparse than they were at the beginning. The blank page stretching beyond our blinking cursors haunts us like a daily nuisance, teasing us with its possibilities and refusal to heed to our slow, tired typing. We begin to stumble, maybe we miss a writing day all together, and that’s where it all breaks down.
Suddenly writing seems like the last thing we want to do. It’s a chore, and we procrastinate by dreaming of book deals and screen adaptations for the projects we’re avoiding. We fall behind. Or, if we don’t, we come close. 1,667 words seem impossible.
But we’re writers. We’re used to the uphill battle, and so we persevere. We’ve been in the query trenches before, and this is nothing compared to that.
Pro Tip: Try, if you can, to remember why you started doing this. A shiny new draft in just 30 days! If you can make it to the end without hating the story entirely, that is.
As Day 21 rolls into Day 22 and Week 4 begins, we’re still in a slog. It hasn’t gotten better. We’ve eaten all of the leftover Halloween candy we bought on sale, our notebooks are filled with frustrated scribbles and desperate attempts to patch plot holes. We’re not entirely sure the thread of our story is still intact.
But then day 23 comes, and something miraculous happens. We pass 40,000 words. And just like that, the mountain doesn’t seem so intimidating anymore. We only have 10,000 words left? And just seven more days of writing? How is that possible?
We get our second wind. The dark night of the soul has passed and we can see our way to the finish line. We smash out 1,667 words with ease and sleep soundly for the first time in days.
Pro Tip: Break these last 10,000 words down into 500-word milestones. That may seem ridiculous now, but trust me, any progress from here on out deserves to be celebrated.
When we open our laptops on Day 30, our word counts read 48,343. Just one more writing sprint, and we’ll be done. We’ve never related to our characters more as we wrap up their storylines and feel their arcs coming to an end. A wave of nostalgia hits us as we reflect on the fact that we have written a book, a whole book, in 30 days. And we try not to remember that by many genre and publishing standards, 50,000 words is only three-quarters of an acceptable length.
We laugh, we cry, we slam our laptops shut with finality and only a hint of suppressed rage, and we remember why we do this. We do this because there is nothing in this world more satisfying than writing those coveted words: The End.
Pro Tip: CELEBRATE! Celebrate with your writer friends, but also celebrate IRL. You’ve accomplished a massive undertaking and done something most people would never even attempt in their whole lives. You’ve written a book.
P.S. I will be doing #NaNoWriMo2021 - feel free to connect with me on Twitter if you need a friend to wallow in misery with! @KAKennedyBooks
Trapped in the slush pile? Don't suffer alone! Meet Steven, the big blue monster that lurks in this hopeless black pit. When he's not munching on the souls of hapless writers, he hosts an online writing community dedicated to making friends, having fun, and improving our literary skills.
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Kelly Kennedy (@KAKennedyBooks) lives and breathes words. She spends most of her time, at her day job and beyond, reading and writing. The rest of the time, she's seeking out dogs to pet, snacks to eat or new places to explore. 10/10 would be friends if you can offer any one of those things.