Reframing NaNoWriMo: motivation for making the most of the month

Has the pressure of 'success' taken away the fun of NaNoWriMo? Don't suffer alone. Niki Rhys candidly reflects on her journey and attitude shift during this crazy month.

What was I thinking? These are the words that haunt writers like me when November rolls around. I’m writing this post on November 1 – instead of doing the sensible thing and getting started on my project – to reflect on my past experiences with NaNoWriMo and offer some encouraging words to my fellow writers. And yes, I’m counting these words toward that hefty 50,000-word goal. So before I head off to write about assassins, castles, and magic powers, let’s get into it.

Although I have been writing stories for as long as I can remember, it wasn’t until after college that I first discovered this daunting but rewarding challenge, and it was @KMitchWrites who introduced me to it. By the time my first NaNo rolled around, I had two books under my belt – one I expect (and hope) will never see the light of day and another I was in the middle of rewriting and expanding. So I steeled myself and set out to write The End on what had become a most treasured project. I holed up in my bedroom, writing for hours after getting home from my swing shift newspaper job and churning out word after word of the high fantasy tale. But when all was said and done – though I had a clearly defined (but not outlined) path forward – I was still 10,000 words short. On top of that, I had to work the last day of November all the way to midnight. I was doomed.

But that’s when I made a crazy, desperate decision: I would stay up all night the night before and write as many words as I absolutely, possibly could. Had I ever written more than a couple thousand words at a time before? Oh no, no, I hadn’t. But I pushed that night, and I wrote, and I wrote, and I wrote some more. I don’t even remember how late (or rather early) I stayed up that night. But by the end, the words swam in front of my eyes – all 10,000 of them. I claimed my win on the site and grasped for the last few hours of sleep I could reach. It was done. The next morning was hell. Let’s just say it was one of the first times I ever drank coffee (and now coffee and I are besties). But at the same time, I didn’t regret it. I did something I never really believed I could achieve: 50,000 words in one month. And I acknowledge, in hindsight, I was lucky to be able to do something like pulling a nearly all-nighter to hit my goal. Not everyone can stay up all night (I know I definitely can’t anymore), and not everyone can fit in a writing marathon with other responsibilities at play. Sometimes life gets in the way. And that was a lesson life itself made a point of teaching me.

Shortly after that miraculous win, my whole life got shaken up. Layoffs. I should have seen it coming, but it took the wind out of my sails all the same. I was sad, and I was angry, and I felt lost at sea. The current caught me unexpectedly, taking me on a great adventure to a new town and a new job. It was shiny and spectacular, and it was poison too. I fell for everything, and the quicksand of it all took me under. For the next several years, I was on a deserted island with only sticks and sand to write with. I did write from time to time, and almost every year, I told myself I would make another attempt at NaNo. I’d won before. How hard could it be, really? November would roll around, days would pass with a blank page, and the dark cloud threatening rain would whisper in my mind: What was I thinking? And then I would give up. Those days felt like the walls were closing in on me.

This November is different. The weight of that quicksand has been washed away by a new current, carrying me to calmer (but still challenging) shores. I’m no longer suffocating under the weight of unrealistic expectations. For the first time in years, I feel like I can breathe. And with this new lease on life, I finally feel confident in committing to NaNoWriMo, even if I don’t end up hitting that magic number. Despite all this, though, the course of NaNo never runs smoothly. As life once proved to me, it endeavors to get in the way. You might have a demanding day job that requires too much time and energy. You might have children or aging family members to care for. You might even have a disability, struggle with your mental health, or have a diagnosed/undiagnosed neurodivergence. The latter two are certainly true for me. The times my executive dysfunction and mental health struggles have kept me from achieving my writing goals, even in the best of times, are countless.

At the end of the day, though, we as writers never lose the passion for the words, characters and worlds that live in our minds rent free, even if a pen isn’t making it to paper or hands to a keyboard. A piece of writing advice I’ve heard much too often is that you are a writer if you write. But I feel writing is deeper than the page. It’s a part of me, even when I’m not feeling up to writing. Even if I go months and months and months without it, it’s still there with me in my heart. My philosophy is different: you are a writer if you feel like a writer. You could be in a place where all you can manage is a couple hundred words a month or none at all, but you never really stop being a writer if it wormed its way into being a part of you. When that happens, you walk through life with that creative energy like it was your signature perfume or cologne.

And now, 1,000 words later (49,000 left to go, but I won’t bore you with all of those), we arrive at our destination, the ship pulling into port. My big realization. I was learning the wrong lesson from all those times I’ve lost NaNo since my first go-around. And now, I think I’ve learned the right one, but I know I’ll have to keep learning it, hoping it will get easier every year. I used to feel – and sometimes still do – that if I couldn’t succeed, if I couldn’t be great, what was the point of trying? Trying was hard, and failing hit harder. What was I thinking? But what I should be thinking is that I need to be kinder to myself and see the smaller wins. If you hit 50,000 words by the time November 30 rolls around, that’s wonderful, and I’ll be the first one to stand up and give you a big pat on the back, but NaNo isn’t really about ‘winning’ and getting to the top of the mountain. It’s about setting yourself off at the start of the path, hiking boots on and ready to walk. Every word – just like every step – counts. Every word puts you closer to the summit, but every step also gets you farther than where you were when you began. And that – along with the wonderful friends you make along the way – is what (in my humble opinion) it’s all about.

I am so excited to be on this hike with all of you. I hope this post has motivated you to keep taking those steps forward as you can. And if you, too, want to knock out an easy 1,000 words toward your NaNo goal and you’re feeling rebellious, Steven the Slushpile Monster is looking for more yummy blog posts to munch on. Check out the guidance here!

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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From a young age, Niki Rhys’s head was often in the clouds, and she was always dreaming up new worlds. Today, she gets paid to write, just not about dragons and sword-wielding heroines.

But her passion for linguistics is there whether she’s writing for work or writing for fun. Connect with Niki on Twitter at @NikiRhysWrites to follow her writing and reading journey.

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