NaNoWriMo: What Writing A Novel Teaches You

One month ago, I set out to write a novel. 30 days later, the novel is finished (at least in the sense of being a complete first draft). Here's what I learned from the process, most of which has nothing to do with writing fiction.

Cover design by Ben White. Click for a larger version.

When I began the NaNoWriMo challenge, I figured that it would offer some insights into how to manage major projects, dealing with procrastination and writer's block, the best software for writing and other related topics. Quite a lot of what I discovered was a surprise to me. Here's my big takeaways from the project (aside from 56,000 words of novel and the fine faux cover designed by Allure's design guru Ben which you can see above).

Deadlines are my friend

I've been contemplating writing a novel since I was a teenager, and thinking about it much more actively since I became a freelancer in 2001. But almost ten years later, it still hadn't happened. Faced with a one-month deadline and the prospect of humiliation in front of Lifehacker's entire audience, it got done with no major dramas.

Ruthless scheduling works

Every day in November, I scheduled two hours a day to work on the novel. It wasn't exactly the same two hours every day, because my day-to-day schedule isn't that predictable. But I stuck to it with only one major exception, the day of my grandfather's funeral — and even then I wrote for an hour. (He was a great believer in hard work, so that didn't seem inappropriate.)

A dedicated machine is nice, but not essential

I started this project with the notion that using a dedicated PC was a good way of ensuring I worked solidly for two hours and didn't get distracted by work tasks, Twitter and the like. HP loaned me an EliteBook 2450p, and I was very grateful for the extended life battery, especially during a day-long train trip to Adelaide.

However, I can't honestly say that using a separate machine made much difference to my writing process after a week or so. Once I'd established a regular writing rhythm, I didn't want to do anything else during that two hour stretch. And when I shifted to editing the novel on my main PC so I could use Word, I didn't miss a beat. Though for that I can thank . . .

Dropbox: utterly, utterly brilliant

This isn't news to Lifehacker readers, of course. But knowing that I was being steadily backed up via Dropbox and could access my text on pretty much any machine made life much, much calmer.

I'm lucky and I can write anywhere

Food courts, planes, trains, hotel rooms, libraries, offices — I worked in all of them and it made no difference. I suspect this isn't a universal finding and that many people would benefit from complete peace and quiet, but I'm glad it wasn't a restriction I had to deal with.

You can write in most any software

Over the course of the month, I variously wrote in WordPad, FocusWriter and Word. FocusWriter was where I did the bulk of the writing, but its main advantage for me proved to be its word count feature, rather than its removal of other distractions. Again, I'm not saying not to use a dedicated "no distractions" word processor if it helps you, but I don't think that aspect of it made much difference to me.

I can't tell you anything useful about procrastination

I've been guilty of procrastination in the past, and I'm sure I will be in the future. But procrastination did not prove to be a major problem for me when writing the novel. Because I was enjoying the process, I didn't want to avoid it.

You don't need a plan (as long as you've got a plan)

Before I began, I assumed that the most sensible way to ensure a novel would get written would be to spend the first day or two writing an outline of the plot, working out what would need to happen in each chapter, and how long they would need to be. Advising people to plan before they start on a large project is something we advocate quite often on Lifehacker, and it seemed to me that made sense.

I didn't end up sticking to this concept, however. Because you're not supposed to write anything in advance for NaNoWriMo, by the time day one rolled around I was bursting with ideas so I decided just to write what was bursting to get out first. I ended up producing close to 3,000 words on the first day, and as a result I largely stuck with this approach and let the novel grow organically, rather than trying to stick to a pre-determined structure.

While there's something slightly scary about writing and not knowing where you'll end up, the exhilaration when you realise that something you wrote a week ago can help you solve a plot problem that has just appeared more than makes up for it. I originally worked out how I thought the novel would end two weeks in, and then changed my mind within a week because it was clear that the book needed to go in a different direction.

Given that experience, I think I'd be wary of wanting to start with a fixed plan if I ever wrote a novel again. What I would want is a fixed schedule of when I was going to work on it. For me at least, planning to spend time writing makes more sense than planning what I'm going to write. (The same wouldn't be true of non-fiction, I suspect.)

Revealing your creative project to the world is tough

When you've spent a month working on creating something entirely on your own, actually making it public can be more challenging than the creative task itself. Emailing the blurb for the novel through to Ben our designer — which was the first time I'd revealed the main content of the book to anyone — felt really, really strange.

The novel is finished in one sense, but the task is hardly complete. I'll post a chapter or two online this week so I can see how other readers react to it. After a break, I'll need to go back and read the whole thing with a detached eye, get other people to read and critique it, and try hunting for an agent and/or a publisher. It almost sounds like it would be easier to start another book . . .


    Sounds like a book I would read! Can you tell us more about how you came up with the idea? I would love to participate in NanoWriMo but don't really know how to generate the ideas that get you started.

    Anyway, good luck with the publishing aspects and be sure to let us know when we can pick it up at Angus & Robertson! :)

    hehe... i know a guy named mark anderson. gonna have to show him this.

    if this November had not been the worst month...of pretty much my whole...I might have stuck with it.

    I couldn't agree more with the deadlines bit. Before I hit 50,000 words I was powering through and forced myself to keep at it until I hit that magical number. Once I hit the number, things fell apart, I've barely written a few thousand words and my story has a way to go before it is finished. It doesn't help that I want to make changes to earlier parts and can't work out how they effect things later on until I make the changes.

    Something else to consider is the social aspect of NaNoWriMo. The Municipal Liaisons and other WriMos in Brisbane were a huge help, because they were going through the same thing it helped create a great environment to bounce ideas off of and push each other to get more words on paper.

    Write-ins in particular were great, something like two thirds of my word count was done at write-ins. I honestly don't know how I'm going to be able to finish things off without them.

    I did it! become a winner.. had some issues with three different programs, Open office, Word, and Nano's verifyer telling me my wordcount was different, so glad I wrote 51k which gave me the space for their word count inconsistancys.
    I wrote better when I was not at home - way too many distractions, on a dedicated laptop, broken up into 3 sometimes 4 40 odd min stints of writing a day. I am having a one week break, then I start to clean it up, and if I still like it after its been reworked, and I still want to publish it, I'll put it through a manuscript assesment service.

    But I miss the routine. I did look forward to those periods of time when it was all that mattered, and I could focus. I am wondering if I could do another 30k more in that fashion to make it closer to the standard length book

    I thought your NaNoWriMo project had to be a novel? Fiction.

    Dude, I've seen those Crocodile Cumdee movies, they're great!

      Good to see imagination is alive and well :)

    Get it up in eBook form!

    I'd totally pay money to read this.

    Brilliant! Great concept for a novel, tres saucy. Can't wait to see it (with any luck) picked up by a publishing house.

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