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Notes on NaNoWriMo: the aftermath

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National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is unique in that this challenge paradoxically leaves you simultaneously disheartened and reinvigorated with your creative writing. 

Chris Baty, now an instructor for Stanford Continuing Studies, first founded NaNoWriMo as a writing experiment with 21 friends in 1999. Since then, NaNoWriMo has expanded into a nonprofit organization with over 400,000 participants in 90 countries, including 100,000 students and educators in the Young Writers Program. Several NaNoWriMo novels have become traditionally published, including Sara Gruen’s “Water for Elephants,” Marissa Meyer’s “Cinder” and Erin Morgenstern’s “The Night Circus.” 

The challenge itself sounds straightforward: during November, you must complete a 50,000-word draft of a novel, writing an average of 1667 words per day. To become a “winner” (of an awesome certificate and the feeling of self-accomplishment), all you have to do is finish. Here, quantity matters more than perceived quality — what counts is getting words onto the page consistently

From the brutally honest and extremely supportive website, “You will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create.” 

Like my classmates enrolled in English 190E: “Novel Writing Intensive,” I was bitten by the NaNoWriMo bug. Under the guidance of our instructors (and published authors) Scott Hutchkins and Tom Kealey, we read and analyzed four stellar novels and spent “Prep-tober” mapping our manuscripts and key points, preparing for the onslaught of November. And by the start of the challenge, the class became much like a support group, with a communal “NaNoLogO” on Google Sheets to track our daily word count and utilize the forces of peer pressure to help us overcome writer’s block.

In the first week, Chris Baty even visited our class for a pep talk. As this year he would be finishing his twentieth NaNoWriMo novel, his advice was quite encouraging, and he quipped that with our age, we had “the reality-blind enthusiasm” to more easily experiment with an “anything goes” attitude. 

One of the most important aspects of NaNoWriMo is how it leads to “the democratization of writing.” After scouring through several lists of published NaNoWriMo novels, I found that many works were written by women and minorities underrepresented in the publishing world, often during the spare moments found between day jobs, childcare and the chores of adulting. As Baty stressed, all participants are welcome, as “we all have these books within us,” and “novels are written by everyday people who give themselves time and permission.” 

Baty’s clay analogy continues to resonate with me, as I personally struggle with allowing initial imperfections and living with the constant feeling of “not knowing” where the story will lead. “If you are a sculptor, you go out and buy the clay, but when you are a writer, you have to create it … [so] just get that bulk of mass out there.” 

Much like the “zig-zag” pattern of ups and downs in a story, my own NaNoWriMo journey was filled with its triumphs and throes, with cycles of productivity and burnout, but the sheer collective power of hundreds of thousands of writers also pursuing this challenge with me served as constant motivation. 

NaNoWriMo is as much about producing 50,000 words by the end of November as it is about putting yourself in the mindset of grinding out words daily. As Stephen King famously describes, crafting a novel is a process of writing “one word at a time.” It is nigh impossible to write 50,000 words in one 24-hour day, but across 30 days, the challenge becomes surmountable.

Admittedly, NaNoWriMo stretched my already overstretched time management skills to account for an average of two and a half hours per day to stare at a glaring white screen and produce clumps of black-lettered words, eventually strung into sentences and partitioned into paragraphs. (I will confess that without Thanksgiving break, I am doubtful that I would have made it.) 

And yet, the incandescent fulfillment on the days when I would meet and exceed the expected 1667 word count, when I caught up in the wee hours of the morning of Day 29 after I thought I had fallen hopelessly behind, when my caffeine-fueled brain spontaneously invented something that turned out to be “just right,” made this experience worthwhile. Even on the days when I detested the very sight of my draft and grimaced when well-meaning friends asked me how NaNoWriMo was going, I never stopped loving my story. 

On Dec. 1, I reread my manuscript (which will never escape its top-secret and deeply buried folder on my computer), and I had two main thoughts: “this is steaming hot trash,” and “if you squint, there are salvageable sparkly bits.” Now that I am on the other side, my only certainty is that this needs to be fully rewritten from the top. With at least 35,000 words permanently stripped away.

Nevertheless (and do note how within this article, I am still struggling to express my conflicting thoughts regarding NaNoWriMo), my more optimistic side believes that I had to first write 50,000 words for me to realize the essential parts worth keeping. That I needed to haphazardly tell the story to myself, with a draft containing trailing scenes and alternate timelines of events, ill-conceived characters and overrun flowery descriptions to understand what my story is not and what elements of my story should remain.

I find a curious form of joy in my upcoming dumpster-diving adventures to find the precious moments that first endeared my novel to me. As no matter how embarrassing or cringe-worthy the content I must sift through, I succeeded in that I produced enough “clay” for me to mold in future drafts. From one of my past teachers, “good writing is edited writing,” and the more artistic reshaping of the story will take place in future revisions. 

The spirit of NaNoWriMo is not to finish writing the “Great American Novel” in the span of a month, but to start. Perhaps it is my “NaNoWriMo Hangover” still speaking, but I like to hope that even though November has ended, this is only the beginning of my novel’s journey. 

And coming to this conclusion only took a mere 50,000 words.

Contact Shana Hadi at shanaeh ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Shana '21 is a Managing Editor for Arts&Life who is studying computer science, English, and their many intersections. She is also an active night owl who enjoys green tea and flights of imagination (spurred from works like Ted Chiang’s “Exhalation"). When she’s not reading speculative fiction or attempting to write it well, she wonders if books are word sandwiches and their themes are different flavors of idea jam, and if that’s why they're so nourishing to the soul.