Every November for the past twelve years, thousands of writers across the country participate in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) with the purpose of writing fifty thousand words of a new novel by the end of the month.
This year, Northwestern MFA candidate Megan Sullivan took the challenge. What follows is a journal of her progress: her setbacks, her successes, and the emotional rollercoaster of racing along with the required word count.
Day one: 12,909 words written
Why did I sign up for NaNoWriMo?
I’m actually cheating a little bit. You are supposed to start NaNoWriMo with zero words, but I already have 10,000 words written for my story. I’m working on my graduate thesis at Northwestern, and my plan was to finish it over the summer by working on one chapter per weekend. By the end of the summer, though, I was only on chapter 6 and not very deep into the planned plot of the novel.
The thing that I love about NaNoWriMo is the stats tool that tells you, based on what you’ve already written, how many words you need to write to finish in time. Given that I have a head start, the stats counter predicts that I’ll be finished by November 9. Hah! Well, one can hope.
Day two: 13,414 words
Help me! I’m addicted to the stats counter! The most important thing is that you write to a target of 1,667 words per day. The first thing I’ve noticed is that I’m writing chapters that are roughly 1,667 words each. I don’t think I’ve ever noticed this before, but when I write I tend to write in one-scene blocks, like a Greek play. Perhaps since I started writing plays before I wrote anything else, I’m still stuck in that mode.
I’ve noticed this now in my short stories, too. My best stories—the only stories that I’m really able to finish—are presented in uninterrupted scenes and sequences. A girl goes out with her friends. An old college roommate makes an unexpected visit. A family gathering ends in chaos. I pick small subjects that I can dive into and out of quickly and easily. The longer, more complicated stories, such as the one about the dysfunctional family of time travelers, don’t seem to get off the ground because I can’t get into the scene from the introduction.
I guess that’s just something I’ll have to worry about after NaNoWriMo because it’s time for me to go to bed.
Day 6:15,847 words
I went to a ChiWriMo write-in at a coffee shop in Lincoln Square, and there were several pleasant people and an organizer who made everyone to sit together. We NaNo-ed together for about three hours. It turns out that some moderators on the NaNoWriMo team are organizing sprints and challenges, which can be followed on Twitter at @nanowordsprints. The group was pretty perfect in terms of occasionally looking up and having a little conversation, which can make the process seem much less lonely.
Day 7: 19,763 words
I think I picked a really tough subject to write about. I thought that rehashing a past relationship would be cathartic for me and the whole novel would just fall out like stories used to when I was younger. But it didn’t, and those memories are just a little bit too painful, for reasons I’m not really sure I understand. Maybe it’s a bit of guilt, too, that makes these scenes difficult to write. If I rely too much on memories, then the work becomes a really twisted piece of nonfiction. And if I’m constantly using those details, then I feel like I’m not even being creative.
But then again, isn’t writing about what you know one of the easiest ways to write? And what else am I supposed to do with the “Anonymous” comments that my ex-boyfriend left on my livejournal entries seven years ago?
I pushed through somehow and finished my word count for the day, and I also went back and found those “anti-love letters” or “notes from a mostly secret admirer,” and I tried to read them again. I still can’t tell if they’re good writing or not, but I do know that I need to find some way to incorporate versions of them into my story. Who doesn’t love a story about a secret admirer?
(P.S. In case anyone’s curious about my love life’s disasters . . . I have a boyfriend, and he’s perfect. The end. And that might be why it’s so hard to write about tragedy. Relating to those ancient demons just isn’t as easy.)
Day 8: 21,358 words
Wow! The progress I’ve made! The document now comes to seventy pages, and I think I’m at the end of the beginning. But now comes the scary part: I’ve got a solid beginning, and a vague idea of what happens in the end, but I’m not so sure about the torso of this story. I had an outline written at one point, but I’m more than a little bit off that path now.
I’m a little short of the prescribed 1,667-word count today, but I feel that I came to a strong stopping point. NaNoWriMo also calculated for me that I only need to write 1,246 words per day to finish on time. However, if I could somehow manage to write 2,669 words per day, then I would finish on November 18 and I’d be able to concentrate on turkey-oriented pursuits.
Day 9: 22,188 words
I totally feel like I’m running out of steam today. Where is this novel going? Can I please work on something else? Anything, please!
I don’t know how to get these characters together to actually do stuff, so they just talk in monologues. My main character started writing a to-do list and then lunged into a fantasy about how she becomes a comic-book superhero named Veloci-girl. She’s acting like an eight-year-old and she’s not a child.
I could only write 800 or so words today. I just can’t write anymore.
But by the way, the writing dares where very helpful. Check out http://writingdares.blogspot.com/
Day 10: 22,566 words
Worst day so far. I can’t get myself to focus at all, and I’m feeling bored with the project. Today’s writing ended up being another trip down memory lane as my protagonist basically experiences something I went through while ushering at a theater. While I was thinking about my days in an ugly usher’s vest, I tried to look for YouTube videos of the shows I ushered for. That killed most of my time, and I had already gotten a late start.
While I am ahead, I really only have four days of leeway to play with. Plus, I’m starting to think that I need to give my main character a real, enlightening adventure. She needs to be pushed. Someone needs to lock her out of the house and force her to do something novel-worthy. It’s going to be an awkward conversation, but I’m the one who has to do it.
Day 11: 22,566 words
Day 12: 22,566 words
Day 13: 23,107 words
Well, today I’ve officially blown any wiggle-room I had in this competition. Anyone who has been playing along at this point should be at about where I am. This means I absolutely have to write at least 1,495 words per day in order to finish. And I’m pooped!
Fortunately, I have a plan of action. Yesterday, instead of writing, I spent the day with a commedia dell’arte group that taught me the finer points of their craft. Commedia dell’arte takes stock characters of the sixteenth century and allows their motivations to play off each other through quickly devised scenarios and improvisation. This might end up being the height of procrastination, but I’m going to stick a commedia dell’arte play in the middle of my novel. My main character will travel back in time to participate, and it’s going to be hilarious, I promise.
Day 14: 24,510 words (roughly 82 pages, according to Google Docs)
I feel revived with my story as my characters are now dropped into a fantastic world where they can don doublets and stays and talk in fancy language for a few chapters and the action happens quickly. I wrote a few outlined stories to get to this point, which I can fill in later as needed.
Interestingly, I was pushing myself to write 1,500 words before quitting, but time caught up with me. Suddenly my NaNoWriMo counter said that I had only written 100 words today! But that was because I was one minute into November 15 (also my birthday), so here I was, racing against the clock, and I didn’t even realize it. Oh well.
Tomorrow (or today, rather) is the halfway point, and I’m just 500 words shy of being halfway done.
Day 16: 24,897 words
Why did I sign up for this? Yesterday was my birthday, so instead of writing, I went shopping. And today I just can’t get going. I am so close to being halfway and just can’t make it past 300 words in a sitting. Okay, I’m just going to keep plugging tomorrow and hope that I’m able to catch up over the weekend. I have lots of outlines now; I just have to do it.
Day 17: 25,392 words
Today also marked passing 25,000 words. I’m officially halfway!
Plus, I received such a beautiful pep-talk nanomail that I had to share it:
Delivering a novel in a month must be the most extreme challenge in writing.
I can’t claim to have done it in a month, but I once drafted a novel in six weeks. That draft eventually became my first published book, Incendiary. There are three things you need to know about that. One, that the first draft was unpublishable. Two, that the obsession and the sleep deprivation drove me to a place of dubious mental stability, which, in retrospect, we can all laugh about. And three, that I am more proud of those six weeks than of any other period in my life. It changed me. I was working in an attic room in Paris, living on coffee and nerves. I say “living”—in truth I was mutating. I crossed a Rubicon that they will have to drag my cold dead body back across...
The good news is, if you’re committed, a month is enough time. Unless you have more natural talent than I do, then it’s not necessarily enough time to produce a perfected novel. But if you write out of your skin every day then it is enough time to learn your own mental geography and to make the jump to a new way of writing.—Chris Cleave
Day 19: 27,918 words
I skipped my diary entry yesterday, but I was able to work a little bit more on my story. I’d like to think I’m over some kind of hump, but this morning I was down by about 5,000 words, which means that I have some serious catching up to do.
I was able to type out 2,000 words today already, so that helped a little bit. Only 3,000 more words to get back on par with my fellow Nanos! And I have two hours before my birthday party. Think I’ll make it?
Day 20: 29,083 words
I have ten days to write 20,000 words. And today I’m hung over.
Day 21: 31,203 words
Well, obviously I didn’t get any writing done yesterday. But after a long day today, I was determined to at least have one thing go right. The Nano stats state that I have to write at least 1,900 words per day to finish on time (that’s up from the average 1,667), so I pushed myself and wrote about 2,120, which was enough to put my do-or-die number down to 1,880. I did this by basically letting one of the characters just do something particularly evil, which she then had to back out of. Now I’m set up for all sorts of unintended consequences that will surely hurt more characters’ feelings. Isn’t writing fun?
Day 22: 31,527 words
I’m so screwed.
Day 23: 33,981 (actually now day 24, it’s after midnight)
I stayed up to try and catch up. I’m always 5,000 words behind.
Day 25: 35,269 words
I’m just not getting anywhere on this! Par today is 41,666. I’m really off.
Day 26: 37,766 words
At some point I should probably work on ending the novel, but I don’t even feel particularly close to finishing that goal either. The good news is that I realized that once I get into writing I really get into it and getting about 2,000 words in a sitting isn’t really too bad. At this point, if I can write 2,500 words a day for the next five days, then I can at least say that I got the word count. Then I’ll just write “The end” at the bottom and say that I won.
Day 27: 39,166 words
I’ve got three days left and 4,000 words a day to write! What on earth am I going to do?
Day 28: 40,241 words
Now I’ve done it. There are two days left, and I’d have to write 5,000 words each day to win. However, I did get up to 40,000 words, which is 135 pages, and pretty nice to look at when you print it all out. Also, I think I finally found a little bit more plot.
I guess I could stay up all night. Maybe I just need to push myself. Really, really hard.
Day 29: 40,924 words
So I don’t think I’m going to win NaNoWriMo this year. But that’s okay. I put a solid 30,000 words into my thesis, and a sudden spark led me to think up a plot (on page 135, no less), so I think I just need to start outlining, organizing, and filling in gaps. If I can keep up this work, then I should probably have about 200 pages before my thesis advising. I’ll be happy with that.
Day 30: 41,068 words
It’s the last day, and I don’t think I can write 9,000 words in two and a half hours. What can I say? The Simpsons are on, and I’ve had a long day. On the other hand, I have 41,000 words from pure determination. That’s 138 pages that I didn’t have when I started.
I think this final pep talk said it best:
Wherever you are in your story, all of us here in the office are so proud of you for giving NaNoWriMo a shot in such a busy month. There is undeniable glory in reaching 50K, but there is greater glory in simply trying. In the midst of your hectic life, you made time to invent, explore, and dream. You tuned out those self-critical voices that make creative endeavors so daunting, and you brought an entire world into existence in just four weeks.—Chris Baty