NaNoWriMo 2023: What I Learned

The first time I participated in this writing challenge was during July 2021 for Camp NaNoWriMo.

I reached 28,501 words on the first draft of my first attempted novel on July 20th, about 4,000 words shy of the target goal for the day. 

Then, I quit.

I had hit a roadblock with my story. I’m a planner, through and through. I had started NaNoWriMo with a pretty detailed outline – broken down into scenes – that I had made during the few weeks prior for Act I. I wasn’t quite sure where I wanted the story to go during Act II, but I thought, hey, I’d figure it out when the time came. Plenty of writers are pantsers, how difficult can it be?

For me? Very. Difficult.

I go into a bit of an idea spiral when it comes to developing my stories. I’ll get an idea, start planning it out, then a shiny new idea pops into my brain and I scrap the old stuff to work on what I think is a “better” idea. 

So, when it came time for me to fly by the seat of my pants for the rest of my story, I just couldn’t do it. There were too many possibilities for where my story could go. I was worried about what issues might arise down the line if I decide on an idea that later doesn’t make cohesive sense for the plot.

Fast-forward to October 2023, when I decide to participate in NaNoWriMo again. “Preptober” – the time for me to plot my story, to make decisions. To solidify my worldbuilding, my magic system, my character arcs. Since my attempt at a first draft two years ago, the ideas for my story have changed drastically. So, even though this iteration sprung from that former plan, it is truly a different beast. I’m starting back at zero. And it’s really daunting. 

Well, old habits die hard. The idea spiraling I had been dealing with hadn’t gone away, and I went into NaNoWriMo the same: a scene-by-scene outline of only half of Act I this time, with a few scene ideas here and there for later on in the book, and not much else. My new magic system was giving me the most trouble – I had made it more complex and more meaningful to me, which was both exciting and challenging. 

I quit NaNoWriMo again, 10 days in, with 8,685 words to show for it. Mind you, the goal for November 10th is 16,667 words, so I was very far behind. 

This was really discouraging for me. Even though I had given so much time to working on my story during October to be ready and successful, I didn’t feel that I had gotten nearly where I wanted to be in a month – especially when I was still struggling with fundamental fantasy-specific worldbuilding issues (the magic system). I consume a lot of AuthorTuber content and I follow fellow writers on Instagram. Many are able to quickly crank out their stories in a month, so shouldn’t I be able to?

So, all in all, here’s what I learned from NaNoWriMo 2023:

  • Don’t compare your progress to others’.

I felt so disheartened when I wasn’t meeting the same progress markers as the people in my writing circle and those who were sharing their processes online. It’s simultaneously inspiring and dejecting to see all the word count updates from people during the month and to see who successfully finished their first draft on November 30th, ready to start the editing phase. But I have to remind myself, even if I were to finish the 50,000 word count goal of NaNoWriMo, it is only a portion of the story completed. For a fantasy book, the average word count for a debut novel is somewhere around 80,000 words. So even if I hit the NaNoWriMo goal, I would still not have finished my first draft. My journey is my own, and there is no right or wrong way to go about writing a novel.

  • More complexity means more time is required. 

This is something that seems like common sense. However, when I see other authors making the progress I wish I was making, especially when those authors are writing in my genre, I can’t help but feel that I should be at their levels of progress as well. In addition, I’m a new novel writer. I haven’t finished a full-length draft before, while many of the people I follow are very experienced and have sharpened their craft over time. Whatever the case, I cannot plan and write the intricate story I want to tell in two months. I need more time, and that’s ok. This isn’t a race.

  • NaNoWriMo isn’t for me. (And that’s ok!)

What works for others, may not work for you. Such a common idea, but so easily forgotten with popular trends. Sometimes there’s a good bit of trial and error before you find what works (or, in my case, figure it out). NaNoWriMo doesn’t work for me. It took two tries to realize that, firstly, the time frame is too short. I need to stop trying to fit my plotting and drafting phases into this idealized period. The pressure to complete the project isn’t conducive to the space I need to thoughtfully consider the kind of story I want to write… especially when there’s already plenty of pressure due to the amount of ideas I have swirling around in my head. Secondly, the community aspect of NaNoWriMo has me immersed in a world of comparison. I have only ever had positive experiences with those participating in NaNoWriMo and I do believe that being a part of a writing community can be very encouraging, providing a space for advice and support. But, because I have a tendency to compare, it’s not a good environment for me in particular.

All in all, while NaNoWriMo isn’t my cup of tea, it has helped me discover how I work as a writer. I need to give myself the time and space to process my ideas. I also am aware that if I keep bouncing between the new ideas that I’ll never finish a story. However, I have successfully plotted out Act I before, a good start, and I’ll channel that energy moving forward.

For December, I’m giving myself the space to continue plotting, without the pressure to have anything finished by the new year. Well… maybe a little pressure. 😉 We’ll see how it goes!

Congrats to all of those who made progress during NaNoWriMo, no matter how far you got in your drafts! Just keep writing!

📜 ~Fen