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Five Things I’ve Learn From NaNoWriMo

Last Summer, I came up with what I thought was a fantastic idea for a novel. Think,Ready Player One, but with a female protagonist (a Caltech student, natch), and collaboration as a sub-plot. I daydreamed about this storyline all Summer, even starting to write out the first chapter one night in July.

I didn’t get very far over the summer, and discovered, through a few other side-projects that I started and stopped in the past year, that I’ve always been more of an "opener" than a "finisher." I have a neglected Etsy shop and a Meteor.js application that needs work. I’ve got a personal website plan that I never put into motion and half a dozen needlepoint/knitting projects I started in middle school that are now balls of yarn and string and canvas in my mother’s closet. I love new ideas and new projects, but I never seem to follow anything through to the end.

Until now. In July, I started writing this story, and got about two pages in. I realized that I was never going to write a full novel, however much I daydreamed about being a software engineer/author coding and writing remotely from some gorgeous Italian countryside home (I have elaborate daydreams, don’t judge me). I was never going to do that, unless, of course, I had some outside motivation.

In August, I went to The Strand bookstore in Manhattan and bought a copy of Gretchen Rubin’s bookBetter Than Before, a self-help/psychology meta-research book about how to form habits. Rubin hypothesizes about the different types of people (as it pertains to forming habits), their motivations (external, internal, etc.), and their quirks (opener vs. finisher, marathoner vs. sprinter vs. procrastinator, etc.). I learned a lot about myself, or at least, I learned a lot about the author’s observations of other people that sounded a lot like myself, from reading this book. And I discovered that, with the context of this book’s description of people’s habit-forming abilities, that people that sounded like me needed external motivation to finish big projects. I was an opener, a marathoner, and I was accountable to other people much more than I was to myself. With these personal points in mind, I set out to put this story down on paper. I would finish it.

At the end of the summer, I set my sights on NaNoWriMo, also known as National Novel Writing Month, an international event from November 1st to November 30th where people from all over the world pledge to write a 50,000 word novel during that time. I figured, I needed both the external direction to write this story, as well as motivation from other people going through the same process, so I decided that November was a perfect time to form this writing habit and start and finish a project. I spent a few weeks in October prepping for the month, by reading about plotting and characterization online and outlining the major points of my story. I followed other NaNoWriMo hopefuls on Twitter so that I could use their progress as motivation for my own, and I told my boyfriend what I was doing and why, so that he could cheer me on and convince me to keep working and hold me accountable to my goal.

Today, November 26th, I have written 51,294 words and I have two more chapters left before I finish this story. My novel is completely unedited, a true rough draft, and it’s going to need a lot of work on my part before I even give it to other people to help me edit. I have no grand expectations that I’m going to get a book published on my first try, especially because I have no training in fiction writing and this is truly a 51,000 word pile of "telling instead of showing" and awkward dialogue, but I am so proud of myself for completing this project. I set a goal and I reached it and I’m proud of myself. And I learned a ton along the way, so I’d like to share these widely-applicable lessons with you!

1.It is easy to find time to do something if you are motivated.

Once November started, I got weekly emails from the NaNoWriMo organizational team with pep talks from published authors. One of the things they like to constantly remind writers is that the process of writing the rough draft of a novel is "butt in seat." You need to put in the time to actually write the darn thing, and that means you have to make an effort to set aside time in your day write (an average of 1,667 words a day). I started changing my daily schedule to fit in time to write before I got distracted or tired, and woke up at 7am almost every day of November to fit in an hour of writing. It turns out I don’t have any lectures before 11 am, so this allowed me to get in some writing, eat breakfast, and either go to the gym or do some readings for class (or both) before I had to do anything else with my day. I found the time to do the thing I wanted to do, and even though I’m studying abroad right now (and my workload is lower than it would be if I were at Caltech), I’ve learned that I can make time for myself to do anything I really want to do.

2. Even the best-laid plans go awry.

I told you that I plotted the book out before November started, right? Well, plans change. One of my major characters changed genders, a sub-plot of the novel disappeared, and a ton of miniature events took place that I hadn’t thought of until I started writing a scene and my characters made decisions without me. Sometimesyou have to let other people tell you what’s going to happen, no matter how much you want to be in control

3. Habits are awesome.

Remember up there when I said I started waking up at 7am? It sounds horrible but it’s honestly an easy habit now (how did I do this in high school? I’ve been waking up at 10 every day for the past two years at Caltech and even that felt dreadful). I’ve always been a morning person, and I’m now very productive before lunchtime. It feels awesome.

4. You’re going to suck at everything the first time you try it, unless it’s too easy for you.

This novel is terrible to read. It’s actually painful. I just went back and read my first chapter, which is completely unedited, and it’s horrific. But that’s the whole point of NaNoWriMo! You’re not supposed to exit November with a publishable novel (that would be insane; most people go through months, if not years of editing dozens of times before they have something that other people want to read), you’re just supposed to have a rough draft. Once your ideas are down on paper, it’s much easier to edit for technical things like grammar, style, and tone. I’ve learned that I’m truly terrible at writing fiction, for now. I’ve never had any technical training in writing fiction, like I have had in writing lab reports and scientific papers (at which I am a total boss). But I also now know that I’ve done the hard part, and learning to write good fiction is totally a thing I can do. I’ve even enrolled in Caltech’s EH 86, Creative Fiction and Nonfiction Writing, for next term.

5. I really, really, really like writing

Whether it’s writing these blog posts, or writing lab reports, or writing this novel, I really love putting words on paper. I may not be very good many forms of it yet, but it’s something I really enjoy. I didn’t appreciate the extent to which I adored this process before I started writing almost 2,000 words every day, but now that I know that, I can maybe possible incorporate it into my future. Who knows?

Do you have any huge projects or goals you want to tackle in the coming year? Have you done NaNoWriMo too? I want to hear about it! Let me know in the comments 🙂