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Can NaNoWriMo Really Help You Write a Whole Book?

It's a big promise to make.

writing, keyboard, nanowrimo, typewriter
It's difficult even on the best of days to write what we're satisfied with.

Right off the bat, I can tell you: no. Namely because 50,000 words is not nearly enough, in my opinion, to complete most novel-length stories, especially in genres like fantasy or science fiction. Most genre work I find typically falls between 90,000 and 120,000 words, and so the promise of NaNoWriMo—“write a book in a month”—falls a bit flat (unless one is planning to write a novelette or novella instead).

What NaNoWriMo can do, however, is provide the basis of consistency that a writer can carry into December, and then the next year forward.

The First Successful Journey of My NaNoWriMo Experience

This is the first year I’ve completed NaNoWriMo. I’d tried it before, as a high school student and a college student, and never had I been able to stick to the plan. The math in NaNoWriMo works out in such a way that, to write 50,000 words in a month, you need to be churning out 1,667 words a day—with absolutely no rest days. For a lot of writers, however, the idea of taking no days off seems daunting, because frankly, it is: this is a holiday month for Americans, where at least a couple days will be soaked up to festivities, and plenty other reasons crop up just in everyday life that make sitting down to write each and every day just about impossible.

It isn’t impossible, though—but it can be a stressful challenge, to say the least, especially if a writer is gunning for that 50K celebration. My typical word count and writing schedule had me writing about 1,500 words a day, four days a week—a total of 6,000 each week. Since going through NaNoWriMo, however, I realize I can actually make 2,500 words a day happen, which I had to do to make up for those few days I took off for extraneous reasons, bumping my word count to 10,000 a week. Keeping this habit means that, with four weeks per month, I could get a chunky book drafted every quarter (if I don’t second guess myself and edit as I go)—not bad at all. A dream, really.

However, writing is not a clean-cut job. Some days, there’s more juice in the tank to write, and some days, there’s just hours spent staring at the blank page, trying to get blood out of a stone. So to go from my normal writing schedule, with rest days built in, to a restless mayhem where the word count mattered above all else, was a huge shift. I’d done something similar in a sprint the month before, on top of it, so November was a double helping of what became an unreasonably tough workload: I started this NaNoWriMo with about 24,500 words of my project already written, as it was an idea I’d started in July, but that meant that to hit 50,000 words written this month, I was aiming for 75,000. Once I hit that—on the last day of NaNoWriMo—I’d had cause for celebration, all right, but it certainly wasn’t just because I’d achieved my word count: it was because I’d finally be allowed to take a day off. Which, if you think about it, is a pretty rough thing to celebrate.

The Truth of NaNoWriMo's Schedule and Function

There’d also been some discussion in writer circles about the efficacy of things like NaNoWriMo throughout the month: is it reasonable? Does it allow for life to happen, or take into consideration people’s mental, physical, or emotional health? For some, the answer is yes: they have a schedule and stick to it, which is easier said than done depending on if one has kids, a job, or other responsibilities, or find ways to be flexible (which, for me, meant staying up late and taking time off work to make magic happen). For many others, however, the answer is no: if you can’t take any days off to rest and recover from what is truly a mentally taxing job—as coming up with entire worlds and people and stories and making them coherent is not so simply as just sitting down and tapping away—then you can’t make any time to accommodate your life or daily challenges, either. It’s a lose-lose, as then, not hitting one’s prescribed word count leads to feelings of failure and inadequacy to boot.

But no one should feel this way, no matter what they signed up to do this month. What’s important about NaNoWriMo is this: it isn’t meant to be some mark of your success as a writer. It isn’t meant to be some judge of your efficiency or your performance. All NaNoWriMo is meant to do is give you a concrete goal and a plan to achieve it: 50,000 words, 1,667 words a day, for thirty days. If you can accomplish it, great! It’s time to look back now, on December 1st, and consider if this is a sustainable way of writing for you. (It sure as hell was not for me, but I did learn that I was severely undershooting my original daily word count.) But if you didn’t accomplish the writing plan, it’s just as good: you can instead look at where things didn’t work out and how to adjust for the coming months to make your plan more tailored to you. The best thing to take away from NaNoWriMo isn’t a whole book, or the trophy of knowing you went thirty restless days, but knowing that you sat down, took a challenge, and came away knowing a bit more about your own habits and capabilities as a writer with an undoubtedly busy life.

That’s what NaNoWriMo really helps with, and this year was no different. But for the last month of 2021, I think we can all agree it’s time to sit back, relax, and just enjoy the rest of the holiday season before 2022 comes and smacks us square in the face.

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