6 Lessons from NaNoWriMo

Over the course of November, I wrote 50,012 words towards my novel, pieced together as:

  • Scenes for the first 5 turning points and first step of the 6th turning point of my WIP
  • A prologue
  • Off-shoot stories about some of the cast of characters who are part of my protagonist’s journey.
bar graph showing daily word count during NaNoWriMo 2016 for 10000hoursleft, finishing at 50012 words on November 30 2016
Source: screen grab from 10000hoursleft’s NaNoWriMo account

In addition to NaNoWriMo, I completed a writing course, applied for 5 jobs, and fulfilled family, work and personal responsibilities. The writing milestones are personal highlights of the past 12 months. Funnily, when I co-wrote my first post of 2016 (on maintaining goals), I hadn’t set out on this path, conceiving these goals in the final half of the year (and working on them in the last quarter), giving me a more tangible target than my previously vague goal of progressing my WIP over the year (it is never too late to start a ‘new year resolution’!).

Here, I share lessons I learnt about myself, my writing, and the writing process.

lesson 1: motivation- a tangible next step following completion of a mini goal is a great motivator

In August, when I decided to participate in NaNoWriMo 2016, I had an almost finished detailed synopsis of my novel. I knew if I wanted to give NaNoWriMo a decent shot, I needed to finish my writing course before hand, with the aim of having a complete structure for my novel. This helped me complete the 8 month course that I had deferred, worked on, got bored with, regained momentum on, and extended over 2 years.

Lesson 2: clarity- a clear goal and the means to get there is essential!

I aimed for 50,000 and got in at 50,012, reminding myself of the first concrete goal I can remember visualising, in my final year of school where I hand wrote a sign that I posted above my desk, reading Tertiary Entrance Rank (TER)≥ 90, a ranking used to determine eligibility in university courses. What did I get? 90.25. I wonder what would have happened if I had set my goals higher (or lower even) in either case.

As for the means to get to the 50,000 word target, I knew that I could only manage that huge word count with a dedicated effort each day averaging 1667 words daily over the month- a slow and steady approach over the whole month.

Lesson 3: the supporting cast: minor characters challenge and provide context for the protagonist's actions

On days when I got bored of the story that had been kicking around in my head for about 5 years, I broke free of structure and wrote about the minor characters. Not only was this enjoyable, giving me free reign, it also informed the main story and allowed me to add some depth with a greater understanding of the complex lives of the supporting cast and their interactions with my main character. In doing so, a significant addition to my story was establishing a cultural identity for my main character – more on the angst that that has caused me in another post.

Lesson 4: momentum- to get to the end of a first draft, keep moving and don't look back!

First draft is really all about ‘place holding’, as eloquently stated by writer, blogger and NaNoWriMo participant Doug Branson in our NaNoWriMo exchanges. I spent too much time describing what was happening rather than allowing it to unfold, and this didn’t change until day 25 when I distinctly remember feeling I had gotten over a sticking point in my writing and stuff just flowed. This was in part due to back stories of minor characters that gave me ideas for my novel proper, and possibly also finally getting into the groove after all that writing. Better late than never hey? Although I cringed while writing a lot of the time,  I refrained from editing and plodded on, the only way possible to achieve my 50,000 word target.

Lesson 5: time bending- 'realistic' goals are dependant on time frame and extent of sacrifice required

It is possible to make time for your goals, if your heart is set on it. This lesson is a double-edged sword. Yes, I achieved my goal while maintaining the essentials of my every day life, but I also recognised that there are some aspects of my time that I can relinquish only for so long. In order to complete my NaNoWriMo goal, I gave up my usual commuting activities: meditation, sleep, and reading. I realised that it wasn’t sustainable long term, and recognise the toll the pressure took on my health. I have learnt the benefits of a writing goal and a dedication to time for it, but bending  time to fit 1667 words into a day is not for me. In a recent post where I assessed optimal daily word count from a range of perspectives,  I concluded that 1,000 – 1,400 words per day is the level where possibilities are open for a range of prolificacy, but that even 500 words per day goes a long way towards writing goals and satisfaction.

Taking a leaf out of my own book, I will aim for 500 – 800 a day to maintain my mojo, and accept any extra as a bonus. Have I started this daily habit yet? No – I am experiencing a little burn out and taking a much needed break until January 2017.

Lesson 6: planning- planning focuses the daily wordcount and contributes to meaningful output

On each occasion I sat down to write, I had a clear idea of the section of the story I was in; my main character’s concrete goal; her character arc at turning point, step and sequence level; and, the central dramatic question raised at the start and usually resolved at the end of each of turning point, step and sequence. Fingers crossed this means the 50,012 words I will revisit will have some sense and meaning and I can focus most of my energy on writing rather than structure.


I intend to complete the remaining sections of my WIP before returning to the beginning to re-write. The more  financially viable option (than enrolling in the next course at the Writers’ Studio) will be to reference  books on writing and editing and/or take a creative writing course on a MOOC platform. If you have any recommendations of books or free online courses in this area- please let me know. I’d also love to hear about your goals (writing or otherwise) and what you’ve learnt on the journey.



9 thoughts on “6 Lessons from NaNoWriMo

  1. CONGRATULATIONS (again)! I really like this reflective piece on writing and writing processes. I agree that we all have to do what’s best for our situations. Quite honestly, the only reason I can write so much is because I mostly work from home. I’m not sure how people with 40-60 hour a week jobs do it. Looking forward to putting together an edited collection of others’ works by the end of 2017 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Kathy! I kept this in draft for so long and eventually it became fitting to make it a year in review type thing with a loose theme on goals and motivation. Without my commuting time, I don’t think I could write as much as I do. All the best with you 2017 goals- no doubt you’ll be doing great things as always xx

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Congratulations, Mek! I admire your writing and reading about the goals you set for yourself and how you accomplished them is inspiring to me. Regarding daily word counts and all of that – everyone needs to experiment with what works for them. We all have different recipes. Some people may be more productive writing only 3 days a week or 7 months in a year. I’m glad you figured out how to sustain your mojo!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much Leslie! I over do my expectations on myself sometimes and then find it difficult to not follow through, so I am glad to have an understanding of my limits (a month is not too long a time to learn that is it? haha). Looking forward to more posts from you! xx


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