It’s called National Novel Writing Month or, more colloquially, NaNoWriMo.

These keyboard masochists gather in groups for write-ins, or sequester themselves in libraries, in cafés, in corners, or wherever they can find the space and time to write, unmolested by self-doubt, self-criticism, and other acts of self-bullying (as specified in NaNoWriMo’s Month-Long Novelist Agreement and Statement of Understanding.)

To be able to write your way into a project, free of the gremlin of self-criticism, is no small thing. For many would-be writers (and full-time writers, too), getting started is the hardest part of the creative process.

That’s because we often hold in our heads this utopian vision of what we want to make, but when we try—or even think about trying—to take it out and make it live in the visible world, it feels like it’s falling apart.

Booking it

For months, I had a writing project brewing in the back of my brain. It wasn’t a novel; more of a memoir-ish thing. I kept saying I was going to start, but had yet to ink a single word on paper.

Luckily for me, I sit right next to Chris Baty in Writer’s Row at the Dropbox Brand Studio. Chris isn’t just a fine human person and Stanford professor of writing. He’s also the creator of NaNoWriMo. And he’s written a novel in 30 days, every year, for the last 20 years.

So when he suggested I use the framework of NaNoWriMo to bang out a 50,000-word first draft of my not-novel, I signed up for the challenge. And it was, indeed, a challenge. To make that word count deadline, I wrote wherever and whenever I could. I wrote in airplanes and pickup trucks, in beds and bathrooms. I wrote on vacation, on Thanksgiving, and on my birthday. I even wrote during those first five minutes of work meetings when you’re sitting alone in a conference room waiting for everyone to gather.

Some days I wrote well over 3,000 words. One day I wrote only 144. But every morning when I walked in to Dropbox, Chris would swivel his desk chair my way and say with a knowing twinkle, “How ya doin’ today? How’s your word count?”

Between the two of us, a first-time NaNoWriMo-er and a 20-year veteran, we wrote 101,572 words in November. (I won’t tell you who wrote more, but 51,545 of those words were mine.) Here’s how it went:

LaDonna and Chris chatting about writing.
LaDonna and Chris discussing how two Dropbox writers each wrote a book in a month (and held down their day jobs) – Photo by Chris Behroozian

The first-timer and the veteran: a debrief

LaDonna: So, Chris, I want to know—in your 20th year writing a novel for NaNoWriMo, what’s different and what’s the same?

Chris: I’d say there’s a lot more confidence. After the first time, when you realize you can do it, that’s the game-changer. That’s the Eureka moment.

LaDonna: It’s mind-blowing, yeah!

Chris: You’re like, “Whoa, there was a book in me I didn’t know was in there!” And then you start asking yourself, “What else is in there?” And it could be more books or it could be wanting to start a new business or learn a foreign language or get back to the viola lessons you gave up when you were nine.

It’s that sense of discovering things inside you that you didn’t know were there, or you’d forgotten were there. And the other big wow is that it feels great to do it. I mean, it’s work and it hurts sometimes, but it’s also really fun. Especially when you start hitting that place where your imagination comes up with the connections and you see themes emerging. If you’re writing fiction, it happens when the characters start taking the story in different directions, and that feels incredible.

I think a lot of people assume professional novelists or professional writers have a supercharged part of their brain, that their brain chemistry is different. But everybody who starts writing and keeps writing has that process of discovery and surprise and wonder. And once you’ve experienced it, the next times are not quite as miraculously eye-opening.

In fact, the second time people do NaNoWriMo, it’s legendarily difficult. People will look at that first year and say, “I didn’t really plan and it turned out pretty well!” And then they plan four times as much and expect it to be four times as good or the output to be four times as refined, and instead it sucks four times worse because you’re suddenly putting all kinds of pressure and expectations on yourself.

The first draft is always going to be terrible. Promising, but terrible. Once you start hoping that because you’re more experienced at this, you can write a second draft on your first try, that’s where things start to hurt a little bit more.

LaDonna: So, after 20 times, do you think there’s going to be a year where you say, “Meh. I don’t need to NaNoWriMo this year.” Or will you just keep going until you’re too old to smack a keyboard?

Chris: I do feel like there has not been a year so far when I thought, “I’m not going to do this.” I think it gets in your blood a little bit. Like the leaves start changing, and you get that autumn smell, and you’re like, “I NEED TO START WRITING! GET ME A COMPUTER!”

Fall is such an interesting time. It feels like November is a month for cocooning and turning inward in general; it’s spitting rain outside, and everything is changing, and NaNoWriMo fits this notion so beautifully.

There’s just something so appealing about starting with the seed of an idea and seeing that idea blossom and then wilt and then blossom some more. It’s pretty intoxicating in a way that few things are. So I can see myself continuing to do this.

LaDonna: I was telling someone in October that I was going to do this, and she said, “November? That’s a terrible month! You’ve got Thanksgiving, and you’ve got all of this stuff. Why would anyone want to do all this writing in November?!”

And my thought was just, “There is no good month!” Right? There’s never going be that perfect time to sit down and write a book!

So besides fall and the magic of the leaves turning and whatnot, what made November the NaNoWriMo month?

Chris: So we actually did it in July the first year. And it was great. It was a little challenging in that a lot of people went on vacation, so they were writing while they were supposed to be relaxing. But it was fun.

The first year there were 21 people; it was such a small group. There were six of us who crossed that 50,000-word finish line, and we were the ones who would actually get together at night and write together. So when we were planning it again, we were going to do it in July the following year too, but then people were busy and everyone was like, “I can’t do July. How about August?”

And it just kept getting pushed back until we landed on November as the time nobody had any plans or excuses. And then it just stuck in November.

LaDonna: I like it. It feels like a nice roller coaster ride into the holidays.

Chris: Yeah. You know, I think you’re right that there’s never going be a good time to write your book. February is the clear worst month because it’s just too short. A lot of people think January would be good because it’s like starting fresh, a lot of people have New Year’s resolutions around creativity.

But this is something I’ve been telling everybody—any month can be National Novel Writing Month. If you can get at least one other person to agree on a set word-count goal and a time frame, you’re golden.

The magic is that there are a couple hundred thousand people doing it at the same time which means there is a lot of encouragement in the air. I mean, you and I, just knowing that we were going to get to check in because we sit next to each other at work, that’s really powerful.

LaDonna: It is. It is quite huge. On the day that I wrote only 144 words, I remember being glad it was a Saturday because I didn’t have to see you the next day. Because I knew you’d ask, “What’s your word count?!” and I’d go, [whispers] “One hundred and forty-four.”

Chris: Yeah, and then I’d just spit on you and be like, “You’re a fraud. You’re a sham.” [laughter]

LaDonna: Totally. And then we wouldn’t be friends anymore. [more laughter]

Someone asked me after I had finished: “Where did you find the time?” And I said, “I didn’t. I stole it.”

Five minutes here and an hour there. Deciding not to check social media and getting 15 minutes back. I know there are some writers who are like, “I’m getting up at 5:30 every morning, and I’m going to write for an hour.” And at this stage of life, for me, with a child, I can’t. Because she would for sure wake up at 5:35 and ruin the plan.

Chris: Right, and she’d just want to hang out and talk about cereal. Yeah.

So, LaDonna, you’re a professional writer, you’ve been part of this general rodeo most of your life. Was it surprising to you that you could get a book written in these pockets of time? Did you see yourself as someone who would need to block out two hours on a Sunday and write?

LaDonna: Yeah, I did. I decided I wanted to write a book before you suggested jumping on NaNoWriMo. And I remember thinking, “Well, I guess maybe every Wednesday could be my book writing day.” And then, you know, a couple Wednesdays went by and book writing didn’t happen, because life.

So it was a wonderful discovery to me that in even just five minutes, I can get down something worthwhile. I kind of knew that about poetry. But poetry is so much less intimidating to me, in part because I’ve done it for so long but also because it’s moments. It’s that skinny column of words, and you’re not writing an epic, usually. And so I knew I could bang out a poem in five minutes—it might suck—but it would be there, and I could fix it later.

But the idea of writing a book in five-minute chunks had never occurred to me.

Chris: Well, it’s not ideal. But we are forever going to live in a not-ideal world until we become independently wealthy, and then we can buy the castles that we deserve …

LaDonna: … and hire ghostwriters.

Chris: Exactly! Or literal ghosts from the castle can write our books!

I think there’s something nice about discovering that there are these pockets of time. And this is where I think word count is actually quite helpful. Because books are magical, squishy, strange, mysterious creatures, so you feel like it wouldn’t work very well to pin it to this very linear sense of “How many words did you write?” or “Your total goal today is 1,667—where are you on that spectrum?”

But in five minutes you can maybe write 100 words, and that’s a deposit in the word bank. And that starts to feel like you’ve achieved something. Whereas, if you write for five minutes and you don’t have that word count ticker in your head… you look at what you’ve made and you’re like, “Bleah.”

But if you’re like “Bleah” plus 100 words, that’s a good bleah!

There’s this writer, Rachael Herron, who I really love. She lives in the Bay Area and has done NaNoWriMo infinity times and has published most of her NaNoWriMo novels. She’s very prolific. And she says that the difference between the writing sessions she felt bad about—the ones that felt like pulling teeth, but she wrote through it anyway—and the sessions where she felt perfectly in flow, when she goes back and reads them both, she can’t tell the difference between the two.

So even though one writing session during the creation process might feel better than the other, it doesn’t matter. Because, in fact, the thing you’re creating is your voice.

LaDonna: One night during NaNoWriMo, I was writing at the dining room table and my husband’s making dinner, my daughter’s in and out, and I was getting increasingly annoyed with both of them. I thought it was because they were interrupting me—I don’t have a private place in my house where I can go and close the door and write—but then I realized, much later, that it was actually because what I was writing about was really dredging up some stuff. I was writing about my mom, and I got quite triggered by all of it. And I had to go back to both of them later and apologize and make sure they knew it wasn’t their fault.

Do novels do that to you, too? Are they bleeding into your life?

Chris: Oh, yeah. I mean, you’re writing these scenes with these people where big things are happening and somebody’s dying or a relationship is ending or something, and you really get pulled into it.

In the NaNoWriMo forums, there’s a thread dedicated to weepy novelists. And there’s a badge dedicated to the moment when you’re writing your novel and you start crying.

That happens to me every novel, you know? Especially if you’re listening to a good playlist that’s just punching you right in the feelings. And you’re writing a scene of great change or departures, and then real life comes knocking, and you’re like, “NOOOO! Something is happening here on this page and I’m with these people.”

I mean, what a great thing, really.

LaDonna: So you’ve got this momentum in November—you’ve written thousands and thousands of words, and you’ve built this daily habit and reached your 50,000-word count, and then you hit December. I wanted to let it marinate before I dove into editing, so I didn’t work on this project for a month or so. Do some people just keep going?

Chris: I think it depends on what you want out of the experience. If it was to build the habit and now you want to keep going, that’s great. But 1,667 words a day is an unsustainable amount of words, in my opinion. I mean, some people can bash that out in, like, 20 minutes because they’re just great typists and their brain works well with it.

But, to me, if you want to keep going, I would say drop it down to a much smaller word count—so you’re looking at 500 words a day, five days a week. Keeping some kind of schedule, I think, is good.

I do think, though, that much like running a marathon, we’re exhausted now. This has been an exhausting endeavor. So I do think it’s important to go back and reconnect with your life while you let that thing you wrote rest.

When we’re writing, we’re just so close to it, and that’s the right place to be. But when we’re revising, we need to start with some distance from it. Because there are going to be parts that we felt very connected to—and maybe they’re great writing—but they don’t fit in the book. And we’re going to have to say goodbye to those. We’re going to have to realize also that there are holes that are going to be pretty time-consuming to fill.

When you have some distance from the writing process, you can make those decisions with a more clinical eye. And that’s exactly the right place to be, because you’re making hard decisions. But it’s also important to let it rest because you’re just tired! I mean, that was quite an experience. What were we all thinking? [laughter]

So I have a question for you. There are a lot of NaNoWriMo haters out there or NaNoWriMo skeptics who say, “This is just encouraging crappy writing. It’s telling people they’ve done something that actually they haven’t. This isn’t a novel—it’s 50,000 words of a first draft!”

I’m sure you heard that out in the world, so were you a NaNoWriMo skeptic at some point when you first heard about it, or did it always seem interesting to you?

LaDonna: I was always wowed by the idea, but I stopped at the word “novel” because I have never aspired to write a novel. So when you suggested I use it to write a not-novel instead, lots of light bulbs started going off in my head.

But, to me, it’s not the promise of “you will have a novel” at the end of November—it’s “you will have a beginning.” And I think that beginning, for many of us, is so difficult to achieve.

For me, it was really super-helpful, not just to know that I wasn’t alone but to know that there were rules. And the rule was, you cannot go back and look at it and judge it.* I took that really seriously.

When I do go back and look at it, I know I’m going to see parentheses that say, “UGH! THIS IS AWFUL!” Because whenever I had that thought, I would just write it down and keep going. Had I not had that framework, and those rules, I would have stopped myself 40,000 words ago, thrown up my hands, and said, “Who am I to think that I can do this? This is crazy, this is terrible, no one wants to read this! I should stop now.”

But since I was purposely told that I was going to hear that voice and I should tell it to shut up and keep going, I did.

So maybe there aren’t a lot of novels that have been created, but there are a lot of beginnings. There are beginnings that could become something.

How many of yours have you gone back to?

Chris: Five or six.

LaDonna: Five or six out of 20 is pretty awesome.

Chris: Yeah, and I think that’s the nice thing about the 30-day time frame, too. A lot of people end it feeling like, “I just don’t like that book that I was writing,” and they don’t go back to it.

But that’s OK, because you learn so many things about how to build a book and where things can go wrong for you, and about your own approaches as a writer, and what inspires you. And it’s not so hard to let go of, because you were just writing for a month.

LaDonna: I loved that, too! Because it was like, “You can do this” for 30 days. You can not eat carbs for 30 days. You can write 1,667 words each day for 30 days.

Chris: You know, there’s this notion of the “writer’s retreat,” where you get put up in this beautiful house overlooking some ocean somewhere and get to write. I think the more powerful model is to have it happen in the middle of our busy, hectic lives and to learn how to carve out time. Because the writer’s retreat on the coast—sure, it may happen for you, but that’s not going to be a regular part of your life.

But if you’ve learned how to create a writer’s retreat in the middle of everything else going on, that will be the ongoing, powerful, sustaining thing that helps you get this thing done.

LaDonna: There’s not just the writer’s retreat but the sense that the “muse” will come, and it will be beautiful, and words will fill my head and fall right onto the page. I’ve learned by doing this for a living that, actually, nothing will happen unless you just start putting words down. Muse or no muse.

I used to wait for a magical feeling and the right… whatever. The right desk. The right light. The right socks. And I don’t anymore.

Chris: Yeah. You can write barefoot. It’s fine.

Any month is Novel Writing Month

If you’re feeling energized and inspired and itching for a blank page to make your mark on (and why wouldn’t you be?!), Chris’s book No Plot? No Problem! is a great place for getting-started ideas.

Also, it’s important to remember that whatever you want to write is legit. You want to write start a novel in 30 days? Great. But you could also finish a novel. Or revise one. Or write a not-novel. A series of essays. A blog post every day. A poem a day! (I’m happy to tell you that April is, in fact, National Poetry Writing Month: NaPoWriMo.)

So go—find yourself a comfy corner! Steal 15 minutes. Shut the door on that self-critiquing gremlin and put some words on a page. You might write your way straight into a book. Or at least a beginning.

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