On Writing

NaNoWriMo Math

6 Oct , 2017  

I remember thinking I’d never be able to break the 6,000 word barrier, let alone write 50,000 words during my first NaNoWriMo. I had something to prove, that first year – to myself.

“Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper. What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head.”

–Anne Lamott

NaNoWriMo doesn’t just give you permission to write a “shitty first draft,” it encourages it. Hell, it demands it. The point is to outpace the inner critic, to write too fast for those little nagging voices in your head: the perfectionist, the editor, and the critic. I suggested, in my last post, that you personify them on the page – then beat the tar out of them. Tie them to the chair, lock them in the basement, shove them into a cupboard, and refuse to feed them for a whole month, unless they relent and stay silent until mid-December. Why not December 1? Because you’ll need a nap before dealing with the surly, starving creatures if you finish NaNoWriMo. So make whatever deals you have to make with them, but tell them all bets are off if they utter a single peep before December 15.

There’s an old joke that goes, “How do you eat an whole elephant?”

The answer, of course, is, “One bite at a time.”

You needn’t be the literary equivalent of Michel Lotito, known as “Monsieur Mangetout,” and attempt to write a modern-day War and Peace during NaNoWriMo. 50,000 words is surprisingly doable, even if you don’t take off work for the entire month of November or become a hermit in the woods with nothing but a typewriter for company. It is 1,667 words a day, on average. But here’s the trick to doing NaNoWriMo Math: If you miss a day, don’t add 1,667 to the next day’s word count! Talk about demoralizing, daunting, and depressing! Instead, add it to the remaining total word count and calculate the average over the remaining days. If you miss five days – that is, you write zero words for five whole days! – you only need 2,000 words on the other 25 days to make your goal! You don’t have to write 10,002 words on the sixth day!

Now, imagine if you wrote only 500 words on those 5 days. That means you’d only have to make up a little over 200 words a day for the remaining 25; your daily word count goes from 1,667 to 1,900.

Want to give yourself a little cushion for those days when the writing comes hard? Don’t stop at 1,667 words when inspirtion strikes. When your writing energy is high, shoot for 3,000 words in a day! I watched Mat Morris write not just one, but three 50,000 word novels one year – completing each one in a single day! It can be done. He live streamed the effort and even responded to questions in chat while doing it. Keep a notebook handy and bank those words while you’re waiting in the doctor’s office or riding the bus. Use a recording app on your smartphone to jot down ideas and transcribe them later. And remember that you don’t have to sit down and write all the words in one sitting; use all the little gaps in your day to relieve some of the pressure.

That said, I think we writers do thrive on deadlines. Without deadlines, we revert to bad habits of procrastinating or lint-picking. Perhaps it’s a defense against those annoying inner demons that want us to believe we’re not good enough to compete with Tolstoy, or Faulkner, or King. Screw ’em if they can’t take a joke. Throw that shitty first draft in their faces – and make it 50,001 words, just to spite them.

NaNoWriMo is not a “blogging challenge.” If you want to blog your daily words, feel free to do it – but there is no requirement that you share them with a living soul. And I recommend you not post them if you think you might want to submit them to a traditional publisher in the future. Blog about NaNoWriMo, post small excerpts, but avoid posting your manuscript. Why? Because you’ll be giving away a non-exclusive, perpetual, digital rights to the work. That’s not the same as giving away copyright; you maintain that unless you sell or transfer it! But your webhost or blogging platform requires that you give them the rights necessary to legally do what you ask them to do – to display your writing. And when selling rights, the most valuable rights are first rights.

Should you choose to blog your novel, be aware that you’re also adding to the pressure to finish it. The world will know if you don’t. Odds are good they won’t remember in a month, and certainly not in a year, and most people are polite enough not to ask, “When are you going to finish that thing?” But it’s out there. They’ll know.

Don’t worry about anyone laughing at your NaNoWriMo novel. Laugh with them. If this seems hard, maybe this is what you need to learn, from the whole experience, to do.

Editing is for NaNoEdMo. But every real novelist needs a “trunk novel” or two – it’s okay if you sit back, sigh with satisfaction, and smirk a little as you add that “NaNoWriMo Winner 2017” badge to your website. You really have nothing to prove to anyone but yourself.


I’m also taking part in the Write Tribe Problogger October 2017 Blogging Challenge #writebravely #writetribeproblogger

The “prompt” for today’s post was “nostalgic.” This will be my 16th year to participate in NaNoWrimo! There are some quirky, weird traditions that have come to symbolize NaNoWriMo for me, not least of which is a Disturbing Thing About Urinal Cakes. It’s hard to explain. Click the links.

And speaking of which, it’s time to see if TheTejon has opened the gates to let in the macaques and the sherry tanker…

Holly Jahangiri

Holly Jahangiri is the author of Trockle; A Puppy, Not a Guppy; and A New Leaf for Lyle. She draws inspiration from her family, from her own childhood adventures (some of which only happened in her overactive imagination), and from readers both young and young at heart. She lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband, J.J., whose love and encouragement make writing books twice the fun.

Latest posts by Holly Jahangiri (see all)

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21 Responses

  1. Thanks for these posts on NaNoWriMo. I was in two minds about whether I should attempt it this year or not. Thanks to this and your previous post, I think I will.

    • Good! I’m glad. It’s a lot of fun – IF you don’t stress out over it. And that’s really the main goal of NaNoWriMo since its inception – to get people to write for FUN. It’s not about writing a publishable novel (though that does happen, it will never happen without extensive editing later – and editing later is entirely OPTIONAL!)

  2. Suzy says:

    Oh WOW Holly 15 years of participating – that is simply amazing. I haven’t done it yet but I hope someday I will get down and just do it. Your tips are good and I will remember them when I do participate.

    • No time like the present, Suzy!

      Keep in mind, I did NOT write 15 novels in 15 years. I think I’ve “won” 3 times, and none of those have been published (one was briefly self-published, mainly because I wanted to experiment with Lulu when it was new).

  3. Everytime I read your post I feel more more inclined to participate in NaNoWriMo. You can really be positive and encouraging. But the problem is after a while the doubts start creeping in again. Hope by the end of the month I get enough confidence to give it a try!

  4. Akshata Ram says:

    16 years is incredible how do you do it Holly? I have a long way to go but this sure is an inspiration

  5. Some of us thrive with deadlines and dilly-dally when we have too much time on our hands. I’m signing up for NaNoWriMo again, just to give myself a kick in the pants.

  6. mahekg says:

    I have never attempted NaNaWriMo. I am pretty scared whether I would be able to make it.

  7. swatiabhi says:

    You are an inspiration Holly. Hope to learn more from you

  8. vinodinii says:

    That’s too much math, Holly! I’m too lazy with word count. But yes, I know how important it is when it comes to creating a draft for book publishing. Thanks for your valuable tips.

    • Well, the point is just to remember that you don’t have to add a whole day’s missed word count to the next day. You divide the missed words over the remaining days, then add that to each of the days you have left in the month. It’s a lot less daunting.

  9. Thanks for your posts on NaNoWriMo. I’ve often considered giving it a go, but haven’t managed to muster up the courage to do it. But your posts are making me give it a more serious thought.

  10. Meha Sharma says:

    Wow! Fifteen years is incredibly good. So much to learn from you. And yes you are right we do thrive under deadlines else would fall prey to procrastination.

  11. Thanks Holly for throwing light on NaNoWriMo and inspiring us to have a take on it. Would love to try it next time.

  12. kavita says:

    “Without deadlines, we revert to bad habits of procrastinating or lint-picking.” and i thought it was just me …..more I read your post about November challenge more tempting it gets. Even though the word count scares me a little but I think I can at least give it a try 🙂

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