What I learned from writing 75,000 words in 25 days: A NaNoWriMo adventure

NaNoWriMo 2014 Winner

Wow. I did it. I won.  Not just “regular” NaNoWriMo, but my own extreme version.  I mean…  Dang. Yeah.

I must confess I didn’t think I could actually do this. I wanted to push my boundaries and challenge myself, sure, but the part of me that set this goal was tiny, quiet, and alone. I mean, I barely managed to write 35,000 words during my first shot at National Novel Writing Month; shooting for 75,000 was laughable. But here we are.

I wrote an entire first draft for a novel in under 30 days. Holy shit.

As someone who struggles with celebrating their own successes, I need to take a second to bask in this accomplishment.


Okay, done with that. On to the interesting part: what I learned.

Extreme NaNoWriMo 2014 - Mirror of Ashes

If you take a look at the progress chart for the month, a couple of things pop out.

Thing 1:  I wrote every weekday, as planned, at least 1400 words. That’s pretty reflective of my attitude going into the challenge: “this is work,” rather than “this is a fun hobby fueled by a magical muse.” Even when I was sick or melting down, I still wrote. I made the time, and it paid off. Persistence over resistance.

Thing 2: I am way more motivated by stickers than I thought. I caught myself a couple of times pushing through the desire to quit for the day because I wanted that shiny piece of paper on my wall.  Using the progress chart – a visual representation of progress – helped immensely. Made it more real somehow.

Thing 3: You can’t see this on the chart, but it’s worth noting that, apart from the 5K+ days, I never wrote for more than four hours a day. As an author without a dayjob or children, this represents about half my allotted working day. Which is huge. Thanking the magic of wordsprints for that, plus a dollop of experience with chapter outlining.

That’s all cool, but what does it mean? I hear you say.

Basically, it means that instead of spending 3 months on the first draft of a book, if I knuckle down, I can crank it out in 1 month. That takes the turnaround time per book from about 9 months to about 4 or 5, if I play my cards right. Essentially, it doubles my publishing potential.

It’s also taught me I don’t have to be exhausted by my work. This is hard to put into words. Something’s shifted. Where before I’d be wiped out, unable to do anything else, if I wrote more than 3K a day, this month I’ve had an active social life, romantic life, and spiritual life in conjunction with my writing life. This is big for me. I still need to learn how to juggle multiple projects within the biz (like blogging, other stories, etc) but because I did this, I can do that. It’s only a matter of time.

And can I give a quick shout-out to God? If you’re new, you’ve likely not heard me talk about spirituality before, but waaaaaay back in the Apples & Porsches days (holla!), I used to talk about it a lot. That may happen again. But seriously: Without literal divine intervention, there’s no way I could’ve pulled this off or carry the lessons forward. I serve a creative deity, y’all, and realizing that God’s my collaborator in all things made this work not just doable but a joy. Such a change from the torment of the last book’s birth. Praise.


TL;DR: I challenged myself and busted boundaries I didn’t think I could. It means new levels of productivity and happiness in my life, which is good news for me and for you!

Huzzah! *throws confetti*

As always, my dearest readers, thank you for being here for me. You may not think you matter in the day to day functioning of my writing life, but you so very much do. I wouldn’t have half the motivation to improve and increase if I didn’t know you were out there, waiting for new material and cheering me on to success. Thank you.

And now, the official I-freaking-did-it micdrop. Because awesome.

chang mic drop



The problem is not NaNoWriMo; it’s your attitude about NaNoWriMo that’s the problem

I want to tell you guys a secret. Ready?

The point of NaNoWriMo is not to win.

*waits for gasping to stop*

The point is to use this time/goal boundary set to create a writing habit and get the ball rolling to build momentum for doing the larger work. It’s not going to make you a bestseller. It’s not even going to make you a great writer. What 50,000 words in 30 days is is a big chunk of motivation, inspiration, and “see, you can do this” to get you to write the rest of the book. It’s learning to treat writing as work instead of magic. It’s testing your strengths and finding your weaknesses as a writer. It’s challenging your preconceived ideas about what you’re capable of. It’s proving to you that words on a page – no matter how shitty – are better than words in your head.

“Winning” and “losing” NaNo isn’t about your wordcount. It’s about your attitude.

You win when you understand your writer-self better. You win by writing something you can use, something you’re proud of, something that means something to you. You win by claiming the label of “writer” for yourself. You win by rising to a new level of creativity and worksmanship. You win by writing.

The only way you lose is if you let fear win – if you stop writing.



NaNoWriMo 2012: Whoohoo! I failed!

Ellie Di Julio - NaNoWriMo 2012 Project Cover - Inkchanger

I blew it! *throws confetti*
I completely bombed! *tosses streamers*
I fucked up! *hires petting zoo*

I’d imagine most people aren’t that excited not “winning” NaNoWriMo. But I am. Kinda. Lemme ‘splain.

I realized when I finished writing everything in my outline on November 15th at 34,000 words that I wasn’t going to make 50K by the end of the month. Not because I’m not physically or mentally capable of writing that much – I probably could’ve. But when I reviewed what I’d written, I realized that I didn’t need fifty thousand words.

Inkchanger isn’t a Stephensonesque tome or even a standard 300-page paperback. It’s just not that complicated a story. (Which is not the same as saying it’s simple. Draw your distinctions carefully.) All it means is the story is going to be the length that it takes to tell it.

So I stopped writing when the story was over, which I know is blasphemy to the hardcore NaNo-er. But to me, the idea of writing a bloated, useless leviathan of language just to stand in the “winners” circle felt more than silly; it felt wrong. To cram another 16,000 words of bullshit into it that I knew I’d delete as soon as possible seemed an utter waste of time, talent, and temper. Bugger that for a game of soldiers, as my literary crush, Commander Samuel Vimes, likes to say.

However, while I’ve made the right choice, the logical choice, the creative choice, Perfectionist Ellie is down on the floor screaming like a toddler who’s had a glimpse of her Christmas presents and cannot wait 25 more days.

I didn’t win!
I didn’t write 80K like KR Green!
I won’t get to put that badge on my site!
I won’t get to brag about how cool I am!

To Perfectionist Ellie, I quit NaNo because I’m a big, whiny loser who should’ve just given up on this whole novel-writing thing before she even started because there was no way it was going to turn out as the glistening gem of excellence she imagined it would be. She thinks quitting would have been better than failing because at least then I wouldn’t have to go through the pain of trying and falling short.

What Perfectionist Ellie fails to realize is that there’s a subtle but all-important difference between failing and quitting.

Allow me to quote heavily from my latest inspiration/obsession/stalkee, Chuck Wendig, who’s written it far better than I could have in his brilliant post, Failing Versus Quitting: Your Lack of Confidence is Neither Interesting nor Unique:

Failure is necessary. But quitting is not the same as failing.

Failure provides powerful lessons. It affords insight. It allows you to have a whole picture that you can one day hold before you and say, “I see what’s wrong with this picture, now.” Quitting is standing there with a half-a-picture. An incomplete image. And more to the point: an incomplete lesson.

Failure is stepping into the street with a gun at your hip and standing across from your foe — clock strikes noon, she draws, you draw, bang bang, gunpowder haze, smoke clears, and you drop while she keeps standing. That’s failure. You drew. You fell. Maybe you live to fight another day. Maybe you learned something about the next time you need to draw that gun. And everybody knows you fought with honor.

You did the deed. And the deed is done.

Quitting is you hiding in a fucking rain barrel while the gunslinger passes you by.

Failure is brave. Quitting is a coward’s game.

And I am no coward.

I didn’t quit; I failed. Gloriously. Purposefully.

In my failure, I’ve learned a totally new skill/craft as an adult. I’ve buried myself up to the armpits in the sticky, gooey, viscous muck of novel-writing, daring myself to swim. I’ve uncovered an unforeseen love for protracted writing sessions (and large quantities of sweet coffee). I’ve done things I didn’t know I was capable of.

And what has my failure yielded me? What do I take away?

I’ve embraced the need for a story to tell itself in its own time and the need to push it to its edge just to see what happens, like a set of totally hot twins that can’t help coming on to you. Nobody can tell me that’s not worth it. Plus, I’ve got nearly a complete second draft of my manuscript and am powering on, full steam ahead, knowing that I’m not a quitter, knowing I’m in the right place, knowing I’ll tell this story until its done and not a word more or less. You don’t get that shit from being a quitter.

So, yes, I’m glad I failed National Novel Writing Month in my first year. Call it justification or denial or whatever, but I know better. Where some winners will shamefully shove their 50K in a drawer, never to be seen again, or they’ll arrogantly publish it as sheer gold, I’ve got a real, functional, living novel that I’m taking all the way to the end, wherever that may be.

I failed so I can win in all the ways that matter.