What I learned when I tried to write over 10,000 words in one week

I tried to participate in the National Novel Writing Month challenge, but I wasn't ready for it

November isn’t just the month when Starbucks releases its best drinks — it’s also National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short. As if that’s any easier to say.

During this month, thousands of storytellers attempt to write 50,000 words, which is technically a novel, in 30 days. Participants break it down to 1,667 words per day, which totals to the word count goal by the end of the challenge. They do so with the fuel of online support and advice, word sprints on Twitter (in which you try to write as many words as possible in a short burst of time) and of course, lots of coffee.

The goal isn’t for any of it to be good but for it to be written, because you can edit poorly chosen words, but you can’t edit a blank page.

Since learning about this challenge early in high school, I wanted to participate but never dedicated myself to it fully. I’ve always loved the idea of creative writing, but whenever I sit down to draft a project, I end up lost. 

This month, I developed a new strategy: instead of writing 1,667 words daily for a month, I would condense it to just a week. So I set out to write 11,669 words in a week. That way, I would prove to myself that I could at least make a dent in my novel.

After just a couple of days into the week, the plan fell apart.

When I sat down to write that first day, I ran into the same issues that halted me in the past. I began writing a scene with a loose idea of where I wanted it to lead and struggled to put down more than a few sentences. I thought the issue was one most writers have on a first draft, where your inner editor stops you after every word, expecting the draft to read like a New York Times Bestseller from the start.

I reminded myself that the words didn’t need to be perfect, didn’t even need to be good. They just had to be written. So I tapped away at the keyboard, putting down whatever came to mind, hoping each word would lead me closer to a story I enjoyed telling.

Maybe if I just wrote and wrote, I would get into the headspace of wonder and excitement I often hear about from writers and that I’ve experienced in brief moments when a project has gone well before.

But I never got past 700 words in a single day. I stopped because I realized I wasn’t getting enjoyment out of it, and the story wasn’t substantive. 

I was only laying words down like bricks, except I was an untrained mason who was also probably hit in the head with said bricks, so I didn’t know how to place them to make a coherent structure. After a few more days with the same experience, I had to re-evaluate, and I realized two things I had been failing to admit.

First, NaNoWriMo isn’t for me (at least not at my current level of writing experience), no matter how fun it looks when other people post about their progress. I can’t keep up with the fast pace; I simply need more time to write something worthwhile.

Second, and most importantly, I need to narrow my scope. I’ve always wanted to launch into writing a full-blown book, because ultimately that’s my end goal. I love reading fantasy and science-fiction stories, and it’s my dream to be the author of one. However, even after hours of worldbuilding and planning for a story, it’s still too daunting.

I’ve read the advice of authors like "Game of Thrones" author George R. R. Martin, who said trying to write a novel without experience is “like starting in at rock climbing by tackling Mt. Everest.” Instead, he and many other authors suggest starting with short stories, but I’ve managed to evade this tip so far. Now, I’m beginning to realize it might be the only way for me to break into the craft.

Even though I failed the challenge I set for myself, I’m happy about what I learned from it. Moving forward, I’m going to aim to write a short story with meaningful characters and a plot I enjoy. And then another short story, and another one, and another one until I can write a novel. With a more manageable project, it’ll be easier to learn the elements of writing a good story — how to convey a character’s experience and emotion, how to show and not tell, how to pace a story properly — which I can hopefully apply to my Mt. Everest of a novel one day.


Reach the reporter at jkbeneve@asu.edu and follow @JacobBenevento on Twitter.

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