Writing a Novel in 30 Days

NaNoWriMo is a fun, crazy creative writing challenge: write a 50,000-word novel during the month of November. I've known about it since at least 2011, but I always convinced myself that I was too busy to participate. Until now! In 2015 I finally rolled up my sleeves and wrote my 50K words. In this post I'm going to talk about how it went and what I've learned.

How long is 50K words? It's a short novel. To compare, the first Harry Potter book is 77K words, and George Orwell's 1984 is 89K words. 50K words is only two times longer than the Wait But Why post about Tesla, and it doesn't even include Tim Urban's awesome illustrations. On the other hand, it's definitely the longest thing I've ever written: about 8 times longer than my longest blog post, and about 22 times longer than my longest email.

Writing 50K words sounds intimidating, but as I learned from NaNoWriMo, that is the wrong way to think about it. If you think about it as writing 1,667 words per day, it becomes much more manageable. In fact, I found that my progress was more predictable than on software engineering projects, because the number of words provides an unambiguous progress bar that doesn't exist for software.

I did a bit of preparation before November, but not much. I started by reading some of the great resources that NaNoWriMo provides. I made a character sheet and a half, although when I started writing, my characters kind of ran away from me and I had to get to know them all over again. I had a basic idea for the plot, but I ended up changing it at least five times during the month of writing, in places where it seemed too predictable. I also told a few friends that I was doing NaNoWriMo, so that they would keep me accountable and make it less easy to bail out.

Then November came and the roller-coaster got rolling. In the first half of the month I was still waiting for my work authorization to clear, so I was at home working on side projects. I took advantage of the free time and aimed for 2K words per day, instead of the customary 1,667. It didn't even seem that difficult. But then I started at my new job on November 16, and holding on to my daily word quota became a lot harder. There were days when my routine was reduced to: wake up, commute, work, commute, eat dinner, write, go to sleep, repeat. I was tired and sleep-deprived and excusing myself from all things social, which is definitely not sustainable for more than a few weeks. I was also worried about messing up right before the finish line, and reaching December 1 with only a few thousand words left to write. But the buffer I gave myself by writing 2K words per day in the first half of the month helped a lot, and I finally reached 50K during Thanksgiving weekend.

NaNoWriMo encourages people to turn off their inner critics, write a first draft for speed instead of quality, and worry about editing later. This is the opposite of my usual perfectionistic approach, where I edit as I write, and the first draft is the only draft. So this has been an interesting exercise in writing quickly and resisting the temptation to edit.

Before November, I ran a "speed test" to estimate how big of a time commitment NaNoWriMo was going to be. I typed 2,000 words in stream-of-consciousness style, writing whatever came into my head, and not worrying about content. I achieved a speed of 29.5 words per minute (WPM) this way. During NaNoWriMo itself my writing speed was much lower: from 15.3 WPM on the fastest day to 5.2 WPM on the slowest day, averaging 9.7 WPM. The chart below shows the stats for each day, where the top bars indicate the number of words, the bottom bars indicate the time spent writing, and the circles show words per minute. This chart does not include a few additional hours that I spent doing character sheets, outlining, and obsessing over the plot.

I noticed a few factors that influenced my writing speed. On some days I had a detailed phase outline of what I was going to write, so it went pretty quickly. On other days I had no outline, or only a loose one, and the writing was slower. But subjectively, the most original parts of the story came to me when I wasn't writing from an outline. Towards the end of the month, I ran out of plot and still had a few thousand words left to write, so I had to invent a bit of filler, which also slowed things down.

Unsurprisingly, my success at shutting up my inner critic was also correlated with writing speed. When I thought of the story as an experiment that no one was going to read, I was able to write pretty quickly. But the minute I started to think it might be a story worth telling, my writing speed went way down. In the end, I'm still more comfortable with my original "write slowly, edit as you go" style than with NaNoWriMo's "write fast, edit later" approach.

My story is about two characters, one male and one female, both biologically of college age, but emotionally a little younger. I decided pretty early on that I wanted to write half of the story from a female first-person point of view, which was a lot of fun, but I don't know how credible. There is a lot of angst, a lot of lust, and a bit of murder mystery going on. The most honest way to describe it is as a young-adult wish fulfillment novel.

So now what? I'll probably clean the text up a bit sometime this year, and post it on this blog for the occasional Internet wanderer to thumb through. (The first draft is too rough to post right now, but I've given it to a few friends for feedback, so if you're interested, email me.) Then I'll go back to writing shorter pieces and focusing on content rather than length. I'd love to establish a daily writing habit. The most emotional scenes to write for NaNoWriMo were actually about parents and children and growing up and leaving home, which took me completely off guard. Maybe I should write some more about that.