NaNoFeed: the 30-day challenge vs the 30-year challenge

Today’s post was originally written as a comment to this awesome post from Kris Rusch, about the instant-success mentality and the NaNo Class of 2010. I guess I’m Class of 2010 also, given that was the first year I managed a complete novel arc in November.


I took on NaNoWriMo as a challenge in 2008, the year that I bought my first computer, my first cell phone, and had internet access at home for the first time. I was taking a sabbatical year (self-funded) having walked out of a day job that sent me to the ER twice in a year. I was by no means a beginning writer: I’d been writing about a million words a year of nonfiction at the day job, another million in essays and drama on my own time. As a grownup who’d been writing for a living (or writing at the day job, same thing) I’d passed the million-word mark approximately 25 times, and I’d learned a thing or two about project management.

I discovered a lot of things. One of them was that the internet is an infinite bookshelf and an infinite time sink. I wrote 51,000 words of scenes for a novel, and almost that much in forum posts.

The next year I did prep in October and didn’t touch the forums until I was done with my quota for the day. After that NaNo, I joined a writer’s group that had met during NaNoWriMo a few years before, and met some like-minded colleagues, including some young and fiery rebels who were self-publishing (see Devin Harnois, above, who turned me on to this column and Dean’s).

I write in the “off-season” — a lot. I do character brainstorming in September and October, in the form of interviews, and I put date stamps in everything I do. Those interviews spawn universes, and some of them turn out to be self-contained short stories.

I read Dean’s series on writing a novel in ten days, and it matched my pattern. But my original role models were the nineteenth century pros like George Sand, who typically wrote 5K a day (twenty hand-written pages). I thought, ok, I have a keyboard, I should be able to score that much at least, without her repetitive stress. (Read the letters of nineteenth century writers and learn how much we have to be thankful for. Repetitive stress with a keyboard is nothing compared to what you get from writing with a dip pen.)

When I was 17, I was really impatient. I wanted to be really, really good RIGHT NOW. In fact, I wanted to be perfect. And I was just good enough then that I was hitting all of the temptations of beginning “real” writers.

Now that I’m past 50, I realize that time is my ally, and I don’t have to be perfect. I write in 45-minute bouts, do real life and day job in between, and don’t hurt myself. The community that I have met through NaNo is focused on practice. They’re a whole lot less vicious than the writing groups I’d seen before, that “critiqued” each other’s work. Now I get together with buddies two or three times a week (on-line or in-person) and run bouts together. 45 minutes of bout, 15 minutes of gloating/beefing about how well/terrible it went, rinse and repeat.

As for 50K words in 30 days being a “big” goal: well, my buds consider me a “fast” writer (my 45-minute bouts net about 1200 words). So I only type 30 words/minute when I’m in fast mode, which wouldn’t get me a job as a typist back in the old days.

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3 Responses to NaNoFeed: the 30-day challenge vs the 30-year challenge

  1. Jelzmar says:

    I’ve learned that I write about a ten words a minute (I have no idea what my typing speed is), but even when I plan everything out I still struggle with the words. We do word wars of twenty to thirty minutes, and a I regularly get about three hundred words with my best ever being 600 in thirty minutes. Of course, that story I was having a lot of fun with and couldn’t wait to get to the next part. That is the hardest part, finding things to get excited about in my stories. I get excited when i come up with the ideas, but I rarely get to write the story then.

  2. epbeaumont says:

    Writing speed varies considerably. My buddy Devin Harnois, mentioned above, considers themselves a “slow writer,” producing about 400-500 words a day in the off-season. Nonetheless, if you check out their page on Amazon, you’ll see a yearly output of 2-3 full-length novels. And it varies by genre and form, too — ask a poet what “fast” is! Over the last ten years or so, I’ve been going to post-performance talks for writers and performers of new theater pieces, and the proportion of “background work” (drafting, rehearsal, improvisation, re-drafting) to finished product is something like 100 to 1. That’s an iceberg that shows only 1% of its bulk above the water!

    To complicate things further, different projects seem to have different speeds. And everyone has a speed (not unrelated to working method) that works for them. I’ll never forget the first consult I had with a student who realized that the paper she wrote “fast” got a better grade than the one she wrote “slowly.”

  3. Jean Lamb says:

    If I’m doing the splat draft in November, I can do 1K during half of my lunch hour (especially if I’ve outlined, even if I am rapidly leaving it), and another 1K during a hour at night (when I’m also paying some attention to my husband and the TV). Revision is slower, and probably just as well . For the final read-through, I go through only a few pages each half hour, but since I’m slowly mouth-breathing the read-through, that makes sense. But that’s November. December is year-end at work and doing a lot of Christmas-related stuff at home. January resets the calendar and it’s back in the saddle again.

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