Thursday, October 29, 2009

NaNoWriMo Saved My Life

NaNoWriMo Saved My Life
By Emilie Staat

NaNoWriMo saved my life. Or at least, my writing.

Let me tell you a story.

Summer 1992. Two girls sit on the stairs of an apartment building, their heads and shoulders crowded close together over a notebook. They are ten and twelve, the only girls in the neighborhood, and they’re taking a break from roughhousing with the boys to work on a story. A., the elder, rolls her eyes as E., the younger, says, “We should re-read the whole story first. We can edit and we’ll remember where we left off.” A. takes the notebook and flips to a clean, fresh page, saying, “Let’s just get started.”

Summer 2007. A. is a nonfiction editor and a new mother. She doesn’t have time or energy to write. E. has just finished two writing degrees in seven years. She has a lot of ideas, but she doesn’t write. She is crippled by the critical voices in her head. They’re so loud that she can’t hear her characters speak to her. The characters whisper. The critical voices – they holler, “Show, don’t tell! This is garbage!”

Fifteen years changes a lot. It didn’t change my friendship with A. (for I am E., the younger), but we both had drifted so very far away from our youthful joy in our shared story. I’d just moved to a new city and started a new job as a paralegal. A. hadn’t written for years.

I don’t know where I first heard about National Novel Writing Month, but I know my first exposures to it were disdainful sneers about NaNoWriMo telling everybody that they can write, creating a hobby atmosphere around what some of us spend years and lots of money learning to do. In the fall of 2007, I felt very far away from the writing community I had spent years cultivating and really only knew one other writer in the city who I could talk to about what I was (writer) but wasn’t doing (writing).

So I researched NaNoWriMo – 50,000 words in one month! I bought the book, No Plot? No Problem! And I sent out the infamous e-mail. Confess to attempting something crazy so that whenever you’re tempted to quit, you’ll be too embarrassed not to keep going because you told all those people. And it works. I send the e-mail and asked my family and friends to support me by occasionally asking about my progress. A. received this e-mail and though we live 300 miles apart, distance has never distilled our friendship and she became my avid supporter.

I won NaNoWriMo 2007, which means I wrote 50,000 words in one month. It was one of the most freeing and educational experiences of my life. There was no time to worry about the quality of my writing. I could only write. Those crippling critical voices receded and my characters turned up their volume, sometimes screaming me awake in the middle of the night. The pace is so intense (over 2,000 words per day average) that you can only revel in your story and your characters, can only do your best to get their bones on the page. The flesh will come later, if it turns out your extended writing exercise is something you want to pursue.

A. and I did NaNoWriMo together last year, but neither of us finished. I cheated on the NaNo rules and tried to do 50,000 new words on an old book (my thesis). So while I didn’t finish, I actually did get a ton of new writing done. NaNoWriMo 2008 reminded A. that she’s a writer, not just an editor of other people’s work. Doing NaNoWriMo together – that reminded us both about the joy of playing with words that we knew so easily, instinctively, on that long-ago apartment staircase.

This year, A. and I have started early by sending each other writing exercises most days. For the first time, I’m reading the forums and talking to other participants in my area. When November 1st comes along, we’ll just get started. We’ll get our first NaNoWriMo Pep Talk and we’ll chuff each other along. And we’re gonna win this year. Because now that I’ve told you about our crazy attempt – we both just have to keep at it until we finish.

Emilie’s NaNoWriMo Must List:

1. Send the e-mail. My 2007 e-mail went like this, if you need a template:

Dear Family and Friends,

I'm going to write a novel in November. As part of National Novel Writing Month (check out:, I will start writing a novel of 50,000 words November 1 and finish by midnight on the last day of November.

By reading this email, you've already done all I need you to do as my support team. NaNoWriMo recommends you tell everyone you know that you're writing a novel so that when you're tempted to quit, you can't possibly because people know you're doing it. So thanks!

If, in the course of November, you'd like to drop me a line of encouragement or ask me how the novel is coming, I'd love that. And of course, all of you should consider writing a novel in November as well!! NaNoWriMo favors output over literary quality. As they say -- December is for editing.

Those of you on this list are family members and writerly friends who I care about. In those dark days when I'll question what the hell I'm doing, knowing that *you know* I'm supposed to be writing a novel may just keep me going.

All my love and thanks,


2. Read Chris Baty’s book No Plot? No Problem! Cheap copies are available online.

3. Use the Write or Die application online. []Click here

4. When you finish each day’s writing, have goals for what scenes you want to write the next day.

5. Eat and sleep – try to maintain a schedule so you’re geared up to write when it’s time to write.

Guest blogger Emilie Staat lives and writes in New Orleans. She’s thatagirldarling on and maintains her sanity at her personal blog: Click here while finishing her first novel.

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Sandra Leigh said...

I had forgotten all about Write or Die. Thanks for the reminder, and for the story.

Emilie said...

Hi Sandra Leigh:

You're more than welcome. Thanks for the comment and good luck with NaNo!

Demetra said...

This year, I'm doing NaNo for the first year. The first two days of my writing (I started on the 3rd of November, just a tad bit late) went PHENOMONAL--the second day I had 6,036 words, and the third day I had gotten to over 13,000.
Today? Over the entire day, my word count has only gotten to 14,255. (D:)
So I went to WriteorDie for help and found this... and it's just inspired me to get my words flowing again. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!

Anonymous said...

Hi Demetra!

I'm only now seeing your comment from last year. I hope you're doing NaNoWriMo 2011. Best of luck if you are!