I don’t often proclaim my affections in public, but …

I love NaNoWriMo!

(“National Novel Writing Month,” if we’re being formal.)


I’ve said it.

In case you’re not familiar with this beauty, NaNoWriMo invites you to spend the month of November writing the first draft of your novel. In order to “win” the challenge, you need to crank out 50,000 words over that 30-day span. And, if you live by the spirit of the beast and not just the letter, you need to make sure that your story arc is completed in that span.

You Can’t Write a Book in 30 Days … Can You?

Now, for most of us, writing 50,000 words in a month is a monumental challenge, and there is little hope that what we write will be our best work. That’s why you should consider it a draft.

That’s OK, though, because the satisfaction of completing your book, finally, and in any form, is extremely gratifying.

I’ve participated in and “won” the last three NaNoWriMos, and I’ve self-published one of those books. The one I wrote in November 2016 (last year, as I write this), will hit the e-bookshelves this year. My very first NaNoWriMo book is still in editorial shambles on my Dropbox account, but it, too, will probably see the light of day … someday.

But as great as it is to say that I got off the snide after decades of dreaming about writing a book, NaNoWriMo is much more important than that.

It teaches you what you can do when you have laser focus on a goal that has deep personal meaning to you. I was dubious that I could write 1667 words a day, every day, for 30 days in 2014 when I undertook the challenge for the first time. I mean, my job was a hassle, the kids had the flu, but it’s been sure nice talking to … oh, sorry, wrong song.

She Didn’t Write Her Story

What I mean is, I was daunted. So daunted that I skipped the first day. And the second.

By the time I woke up on November 3, I was almost 3400 words behind the pace I needed to maintain. But then I ran across a picture of my grandmother, who had died the year before. She lived to be 93. Standing next to her in the photo was my aunt, who died nine months before her mother.

My aunt was an educator and an intellectual. She loved to teach and to learn. She co-authored several textbooks.

To the best of my knowledge, however, she never wrote a novel, though she probably had the best author’s mind I’ve ever known personally.

She died on her 67th birthday.

Not young, exactly, but not old enough. And she left the world without giving us her stories.

That’s when I decided that, for sure, I was going to write my book.

Motivated to Catch Up

I found nooks and crannies in my schedule that November 3 and did the same the next day. By the morning of November 5, I was right on target, having penned about 7000 words.

Then I kept at it.

I woke up a little before my family and plopped down a couple hundred words. I wrote during my lunch hour. I took my laptop with me to my son’s Spell Bowl competition. I watched a bit less  TV at night. I figured out how to use “sprints” in my writing and how powerful freewriting can be.

I worked hard, and I got tired. But I kept bobbing and weaving, hitting the pockets — the pockets of time I never realized existed before.

As Thanksgiving week dawned, I was within 10,000 words of my goal. How sweet would it be to put my first novel to bed — granted, in first-draft form — before I bellied up to the table on Thursday?

That thought motivated me, and I stayed up late on Sunday … and Monday … and Tuesday. And I finished.

The holidays were free and clear, and my book was done!  (In a NaNoWriMo sense.)

NaNoWriMo Changed Me

As awesome as it was to write a freaking novel, it was even better to know that I could do it. And … to know that I could do it quickly.

And, while I took some time to decompress from the flurry and stress of NaNoWriMo, it didn’t take long before I was itching to write again. I was anxious to refine the techniques I had learned during November and figure out whether I could use them during “normal” writing periods.

It turns out I could, at least most of them. In fact, when I started writing again in early December, I really didn’t even have to think about crafting chapter beats, setting a timer, or writing while I ate breakfast.

I just did those things.

They had become habits for me. They’re still habits for me, years later.

And I picked them all up during one intense 30-day period.

What Can You Do in 30 Days?

Prior to that 2014 NaNoWriMo, I never put much stock in the 30-day challenges you see everywhere, but I’ve had to rethink that stance.

If you throw yourself into something for 30 days, the results can be dramatic … but you need to keep some things in mind:

  • You have to commit, hard, if you expect to make a real change.
  • The habit you’re trying to instill in yourself has to hold huge intrinsic value for you. If you don’t believe being fit is important, 30 days of exercise won’t mean much to you.
  • Be prepared for your life to change, in some way, after the challenge is finished. If you don’t want to spend a lot of time writing over the next several years, taking 30 days to write a novel and learn about yourself as a writer is not time well spent.
  • Don’t expect miracles. You won’t become Mr. Olympia in 30 days, and you won’t write Harry Potter.
  • On the other hand, aim high, because you can probably do a whole lot more than you thought you could.
  • If your new habit sucks at first, don’t worry, because it’s only 30 days.
  • Still, 30 days is long enough that habits can start to “stick.”


Getting Started

So, how do you go about tackling your own 30-day challenge?

Simple … just pick a goal you want to achieve or a habit you want to adopt — or break — and bust your ass for 30 days.

Read what you can about your topic and start where you are, but don’t be afraid to tweak along the way.

At the end of the month, you’ll have either failed or succeeded, and then you can decide if the new habit is right for you.

And if, like me, your target habit is to write more and your goal is to write a novel, keep the story of my aunt close to your heart as you slog through late-night and lunchtime writing sessions.

She’ll never have a chance to write her novel, but you sure as Hell can write yours!