How I Survived NaNoWriMo 2020 (and What I Learned) - Thee Sim Ling

Every year, writers of all kinds, from the aspiring wannabe to the mega-popular bestseller, attempt the grueling challenge of the National Novel Writing Month. Every November, writers sacrifice everything just to scrap in 50,000 words for a novel they hope (in their wildest dreams, of course) to be published.

50,000 words can only make up an amount of 200 pages (smaller than some of the novels you have on your bookshelf), but the challenge is much harder than it seems. It is a painful struggle to heave yourself out of bed an hour early to type in a few hundred words, only for an irritating family member to pop in at the most inconvenient moment and distract you from your masterpiece-in-the-making. The rest of the day, you can’t even find a single second to log on to the NaNoWriMo website, and when you finally have a pocket of spare time, you can do nothing but stare at the blank page. Even if you did meet your daily goals on the first couple of days, you are likely to lose your momentum within a week.

That exact scenario happened to me in 2019. My year-end examinations had finished in October, and I had thought that with the stress-free life and approaching school holidays, I would totally be able to win the NaNoWriMo challenge, no sweat.

I failed miserably short of the goal.

Last November, I was determined not to repeat my shameful failure of the past year. I vowed to myself that I would find a way to reach 50,000 words. And I’m delighted to say that I did reach that goal. With a few days to November 30, I won the challenge with 50,036 words. Not only did I enjoy the feeling of victory, I also learnt a few lessons along the way, and if you would like to take on the challenge this November (or any month of the year), here are some pointers:

Only Write A Story You Believe In

Whether you plot your stories beforehand, or you believe in making it up as you go, it is vitally important that you only pick a project that you deeply believe in. In your head, that novel idea might sound great, but will you really be willing to stick with it for one entire month, come hell or high water? Or will you slowly fall out of love with that idea? The beauty of NaNoWriMo is that it is the ultimate test on your faith (or lack of faith) in the story world and plot that you create. This writing exercise brings you back to earth and helps you take your idea seriously.

I learned that the hard way in my first year of NaNoWriMo. I came up with an idea which I wasn’t enthusiastic about at all. The first few hundred words sent my fingers flying all over the keyboard, but after the initial excitement, the intoxicating enthusiasm and adrenaline rush disappeared. There were many days when I simply stared at my screen, not knowing what to write at all. In 2020, I chose another deeper and more complicated story idea. Sure, it required much more planning and research, but I loved it more than I would have ever loved Idea No. 1. Bestselling authors didn’t become famous writing books they hated. They believed in their ideas and persevered to the end.

Get Into A Writing Routine

If you deliberately carve out time for writing in your life, you have a better chance of hitting the word count you desire. Look in your calendar or diary and find spare pockets of time where you can write your novel. Maybe you can wake up an hour earlier, or stay up an hour later. Maybe you can type a sentence while queuing up at the cashier on everyday grocery trips, or compose a paragraph before doing your homework. Schedule reminders in your mobile device to remind you of your NaNoWriMo novel writing time. Use visual cues such as a particular chair, a specific notebook or even your favourite type of snack. If you write well with music, compile a Spotify playlist of songs that gets you motivated to write your story. And (my favourite writing tip!), always end your writing session with a half-finished sentence. Yes, an ungrammatical half-finished sentence. It is easier to continue a half-finished sentence than start from scratch. Your incomplete sentence reminds you of what’s going on in your story and helps keep up the great momentum from your previous writing session.

In 2019, I had less control of my time, so I could establish a concrete writing routine. In 2020, I made up a morning ritual that I religiously followed every single day: wake up before 8 am, read a book, check email, before writing as much as possible until it was breakfast time. I always sat in the same place and typed on the same laptop, so I always had a familiar typing posture, which helped muscle memory.

Confide in Your Writing Friends (Or Any Friends)

Writing is a lonely journey, so it’s always better to have a buddy! On the NaNoWriMo website and its Young Writer Program website (a website for children and youth under 18 to participate in the NaNoWriMo challenge), there is an option for you to find writing buddies online. These new friends can act as accountability partners to make sure all of you are reaching your daily goals. If you know a real-life friend who’s joining NaNoWriMo, ask them to create an account on the website so you can buddy up and compare statistics. Join your local NaNoWriMo community by searching for the region you belong in. If you have any questions, you can ask the friendly people at NaNoWriMo. Chat in the community forums and, if possible, join writing sprints to get an added boost of motivation. (Do remember to be cyber-safe, though! Never give strangers your personal information.)

This year, I had the fortune to join the Society of Young Inklings in their NaNoWriMo event on the Young Writers Program website, and was provided with many useful resources. I also appreciated the regular supportive messages from the local NaNoWriMo community in Singapore. And, whenever I felt frustrated, I turned to my sister to confide in her. She may not be a writer, but she acts as a (reluctant) cheerleader and sharp critic.

Feeling up to NaNoWriMo? Start your own NaNoWriMo challenge any time of the year and pen down your amazing novel!

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