Why I’ll be attempting NaNoWriMo this year


For the fourth time in fifteen years, I’ll be attempting to write 50,000 words of fiction this November. Here’s why, and what I hope to achieve.

Cast your mind back to the 1st of November 2002. Chances are, your life was very different then; I know mine was. I was 16 years old and at the start of my A-levels. I thought my schedule was packed but in reality I had vast amounts of spare time on my hands. Having just moved to a different part of the country, I had little in the way of a social life to occupy my time, but I’ve always preferred solitude anyway if I’m completely honest. My evenings and weekends were consumed by walking and exploring the nearby woodlands.

I had already been writing fiction for some years. When I heard about a fairly new writing challenge called National Novel Writing Month (established 1999 but not well known outside the USA until 2001), I was intrigued. All you had to do was write a 50,000-word novel in the month of November.

A few thousand people had signed up for it the previous year, and as I looked through the forums I was struck by how many people said the process had some key benefits:

  • It got you into the habit of writing every day
  • It gave you a goal to work towards that was challenging but not impossible
  • It gave you the freedom to experiment with new ideas and themes you might not want to risk in a ‘serious’ project

I ended up writing a 95,000-word historical fantasy that was a bit like Outlander crossed with The Last Kingdom (but inferior to both). It was not a good book but the exercise did its job. For the next two years I wrote fiction at a pace I now find incredible, rapidly improving and developing my writing skills.

When NaNoWriMo 2003 came along I was part of the way through a military science fiction novel called Project Cold Witness, which I would eventually reincarnate as an anthology short in 2015. I wrote 69,000 words that month. One reason I was able to be so prolific is that I developed a strategy to facilitate ‘deep work’: a writing shed, isolated physically at the bottom of the garden and isolated digitally from all possible web access, in which I spent several hours every evening, often huddled over a tiny electric heater. My laptop had no games installed on it in 2003. There was nothing to do but write.

In 2004 I couldn’t seem to find my flow and I gave up on November the 12th after only 14,052 words. Part of the problem was that I now had games installed on my laptop, and even though I rarely actually played them when I was in my writing shed, I came to believe their very existence was enough to spoil my concentration. I was also far more active on various writing forums by this point and often spent almost as much time writing about writing as I did actually writing.

2004 was my last serious attempt at NaNo. Although I’ve thought about it a few times since, I’ve grown up, life has become busier, and it has never been the right time. My ability to focus for hours on a single task has also become compromised by the web and all its distractions.

The why

I’m amazed at how big this event has become. In 2002 there were around 14,000 participants; by 2015 that figure had exploded to well over 400,000.

For various reasons, I feel the time is now right for me to make another attempt.

  • I’ve written no fiction for well over a year. Sometimes I tell myself that non-fiction scratches the same itch, but the experience is very different. Fiction is pure creation and can feel like magic.
  • Besides, writing features is part of my work. For a while now I’ve felt a growing need for another personal project I can work on in my spare time – something that is completely separate from my job.
  • On that subject… I certainly have much less spare time than I did 15 years ago, or even 5 years ago. But as Pinnacle Editorial has grown and I’ve taken on more responsibilities, I have become significantly better at managing my time. If I can find room for a five-mile walk, an hour of reading and several different editorial jobs every day, I can find room for a couple of hours of personal writing too. (Or so I tell myself now!)
  • I know what I’m like. Left to my own devices, I never find time for writing fiction. I need something like NaNo to give me a boot up the backside.

I certainly don’t believe NaNoWriMo is the best way to write a novel. Most books need far more time than a month to produce a decent first draft, but sometimes it’s what you need to get going. The real work starts with the rewrites.

The what and the how

I already know what I’ll write. This week I’ve been thinking about the project during my morning walks, taking voice notes, and I have a collection of rough ideas that are starting to coalesce. Between now and the end of October I’ll do some serious prewriting and get a real plan hammered out.

At this point, all I’m willing to share is that the project will be near-future science fiction on the theme of rewilding, and that it shares many links with my 2015 short story The Great Correction.

I haven’t completely made up my mind, but I’m fairly sure I will write the first draft by hand. I think differently on paper, and after a day writing and editing professionally at my computer I think my brain will need a change of scenery. I still write a lot by hand – most of my task management, copious daily notes – so this should be no problem.

Social media seems to be a big part of the modern NaNoWriMo experience, but for me it has always been the enemy of focus and a dangerous distraction when I have a big project on the go. I’ve already started scaling back my Twitter time this week, and for the month of November I won’t be logging in to my personal Twitter or Facebook accounts at all. I expect this alone will free up a surprising amount of time.

And what do I hope to achieve?

This won’t be like the books I’ve written in the past. There will be no pressure to publish and start attracting eyeballs. It’s a personal project that may well never be for public eyes, but if I think it’s good enough then I’ll certainly begin the revision process and think about where to take it from there.

The goal is to experience the process again, to exercise the fiction-writing muscle, and to nurture my ability to focus back to full health (or at least as much as possible; I don’t own a writing shed any more, unfortunately!). If nothing else, it’ll benefit my editorial work. But I think it could be a lot of fun too – even if I fail to achieve anything like 50,000 words.