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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Owen

On "Winning" NaNoWriMo 2020

At the beginning of November, I set out with roughly half a plan to create a cyberpunk-ish sci-fi novel about a trio of clones living in the depths of a dystopian hellscape city. My adherence to the plan lasted for somewhere around three days, at which point the characters threw it all in the bin and went about their own ideas. Gamely, I followed them. They got into trouble, had some adventures, had some laughs, got into more trouble. I sat down every day to write more of their journey, until, on the 30th November, I wrote the last thousand or so words and made it to fifty thou.

So I won. Go me. I’m a winner. I know this because there are badges on my profile on the NaNoWriMo website and I have a project on my laptop with over fifty thousand words in it. Woo!

Now what?

I’m a winner, right? That means I get glory or something. I worked hard last month; I dragged myself to my keyboard every single day and ground out a minimum of one thousand, six hundred and sixty-seven words. I wrote action, I wrote dialogue, I wrote character moments, I wrote story. Things came barrelling out of my subconscious that I had no idea were in there. Some days were easy; some days I really considered just giving up. But I made it.

So why does it feel like nothing’s changed?

I know I'm a winner; my virtual badges tell me so.

Because nothing has changed. Not really. I still get out of the same side of the same bed in the morning. I blearily make the same coffee and do the same things as I did before I was a NaNoWriMo winner. I don’t even have a crown or a laurel wreath or a medal. None of the stuff winners get. Definitely no prize money.

What do I get?

I get a nagging awareness that I’m behind on my sleep. I get to wonder what the hell happened to the entire month of November. I get to reward myself by taking a couple of days off writing (not today, obviously; I’m writing this) and maybe play some video games or something. I also get a big bundle of words that I’ve made. A whole lot of words. A novel’s worth of words. Are those words a novel? No. Not even close.

Trouble is, I don’t think I really got to the story yet. I think I had my first good idea at somewhere around half way in (by which I mean at around the twenty five thousand word mark), and wrote what might be the first properly compelling situation around ninety percent of the way through. Even those things are not in any fit state to be read. From a cursory glance through the project, I estimate I have something like a couple of thousand words that are maybe worth something. Almost everything I’ve created could probably be labelled “backstory” for something better, if the labeller were feeling generous.

I didn’t write a novel. I don’t honestly think I even wrote the start of a novel, a first draft, anything like that. I just wrote fifty thousand words. Maybe I’ll look at them again in a couple of months and see something I don’t see right now (if I do, I’ll write another blog post about it), but at the moment all I see is fifty thousand words of unusable non-story. I’m a winner. Go me.

Me telling myself I'm a winner while staring into the void.

If I didn’t win a novel, what did I win?

Sometimes the win is in the framing. Sure, I don’t have a novel. I don’t even have fifty thousand words of a novel, not really. I do, however, have thirty days of writing - thirty days in a row of turning up and producing something, whatever it is. I’ve got to the point where if I don’t do some writing in a day, it feels strange. Have I won a habit? Maybe I have. Here I am on my first “day off” writing a blog post, after all.

I’ve also spent thirty days with three characters and discovered that I like them. They started off as loose concepts (three discarded clones) and have evolved into people, each with discrete motivations and wants. They also have a relationship between them that is fraught and beautiful and inspiring and strange - that’s something that couldn’t have happened if I hadn’t turned up to write them. I won some characters, which I can use either in their own story or as part of someone else’s. I actually think they do deserve their own.

I learned something about my process, too. The plan went off the rails quite quickly, but looking back on it now I can see that my plan wasn’t really a plan at all. The characters didn’t want to follow it because it was dumb. But not having a plan meant that my writing was loose and unfocussed, following a few characters around the place rather than knowing where they were going and seeing them get there. In future, I will try to plan better - improvising isn’t my thing. So I won some experience, both of writing and of my own style.

Alright, I didn’t write a novel in a month. I didn’t even write a big chunk of a novel that I can realistically go on and finish - what I have created is not going to be a coherent story. I did write every day, though. I did make some new characters, a new setting, some new ideas. I did get a much better idea of how I might go about my next attempt to climb that book-writing mountain. If I ignore the fact that I didn’t really come close to writing a novel, I got quite a lot out of doing NaNoWriMo 2020.

I’m a winner. Go me.

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