Surviving Camp NaNoWriMo 2019


I am a Camp NaNoWriMo 2019 winner. Let me tell you, I don’t know that I have ever been so proud of an accomplishment in my life, and that includes graduating college with a Bachelors Degree.

Once Upon a Time…

I have always had a dream in the back of my head of one day writing a book. I don’t know that the dream even included actually publishing a book – I guess that is sort of implied – but the mere idea of getting an entire book down on the page has always been there. Almost two years ago now I woke up from a VERY vivid dream with an entire book plot in my head. Plot, characters, even whole scenes, all there for the taking. So I scribbled it all down in a notebook, told my best friend, and then didn’t touch it for more than 6 months.

And then my other bestie decided the time had come to write her first novel, and I was all about the solidarity. I got my notebook out, did scene sketches, character interviews, and brainstormed. And then I didn’t touch it for another 6 months.

AND THEN I woke up one day with an entirely different scene in my head. Not anything even close to the book I had dreamed up the year before. Just a SUPER vivid, completely finished, scene. Right down to the dialogue. And it screamed to be let out, so I drove to work (because the day job stops for nothing) with no music on, shut myself in my office, and spent two hours putting a staggering 5k words on the page. And then I was totally spent.

BUT that scene inspired me to maybe, finally, put a little time into my dream project. So over the next month I slowly moved my notebook contents into a Scrivener manuscript (I adore Scrivener, by the way). I actually managed to get 7200 words down. And THEN…guess what? I didn’t touch it for another NINE months.

Sensing a trend here?

I Swear There is a Happy Ending…

But then on June 29th, 2019 I stumbled across the announcement for Camp NaNoWriMo. Which started in TWO DAYS. And I decided then and there that I was going to FINALLY devote my time to making the dream book a reality. I got my bestie to sign up with me (she was trying to finish her manuscript’s first draft), committed to 30k words, and dove in. And I did it!

And it was hard. So hard. I basically put the rest of my life on the back burner and committed myself to writing 1000 words every single day for the next 31 days. Except I didn’t write 1000 words every day for 31 days. Nope. Because I am a procrastinator and easily distracted, and also July was a million degrees and my home office has no AC, which meant writing before 8pm was like writing in a sauna (moving to another room was not an option – I have a desktop and I literally cannot write on a laptop).

Instead I wrote 18 of 31 days, usually no more than two of those in a row, and managed anywhere from 1000 – 1600 words each session, passing 2000 words four times and 3000 words once. I would write from 8pm to 10pm on those nights, still sweating from the heat in my stifling office. I equal parts loved and loathed every moment of it. I was wracked with self doubt (obviously everything I had written was crap), guilt (why couldn’t I just write every day like I was supposed to), and an ever growing feeling that my brain was being fried.

But I was also extremely proud. I was getting words on the page. My characters became more alive to me, and I really did look forward to sitting down with them…most days anyway. I came up with some ideas that I really loved, found a better direction for my plot than I had originally planned out, and got down a fair number of scenes that I actually really enjoyed. 

A lot of days I felt like I had nothing to write. The problem with the story I wanted to tell is that it will actually involve a fair amount of research to flesh out. Research that I felt I couldn’t take the time to do because it would cut into my precious writing time and *I had a goal to meet*. So almost everything I wrote felt like filler. And it probably will be. But the cool thing about books is that they NEED filler, so I was usually able to talk myself off that ledge.

I came out of NaNo with equal feelings of accomplishment and like I could finally breathe again. It was not easy. It literally fried me to the point where it was becoming noticeable to those around me. I read weekly tarot with a good friend and we noticed a change in my cards that showed me becoming more and more weighed down. My first reading after finishing my goal (literally the day after) told me, unequivocally that it was time to take a break and step back. The oracle card I drew for my reading said, exact quote, “take a time out”. When the universe is telling you to slow down, you know you need to slow down!

And so I have taken the past several weeks and just let my brain recover. I have resisted the urge to go back and reread what I wrote. I haven’t made myself sit down to write anything new or plot anything out. I have taken a little time to do some of the research I know I need, and that alone has felt great. It would be really easy to fall back into the habit of ignoring my book for months at a time, but I am not going to do that again! I am giving myself the month of August to reset my brain, catch up on some reading, and take the reset I know I need. When September hits I plan to really kick off my research and prepare for my next goal: 50k words for NaNoWriMo November.

Despite how hard 30k words was for me, I still feel like I can accomplish the almost double that that November NaNo will require. In July I joined at the absolute last minute with no preparation – not even mentally – and with no plans except to get words on the page. I let myself slack off, the idea of sitting in my sauna of an office was overwhelming, and I couldn’t get the ideas flowing. But this time I have months to prep, I’ll (hopefully) have a wealth of reference material to utilize, and my office will be a much more reasonable temperature.

So despite the stresses, I really loved participating in my very first Camp NaNoWriMo and look forward to November NaNo as well. I won’t ramble on much more, but I do want to leave a list of what I learned, along with some tips and tricks, below. I hope they help you avoid some of my mistakes!

The Things I Learned

I am definitely not as much of a Plotter as I would have thought.

I am the type of person who loves lists, notebooks, day planners, multicolored pens, and a slew of post-its and color-coded tabs. It would stand to reason that I would also be the type of person who would plan my book down to the last chapter detail. I have seen those authors, who have gorgeous white boards with charts, or whole color-coordinated timelines that they post on their actual office walls. In theory, I wanted all of that. Except it doesn’t work for me.

When I tried to stick to a system, I would burn out and avoid my book for six months. I tried all the plotting techniques available online, wrote a pretty detailed outline of my plot, and then would get frustrated when I couldn’t fit myself into it. Well, it turns out that’s because my brain doesn’t want to stick to a plan. Which leads me to the next thing I learned.

I am most definitely a Plantser.

WTF is a Plantser, you are probably asking. Well, it’s someone who is too chaotic to be a Plotter, but not chaotic enough to be a Pantser (someone who writes “by the seat of their pants”). I fall smack dab between the two. I love my initial outline, know how I want my story to end, but need to write all over the place to get there.

I had the most success with writing during NaNo when I just let myself word-vomit out whatever idea was in my head. Sometimes this was a few sentences, sometimes 200 words over three paragraphs, sometimes (the best times) it was 2200 words and fleshed out an entire chapter. I jumped back and forth in my timeline, moved around constantly, and generally just let myself go where my heart led. This meant…

I am a Scrivener groupie.

I. Love. Scrivener. The writing world seems to be split between those who prefer Word (or even Google Docs) and those – like me – who love Scrivener. If you asked me to sit down and write a 10 page paper on a specific topic, I could do so in a Word doc, writing linearly from opening sentence to closing statement, never looking back or needing to move things around. But that is not how I write a book.

As mentioned before, so much of my writing is sporadic and random. I often just need to get the scenes out of my head and I have no clue where they will actually live in the final product, if in it at all. Scrivener allows me to move stuff around however I want, AND it has a super cool cork board that I can color code, which totally feeds the part of me that made envious eyes at those Plotters out there. I can safely say that I would not have gotten through those 31 days if it weren’t for Scrivener. Thanks to the trial period Scrivener offers (30 days of use, rather than 30 days from the day you sign up) I was able to finish the month on my free trial, and then use my NaNo completion prize (50% off Scrivener!!!!) to purchase the actual program! It made the accomplishment all the sweeter.

Thank the Gods for Writing Prompts.

NaNoWriMo is a wonderful company that does wonderful things for their participants, including sending out messages every day that often include a little writing prompt. This was a total godsend for those days when I just couldn’t find inspiration or direction. One of the first prompts I used asked me to “write what you feel”. I spun this a bit and wrote what I felt, but from the POV of one of my two MCs. Turns out she was feeling just as stuck as I was, but in her own way. That turned into a relatively emotional chapter, and one of my favorites so far! Another prompt said “write what makes you blush”. This spurred a rather more steamy scene where my MCs finally let their feelings out. I still get a little flushed thinking about it – I just ship them so much!

Writing a Book Meant Retraining Myself to Write.

I adore writing essays. Seriously. I love putting words to the page and using all sorts of fluffy BS to hit the required page count, and seeing my finished product in 12pt Times New Roman with 1.5 spacing. I relished research papers in college, and would get excited to see an essay question on a test. That type of writing has always come easy to me, and my procrastinator tendencies only forced my essay writing to improve – I am the master of the last minute report. All of this I credit to the HS English teacher who prepped us for the AP exams with constant timed in-class essays. What she taught stuck, and stuck hard.

But essay writing is not book writing. I am used to a fair amount of fluffiness to my writing – it’s how you can turn one topic sentence into a 10 page paper – but it’s an entirely different animal to have to flesh out hundreds of pages. And have it make sense! And DIALOGUE!! Years of essays did not prepare me for dialogue.

And then there’s editing. I have always been taught to edit as you go, and then do a once over after the fact to clean up the bits. Maybe another proofread after that. The procrastinator in me wanted to take as little time as possible, so editing became part of the process. This works great when you only have a handful of pages. Not so great when you are doing a full novel and have to get words on the page. So the next part of retraining myself meant…

Letting My Writing Suck.

The single biggest hurdle I had to overcome was keeping myself from editing as I went, and letting myself write literally everything down. I had to constantly remind myself that this is JUST a first draft. That this is my chance to get every single thought, whether it’s fantastic or fantastically awful, down on the page. Not just get it down, but to make myself keep it down.

Now this didn’t mean letting spelling go to shit, or totally forgetting how grammar or sentence structure works. It just meant that I had to accept that books do not come out finished off the first draft. It’s entirely possible that this manuscript will bare little to no resemblance to my finished work, and that is perfectly fine. I just had to…

Get Words on the Page.

Writing for NaNo – and for any first draft, if what all the authors tweet about is to be believed – is all about constantly moving forward. I don’t mean you have to write linearly (we have already determined I can’t handle that), but to always be adding to the story, not taking away. Sometimes I would write a paragraph or scene that felt completely out of place, or didn’t say what I wanted it to. But instead of scrapping it, I would simply scoop it out and plop it into the very nice folder I had labeled “snippets”. Then I would try again, or carry on, or work on something else. When it comes to NaNo, word count is king, and I’m only hurting myself by getting rid of things I’ve written. Plus, I often find I can recycle those snippets elsewhere!

Above All Else, Have Fun!

The single most important thing I took away from NaNo is the importance of enjoying yourself. No one forced me into this, it’s not something I had to do (let’s not get into the “but I have to write like I have to breathe” tangent), and no one is expecting anything of me except myself. Every time I felt defeated or fried or just plain mentally exhausted, I had to ask myself if it was worth it. And, for me, it was. But I allowed myself the option to back out if it stopped being worth it, with no guilt for “quitting”. I never needed to take that out, and I am proud of myself for that. Despite all of the stress and struggle, I am still so so so proud of myself and can’t wait to do it all over again!

Have you participated in a NaNoWriMo event? If so, tell us about your experience in the comments.


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