A Tale of Three NaNoWriMos

nano certif flip
My 2011 NaNoWriMo Winner Certificate

November is one of my favorite months. It brings my birthday (true my entire life) and more recently, it has also become National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). This is where aspiring novelists all over the globe jump into the frantic race to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. No, you can’t start early, but outlining is fair game. It’s a collective attempt to outwit the brutal critic in each of our heads and just throw those words down on the page. NaNoWriMo has great slogans to encourage writing without judging yourself like, “No plot? No problem.”

As I mentioned in my post last week, I don’t have trouble getting my butt in the chair, and getting the words down. But in 2010, I got excited about the idea of doing NaNoWriMo, because I was a new mom, and worried that I’d never write again. I even dragged my partner to do it with me, to give us a shared project beyond parenting.

I had already “finished” three different novels, and I was starting the literary agent querying process. I needed some momentum to work on a new book. NaNoWriMo was perfect. It became a little less perfect when I sort of lost interest in my NaNo book. But I wanted to reach the finish line.

As November 2010 chugged along, I crammed the writing in to the tiny spaces between new motherhood and teaching and cleaning the house (if I cleaned at all). I was on track in terms of word count, but by mid-month, I found myself standing in front of my students, so sleep-deprived and depleted that I couldn’t finish a sentence.

So I stopped writing it and caught up on my sleep (as much as a new mom can) and started querying agents with the book that was “done.”

The following year, I needed NaNoWriMo again. I hadn’t gotten an agent, but one of them liked the book and had referred me to a freelance editor. She was very brilliant but chaotic, and consistently missed her deadlines in sending me her edits, so I needed to write a new book to keep from going crazy. I outlined like a champ in October, and I kept up my word count in November. I did it! I won NaNoWriMo. 50,000 words in a month. And the book is good. It’ll need a LOT of revision, but it’s good. One day, I’ll turn it from a first draft into a novel I can be proud of.

I’ve missed NaNoWriMo the past few years, but this year I’m back. And I am actually under a deadline: I sold that first book in a two-book deal. At the time I sold it, I had only a sketchy paragraph about the second book. This past spring, I delivered an outline to my publisher, and she approved it with a few revisions. There, I have the perfect NaNoWriMo novel. I really need to bang out a first draft to get something down.

Yet, November first came and went with me still working on another project—a book proposal for a collection of essays that I needed to get back to my agent so she can edit it and hopefully shop it before the end of the year. November second came and I sent the book proposal out the door, but needed to finish an article I promised to BuzzFeed. I managed to pull up a few files of the NaNo book, but no real writing yet.

But I learned that NaNoWriMo isn’t about frantic energy, it’s about harnessing the collective energy of a million aspiring novelists. The official NaNoWriMo motto is that it’s about quantity not quality. And that’s also why it’s a month long. Sometimes it takes a while to get into a prolific groove. As the days chug by and I’m still at zero word count, I haven’t given up hope. I’m traveling this weekend. I’ll be flying from SFO to JFK today. Long waits at the airport? Cross-country flights? You’re playing my writerly siren song. So I’ll be getting my 50,000 words on at 50,000 feet. Book #2, here I come.

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Aya de Leon directs the Poetry for the People program in the African American Studies Department at UC Berkeley. Her work has appeared in Essence Magazine, xojane, Ebony, Guernica, Writers Digest, Mutha Magazine, Movement Strategy Center, My Brown Baby, KQED Pop, Bitch Magazine, Racialicious, Fusion, and she has been a guest on HuffPostLive. She is the author of the children's picture book PUFFY: PEOPLE WHOSE HAIR DEFIES GRAVITY. Kensington Books will be publishing her debut feminist heist novel, UPTOWN THIEF, in 2016. For more info, go to ayadeleon.wordpress.com.

This article has 2 Comments

  1. I can tell you’re a seasoned writer AND a NaNo pro 😉 While hitting daily word counts every day is the ideal, it’s not often practical unless you have no job, no family, no responsibilities, no expectations… Good luck with book 2 and happy writing!

  2. I love that line about harnessing the collective energy of a million aspiring novelists. I’m not doing NaNoWriMo, but I feel that energy humming in the air this month, and it’s helping me keep my own focus, even if it’s about copy edits, not creating, for me right now. Have fun in New York, and good luck at 50,000 feet!

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