What I learned from Nanowrimo

I originally posted this to Reddit r/writing. It was taken down immediately by the AutoModerator bot for violating a rule against “promotion and solicitation of [your] discord servers.” I messaged the admins to ask for approval, and got no response, so I’ll post it here instead.

Nanowrimo (https://nanowrimo.org/) is the National Novel Writing Month. In short, it’s a challenge to write 50,000 words (on average, at least 1,667 words each day) during the month of November.

I’ve made a halfhearted effort at it a few times in previous years and gave up by day 2 or 3. I always believed that before I could write the first sentence of the first chapter, I had to have an outline of my entire story in my head so I’d know where I’m going with it. Without knowing where I wanted to go and how I was going to get there, it would be like hopping in my car and driving around randomly, and that would never bring me anyplace interesting or meaningful, right? But I never had more than a few ideas to begin with – some characters I wanted to use, some scenes I wanted to write.

I resolved to do Nano this year to prove to myself that I could. But November 1 came before I could think up my entire story. So, I did the only thing I could do: I began writing and hoped that the ideas would come to me. (This is what they call seat-of-your-pants writing, or ‘pantsing.’) And, to my surprise, the ideas came.

So I’d like to share the things I learned from the experience.

First, sit down and write. Really. Got an idea for a character? Write about them. Throw some challenges at them and see how they react. Have an idea for a scene you’d like to write, but you don’t know how to get there in your story or what to do with it afterwards? Write it out anyway. Time spent dumping your thoughts out onto a page is better than time spent thinking about what you might write if you were to write. You can’t improve something that hasn’t been written yet.

And while you’re writing, kick your inner editor to the curb. Don’t agonize over a sentence or a paragraph and get hung up rewriting it over and over until it’s ‘perfect.’ It’s much more important to get the words onto the page and keep going.

I recommend you don’t ask for feedback on your first paragraph or even your first sentence. That’s like mixing flour and sugar and then asking people “is this going to be a good cake?” You need to finish making the cake first so that you can see how it comes out and how you want to improve it.

Second, your first draft will be terrible. (Most likely.) Don’t fret – everybody’s is. The goal is to create something that you can work with. When you’re finished writing, that’s when the editing phase begins, and each time you edit it you’ll find more ways to make it better.

I found that, freed from the obligation to write sparkling prose in my first draft, I actually avoided writer’s block. Any time I didn’t know what to write next, I just picked the first thing that came to mind – like once, in the place where I was writing there was samba music playing, so I decided to put my characters into a dance hall with a Latin band on stage and imagine what they’d do from there. The scene I came up with might not get into any subsequent drafts, but it contributed to my 50,000-word goal, and a few ideas appeared in there that I could go in new directions with.

Third, you need the right tools to write with. The app “Scrivener” (for Windows, Mac, and iOS) seems to be the most popular these days; it lets you organize your sections and your notes. It’s often available at a discount. Also, to get past basic issues with grammar, tense, and word choice (because those can be hard to see in our own work), “Grammarly” and “ProWritingAid” are popular.

Fourth, find a community to encourage you and support you. Reddit has a lot of good people on it, but I got frustrated when I posted something for critique and someone said it was bad because the genre ‘wasn’t his thing.’ So I found a writing group on Discord. I give constructive criticisms of their work and they do the same for mine; we get to know each other and it helps us all become better writers and better critics.

And finally, do whatever works for you. All of my suggestions here could be wrong, so if you’ve found something different that helps you, stick with it.

I ‘won’ Nano this year; I stuck to my goal of writing at least 1,667 words per day and double that on Saturdays and Sundays, and I crossed the finish line on November 22. The ‘novel’ I came up with is hardly a novel and isn’t even really a coherent story, and I don’t know whether it’s something I’ll continue to work on … but the important thing is that it exists and I could work on it, and I’ve proved to myself that I can find the time and make the effort if I really want to. It’s a good feeling. I’ll do Nano again, and next time I’ll work on having a clearer idea and a workable outline before November starts.

Keep writing!


For my birthday Sara gifted me a subscription to Storyworth. I’m having a great time using it all wrong.

For a year’s subscription of $99, Storyworth (storyworth.com) sends you questions about your life. You submit your answers, and when the subscription is up they’ll print everything into a book and send it to you. The questions are chosen by the gifter (as Sara did in my case) from a list of several hundred suggested by the site, such as What television programs did you watch as a child? What things are you proudest of in your life? What was one of the best dates you’ve been on? How is your faith different from your parents’ faith? What is one of the strangest things you’ve ever eaten? How has your life turned out differently than you imagined it would? Or the questions can be chosen randomly, or the writer can choose a different question, or either person can write up new questions. Nothing strict about it.

Each week, the next question is emailed to the writer. He or she can submit an answer by email, or use a simple text editor on the Storyworth web site to submit and tweak the answer. I initially had trouble with the submit-by-email feature in that it would join my paragraphs together or split an existing paragraph into new ones seemingly at random; this is anathema to a writer. After a few false starts at understanding the problem, tech support suggested I stick to submitting and editing via the web site, and that’s worked fine for me so far. (I do my writing in a text file on my own computer, and copy/paste it to the site. That way I have my own copies of my answers – just in case.)

There aren’t any options for presentation (there’s a predefined font, and no boldface or italics), but the site seems to do a nice job of formatting the text when I look at one of my answers as a PDF. The nice thing is that it’s completely freeform: I can go back and edit my past answers any time (or even submit answers in the first place if I had skipped any weeks), even past the end of the subscription. After the year is up, whenever I feel satisfied with everything, I can submit the order for my book.

So here’s how I’ve been using it wrong. The site seems like a perfect fit for anyone who’d like to chronicle details about their lives for posterity; it could even be a great tool for someone who’d like to ask these questions of a family member and give them a book of their answers. Neither of these use cases are me, however. I’m an aspiring fantasy writer who has trouble figuring out what to write. And that’s where this service excels; it has a year’s worth of prompts and a soft deadline for each. I’ve been responding to the prompts with a somewhat fictionalized version of my own life, introducing any elements I’d like to work into them while basing them on my own experiences, seeing if there are common threads I can pull through the weeks. It keeps me writing on a regular basis, and it keeps me thinking creatively. It’s a great experience.

Today I need to finish up my fourth answer and go back and figure out how to conclude my second, and then tomorrow comes my fifth question.


On a balcony at a cottage on the Atlantic beach, I’m warming myself in the morning sun. The waves crash against the sand below me. Seagulls and pelicans hover above; they aim a hungry eye in my direction, decide I neither have fish nor am fish, and move on.

I’ve left the world for a little while so I can decide whether I want to rejoin it.

Beside me is my knapsack with a book inside. I haven’t written in the book in the past eight months. I tell myself that I have no intention of writing in it today either, and that I really had no purpose in even bringing it with me in the first place; but both I and the book know that’s a lie. I pull it from the knapsack and set it on the table before me. It’s hardbound in bright blue. The only marking on it is a large lower-case ‘f’ in white on the front cover. I open it.

The pages inside depict a multitude of faces of people as they go about their day. Many genders, many ages, some of the images are of couples together, a few of them are cats. They notice me and hesitate, peer at me animatedly from the pages. I flip past most of them. Finally I find the page with the image of a woman in her late twenties – it’s a drawing, a self-portrait of the artist. It’s remarkably good.

She looks surprised to see me. “Where have you been?” she asks, curious.

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On writing

Once upon a time there is an angsty teenage boy who thinks he knew all about love. To teach him a lesson, Eros turns him into an animal and sends him out to challenge his belief and to find what love really is. The boy meets a grumpy old hunter who is seeking courage – the only thing he’s not brave enough to do is to live his own life for himself and take responsibility for his own choices. Together the pair follow the yellow brick road to the ruins of an emerald city, wherein lives a sorceress who they hope can give them what they lack – but she turns out to be as beautiful as she is unkind, and she … well, she does something … and the hunter tries to sacrifice himself but the boy saves him from it and helps him realize how selfish his decision was. The hunter wanted to know how to stop caring about everyone, but in the end, instead he learns how to make a choice to care about another person. And the boy learns that there is more than romantic love – there’s the kinship he feels with this grumpy old hunter, though neither will ever admit it…

… no, that just won’t work. It’s contrived and boring, and I can’t think of anything for the villain to do or any reason why she should be doing it.

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Fan fiction

I found myself nose-to-nose with a ferret – in a figurative sense at least, as he stood on his hindpaws to roughly half my height. He was standing on the doorstep. Paws clasped together in earnestness. Friendly smile on his face. “Budgeron Ferret,” he said by way of introduction, “and I understand you could use my help. May I come in? And do you have tea?”

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Floyd Norman, Disney Legend

Floyd NormanA few months ago, I attended an interview with Floyd Norman. Floyd is a Disney Legend – “the first African-American at Disney,” he says. He got his start in animation, but his career really took off when Walt himself asked him to help with the story on The Jungle Book.

During the interview, he said a lot about the creative process. I took notes. (My notes weren’t exact, so most quotes below are paraphrased.)

Creative people are more willing to take a risk, he explained. “Creativity is not being afraid to be different, and to be a little bit nuts.” He talked about his job being a collaboration between art, creativity, and technology. “Walt and his colleagues were just making stuff up. The painters, the cameramen, et cetera – they learned and made it up as they went along.” His career has spanned from Sleeping Beauty all the way to Monsters Inc.; he explained that Pixar is very much like the Hyperion studio in the 1930s. Because no one had done it before, there was nothing telling them they couldn’t do it.

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Lazy day

“What is your favorite way to spend a lazy day?”

I was born the year that “Information Overload” became a thing. I grew up with the Internet supplying whatever I wanted to know about whatever. Before the World-Wide Web there was USENET, so instead of Googling for an answer I would post a question to a newsgroup; people eager to show off would be quick to share their information and their opinions. So not only did I learn details about technology and politics and religion and economics, but I also learned the points on which people disagree and I got to see them spar in public. This is arguably a better way to learn than reading a Wikipedia article.

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This is a eulogy for Larry, eight years too late.

Once upon a time, a very long time ago, I was an innocent young Ivy League graduate with an engineering degree and no idea what to do with it. I took the first job offer I got: with Oracle, the database company in California. They had no idea what to do with me. They threw me into a three-week crash course in databases, then let me pick what group I wanted to join. I chose Tech Support.

Tech Support had no idea what to do with me either. I was assigned to the desktop team. They gave me a PC running Windows 3.1 (a very long time ago, remember!), and told me I had to resolve a certain number of customer tickets each week.

The transition from college life to the Real World had been a difficult one. No longer were there letter grades to tell me well I was (or wasn’t) doing! I had no objective way to compare myself with other people and objectively see if I was screwing up! But suddenly this closed ticket count took that place in my life and became the measure thereof, and I worked hard to get that number high and keep it at the top of the weekly department report. There were no company incentives for this, of course; as long as the quotas were met, upper management didn’t care about individual performance. I cared, but nobody else did.

Especially Larry. Larry didn’t care at all.

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