Nano and Real Life

November 18, 2009


I spent the past four years doing Nano, the last three of them as a mentor. Hitting 50K wasn’t a problem in any of those years. Last year, I did Nano although life was a challenge due to an illness and subsequent death in the family. While I am very fond of the piece I worked on, and it will be rewritten enough to start the submission process early next year, I didn’t get out of the experience what I wanted and needed.

This year, I decided to make the sane choice and not to Nano. It was great Personal Drama for me, but I made the decision and stuck to it anyway. I’m juggling numerous deadlines and contracts, and I travelled every week in the entire month. There’s no way I could keep that kind of commitment to myself and my work without a major meltdown. Rather than setting myself up for frustration and failure from the outset, I passed.

The first few days I felt sulky and left out. I mean, thousands of people are writing in community, and here I was on the sidelines. I have very strong opinions about either you do Nano or you don’t. The parameters of Nano are that you start a new project and write 50K of new material for it in 30 days. You don’t use a current WIP and you don’t revise. There’s nothing wrong with writing in tandem with Nano and riding the energy wave of so much focused attention on the page, but unless you honor the premise of it, you’re not doing it. So, even though I wrote A LOT, I wasn’t doing Nano, and I didn’t pretend I was.

The further into the month we got, not only was I writing a lot, but I missed it less. That made me sit down and assess the pros and cons of Nano. Those who love Nano swear by it; those who hate it say you can’t write a real, publishable piece of work in 30 days.

I believe you can learn a lot during the process that, if you are serious about your writing, you can apply to your regular writing life.

–Quantity over Quality. The point of Nano is to spit out 50K of a first draft. You’re not supposed to go back and edit or slow down or anything else. Since each novel has its own innate rhythm, this can sometimes be counterproductive. Some novels just aren’t meant to be written at breakneck pace over a concentrated period of time.

–Creative Vampires. Whether it’s a Mentee who doesn’t respect you enough to keep his/her end of the commitment, or the person on the board whining about how hard it is or making excuses, a large percentage of Nanoers are trying to find shortcuts, easy ways, or suck the energy out of those who are sitting down and doing it.

–You have to be a Time Management Pro. Nano happens in November. That means the holiday season’s already started and will continue into the New Year. Thanksgiving falls in the month, along with pageants, exams, bad weather, and a myriad of other life challenges. If you suck at time management, you have two options: Learn to manage your time better or fail. Yes, life can and will throw some curve balls, and there will be times when a massive life emergency happens and Nano has to go on the backburner. There’s nothing wrong with that. And there’s always next year. But if you don’t learn to make writing a priority for the mere 30 days, you won’t be able to achieve Nano.

–By December 1, You’re so Burned out, the very Thought of Your Manuscript Makes You Want to Puke. Very few novels can be sold at 50K. You have to finish the manuscript. Unfinished manuscripts hang like albatrosses around your neck. They weigh you down and hurt your future work. Even if you decide to put the manuscript in the drawer for years once the draft is done, make sure the draft is DONE. That’s really tough after a month of breakneck writing. You can choose to either continue the pace into December until the manuscript is done (which, with holiday madness, could land you in the rubber room), or you can cut back your daily quota back to what feels like the novel’s natural rhythm. For me, that’s usually 1000-1500 words a day, although sometimes a piece only lets me write 500 words/day on it. Whatever it is, keep going until the draft is done, even if you’re burned out. If you’re serious about being a contracted, paid writer, you will have to write and meet your contract deadlines whether you feel like it or not. This is good training.

–January, the Edit Month, is Too Soon. The biggest mistake aspiring writers make is to finish their novels and immediately go into edits. Unless you’re on a contracted deadline and are behind, put it away for AT LEAST two months. Four to six months is often even better. When you go back to rewrite, revise, and edit, you MUST be able to look at it objectively, as though someone else wrote it. Finish the draft, even if it takes you into the following calendar year. And then put it away for a few months.

–What You Write During Nano Needs More Revision/Rewriting/Editing. This goes back to quantity over quality. Everything I’ve ever done for Nano needed far more drafts than work done outside of the Nano process in order to make it submissible. Again, that’ why time and distance before revision is so important.

–Do NOT Mention It was Written During Nano During the Query Process. That’s a major turn-off to editors and agents. They don’t want something slapped together in 30 days. They wanted a well-crafted book. Once you hit bestseller lists, the demands change, and they want more from you faster, but at the outset, keep your mouth shut. Let the info drop in post-publication interviews.

–More than 50K. I realized that I regularly write more than 50K in any given month, but it’s not all on one project. If I didn’t write a lot and across a wide variety of projects, I couldn’t pay the bills. And no, I do not churn out quick articles for content mills — they can’t afford me. I write quality pieces, but I do write a lot in any given month. Definitely more than 50K. Adding a 50K novel into that sometimes simply doesn’t make sense (like this year).

–Quantity over Quality. Huh? Wasn’t that also one of the Cons? Yup. But this is a first draft, and the point is to get words on paper. If you don’t get them on paper, you don’t have anything to revise. Those who claim they can’t finish anything because they’re perfectionists are lying to us and to themselves. It’s not about perfection, it’s about fear. Nano helps you let go of a lot of fear.

–Learning Your Novel’s Pace. Again, as I stated above, every novel has its own innate rhythm. Some of them aren’t right for Nano. You have to learn to choose a project that has a quick rhythm (which is different from a quickly-paced novel, which sometimes takes longer to write than a slower-paced-to-read novel that can be written more quickly). You learn to suit the project to the parameters, which is useful if you plan to hire out to anthologies or series or package deals or anything else.

–Riding the Energy Wave. Writing in community is often a great spur to creativity. You can tap in to the energy of thousands of other people whose goal is to write. You have built-in brainstorming groups, and you can attend write-ins and meetings if you choose. Just knowing there are a lot of other people out there going through similar experiences is often very helpful in getting you to the page each day.

–No room for Martyrs. No one cares about your excuses for not writing. You either write or you don’t write. The people who are writing are too busy writing to feel sorry for you.

–Learning about Scheduling and Personal Rhythms. Because I always go away for Thanksgiving, I like to front load Nano. If you plan an even writing rhythm every day, you only need to write 1667 words per day, about 7 pages. I commit to writing 2500 words per day, with an eye to hitting the 50K before Thanksgiving, and anything beyond that, is, pardon the pun, gravy. This way, if I have a bad day or something happens, I have words in the bank and don’t need to panic. I also learned that my best and most creative time is early in the morning, after yoga but before doing anything else. That is something I can carry over into my daily writing life, and is one of the ways I’ve applied Nano techniques successfully into my full time writing career. If someone else’s best time is late at night — go for it. There are always a few things you can rearrange in your schedule to leave you an hour or two of writing time when you’re at your best.

-Learning When to Outline and When to Fly. When I’m committed to writing 2500 words first thing every morning, it’s much easier for me to outline. I pull out my outline when I sit at the desk and I know what comes next. I don’t have to stare at a blank page. If, however, during the writing of a scene, I find a tangent, it’s the perfect opportunity to explore it. You’re upping your word count, and, if it doesn’t work, you can cut it later.

–You Learn To Treat Your Writing Time With Respect. You should already be doing this, but far too many people think if they rush around “doing for” others, it will be appreciated and, in return, the aspiring writer will be given the gift of writing time. Not going to happen. You have to set boundaries and make it clear that this is important for you. It’s often easier to do that during Nano because it’s a concentrated period of time and thousands of people around the world are doing it. If you’re with someone who doesn’t support your dreams or sabotages them, you’re with the wrong person, and you better get out now, because that kind of abuse only gets worse over time.

–You Have 50,000 More Words On a Single Project Than You Had a Month Ago. What you do with them is up to you, but you’ve got them!

Go forth and enjoy!

Devon Ellington publishes under a half a dozen names in both fiction and non-fiction. Keep up with her on the blog Ink in My Coffee.



  1. […] Still in DC. But I’ve got a post up on The Scruffy Dog Review blog about Nano and Real Life, so go check it out. […]

  2. How weird! I was searching for Scruffy Dog Photography and your blog came up….I had an urge to click on the link and saw your blog title of “Nano and Real Life”…just thought I’d say hi since I too did Nano this year! My first ever and I was very excited to get to 50k!

    I guess us Wrimo’s are everywhere, so I thought I’d say hi 🙂

    • Thanks for stopping by. Congrats on your Nano experience — great work!

  3. My spouse and I absolutely love your blog and find nearly all of your post’s to be precisely what I’m looking for.
    can you offer guest writers to write content available
    for you? I wouldn’t mind creating a post or elaborating on a number of the subjects you write regarding here. Again, awesome website!

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