Ryan Bigg

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NaNoWriMo Retro

03 Dec 2023

I spent the month of November writing 50,000 words for National Novel Writing Month. This makes me a NaNoWriMo “winner” and I get bragging rights for a whole year that I wrote a novel.

I’ve written quite a few books already, but all of them have been tech books. You could argue that at least one of them, Maintainable Rails, is a work of fiction based on its title alone… but that’s a long bow to draw and very subjective.

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for short) encourages budding novel authors to write a piece of fiction that’s 50,000 words long over an entire month. Traditionally the month to achieve this in is November. This works out to be 1,667 words a day or 3 full A4 pages of text, every single day, for 30 days straight.

I tried doing this last year and got up to 20,000 words and then bailed at the end of the 2nd week when I couldn’t work out where to take my characters next. I spent the whole year since then stewing on my “failure”.

This year, I intentionally kept my scope narrow. A small cast of characters and a tight location.

The premise: The protagonist is forced to return to the office of a large tech company, and discovers that the company has undergone a hostile takeover. The company starts encouraging a religious devotion and cult-like fervour for work. Colleagues who express the most devoutness for the company start getting promoted, and end up disappearing, with their disappearance explained away by upper management. The protagonist investigates their disappearance and discovers that things aren’t what they appear to be. They discover that the takeover was done by hostile entities from another reality who use the lives of the employees to fuel their conquest of this reality.

I chose this setting as a return to the office is a “nightmare situation” for me. (I exaggerate quite a lot here.) I live 250km+ from the nearest capital city, and commuting into an office would mean a 4 hour commute away, and that’s just one way. I’m sure if there was a “return to the office” mandate from where I work now, they would understand that the logistics of doing so are quite difficult!

For the book, I drew this “nightmare situation” far past its reasonable conclusion, and attempted to write something that skewered the almost cult-like devotion that large tech companies implicitly require from their employees.

Turns out, this was fertile ground as I was able to pull 50,028 words out based on the premise.

I spent October writing notes and ideas for the book into a single note file on my phone. Whenever I came up with an idea, no matter how silly, I wrote it down. This ended up being about 400 words itself.

Then when November 1 came around, I opened up Pages and the notes side by side and started writing based off the ideas. I started writing in a linear fashion, but after a few days I moved on from that and started writing whatever came to mind. I would think of a different scene, or even a different interpretation of an existing scene, and write the scene again, taking it in another direction.

This may seem counter-intuitive to writing a novel. But the choice I made was that this novel probably won’t ever see the light of day, at least in this incarnation, and so it didn’t matter if things weren’t a perfect line from start to end. So I sat down and wrote whatever I felt like, with an absolute insistence to myself and my family that I would hit the word target of 1,667 words each and every day for November.

And I managed to do that every day, bar one absolutely bonkers incredibly busy Tuesday in Week 3. The next day was brutal, and I ended up writing 3,500 with two writing sessions, one in the morning and one at night. After the night session, I went immediately to bed and slept the sleep of the dead. Thursday AM I wrote the daily quota in the morning, and Thursday PM went to bed at 8. Pushed super duper hard that week and certainly felt it!

In terms of things that helped: No Plot? No Problem! written by the guy who started NaNoWriMo, Chris Baty, helped set expectations for what to expect each week. The hyped exuberance of Week One, followed by the Pit of Despair and wanting to destroy everything of Week Two. Fucking hell, that was a rough week.

The other big thing: The overwhelming urge to let your Inner Editor rampage through your work all the time. I tried to keep him in his kennel, but he did escape from time to time.

The book was packed full of helpful advice from Chris and other NaNoWriMo winners with a touch of whimsy thrown in, I would recommend this guide for anyone else attempting this project too.

I wrote most mornings from 6amish to 7amish, while my daughter played on her iPad next to me on the desk. I occasionally wrote in the afternoons during a lunch break too. If I hadn’t finished writing by the night, I’d finish writing after my daughter went to bed. I managed to fit the writing in around my work and life schedule, without it interfering too much… although there were some times the dishes weren’t done or a gym session got missed.

Sometimes I wrote on my phone at the park while Ella played on the swings, or at swimming lessons while she was there too. Writing on the phone is quite slow compared to the bigger keyboard (about 30wpm vs 120wpm), but it meant that I could spend more time thinking about plot directions and what characters’ motivations were.

Now that the writing project is over, I’m going to let it sit for a while. I might revisit it, or I might not. I’m still feeling quite satisfied that this year I was able to write a “full novel”. Perhaps next year I could set the goal of publishing one? Either way, you can be sure I’ll be bragging about this all year.