NaNoWriMo Takeaways: Four Writers Divulge What They’ve Learned

Here’s a NaNoWriMo tip: When you’re writing your great opus, it’s okay to take breaks. (Photo by Thom Holmes @

I’ll admit that I’ve always been intrigued by National Novel Writing Month. Each November, writers sharpen their pencils and limber up their typing fingers so that they can attempt to write 50,000 words over the course of the month. It’s ambitious, it’s community driven, and it’s helped a lot of writers get unstuck by encouraging them to focus on getting the words down on the page. The edits and fixes and rewrites can come later.

As a writer who seems to be perpetually stuck, NaNoWriMo has some appeal. Still, the first two syllables of the abbreviation—“Nah, no”—have been a good description of my lack of participation so far.

I know many Iowa writers who do participate, however, and to kick off 2021 (a time of resolutions, after all), I interviewed four of them—Isaac Hamlet, Alex Penland, Cheryl Sease, and Erin Casey—to learn more about how NaNoWriMo worked for them in 2020. Here is a condensed version of what they told me. Sease is unpublished to date, while Hamlet, Penland, and Casey (the latter two of whom you have met previously in this column) have self-publishing experience. Casey plans to self-publish her latest NaNoWriMo project, while the other three plan to at least test the waters to see if they can land an agent and a traditional publishing deal.

How many words did you write in November, and did you hit your goal? Are you happy (or happy-ish) with the content?

Hamlet: I cheated this year and started with about 15,000 already written in my novel (titled Counting Worms), so I only wrote about 35,000 words in the month of November. So I hit my base goal, though not my more ambitious goal of around 65,000. . . . I’ll say that I’m not as in love with what I have right now as I usually am, but I also know I wouldn’t have gotten this far if I didn’t have a complete story that I liked somewhere in here. . . .

Penland: I worked on an existing project, but I wrote 50,000 words. I’m definitely happy with them. The book isn’t quite done yet, but it’s much closer than when I started… It’s a post-apocalyptic portal fantasy where the Chosen One arrives too late; she ends up wandering the dead planet, searching for artifacts with which to fix it.

Sease: My initial goal with NaNoWriMo was to make the 50,000 words. I reached that about middle of the month, then decided my next goal was to write every day for the rest of the month. Next I decided I would try for a first draft. I had the story in my head, if not a formal outline, and that helped. I ended up with 82,289 words. I’m insanely happy with that, and I’m still in disbelief. . . . but the editing and research are going to be brutal. Did I have fun, though? Oh, yes. I’ve moved on from “I’m never doing that again” to “Well, maybe.”

Casey: This year I managed to write 61,193 words, which is the highest amount I’ve written for NaNo in several years. I’m actually shocked I made it that far. When I started the month, I told myself I’d be fine if I only got a few thousand words out. You see, I lost my mom in March this year, and I’ve barely been able to write. I think she was giving me a little nudge to keep working on my series. She was one of my biggest supporters and fans when it came to writing. . . .

I worked on the third book of The Purple Door District series. . . . I wrote the first book in the series for NaNo in 2017, and then worked on book two in 2018 while I was publishing book one. So my books exist because of NaNo.

What advice would you give someone —especially if they don’t want to wait until next November?

Hamlet: [P]ick something you really, really love writing about. For example, my 2018 novel is a book set in a far-past, post-apocalyptic future that is meant to replicate the oral storytelling tradition of this imagined culture. I picked that idea not because I thought I’d be able to sell it, but because I knew that every day when I sat down to write, I’d be excited about what came next.

So my advice for anyone is “find an idea.” It doesn’t have to be a good idea, it doesn’t have to be original, it doesn’t even necessarily have to be fully formed—but find an idea you love.

Penland: There’s really nothing that beats putting your butt in the chair and writing. It helps to be aware of yourself and your habits in order to set realistic goals. Ask yourself: What do you tend to prioritize? When do you write best? How fast do you write? And armed with that information, tell yourself what you want to get done. . . .

I can’t sit down and write every day. I deal with depression and anxiety, I’ve got grad school, I’ve got a social life—things get in the way. But I can sit down and write for a full day every week or so and get a chunk done at once. I can fiddle around with writing-related things (making languages, drawing maps) when I’ve got a moment. And those things add up. I find it helps me stay on task if I set long-term goals rather than daily ones.

Sease: [M]y advice for someone trying to reach a writing goal is to create a writing schedule. It doesn’t have to be as rigorous as NaNoWriMo, but books don’t get written without doing the writing. . . .

Another thing I learned from NaNo-WriMo was that pushing on when I hit a stumbling block instead of going back to edit really created momentum. I usually don’t work that way. By pushing on, it became similar to a free write. When I didn’t know what to write next, I just wrote anything and ideas came to me that wouldn’t have otherwise. So write consistently, keep writing when you don’t know what to write, and don’t get bogged down by things that can be fixed in the edit.

Casey: First, if you still want to be part of NaNo and don’t want to wait for November, the program also offers Camp NaNo, which happens a few times during the year. You set your own word count and you write alongside a bunch of other people for a month. NaNo also has started this new thing where you can enter in projects and set goals throughout the year, so that’s a way to keep yourself accountable.

Otherwise, if you want to begin goal-setting, remember to start small. It’s better to feel accomplished with a lower word count and work your way up than to start at a large word count and get disappointed if you don’t make it.

Be patient and kind with yourself as you work towards your goals; it’s okay to take breaks. Sometimes your brain needs it so you can come back to the book with a fresh mind. Also, consider doing word sprints! Set a timer for 15 or 20 minutes and see how much writing you can get out in that time. Do it with some friends and make it a friendly competition! And for those of you who are intimidated by 50,000 words, it’s okay. If you only write 10,000 or 20,000 words in the month of November, that’s still more than what you would have written. Happy writing!