50,000 Words in 30 Days

November 15, 2007 | 6 3 min read

This November, three of my bravest (read: most insane) students are participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). While some of you may make fun of NaNoWriMo enthusiasts, I hold my tongue, for writing 50,000 words (no matter how poorly chosen) in only 30 days is impressive. Besides, another student of mine, Kelly Wiles, participated two years ago, and after over a year of diligently revising her manuscript, she has a clever and very readable novel, ready to send out to agents. So there.

Kelly participated in NaNoWriMo because her friend bribed her with a week’s worth of free coffee, and because she’d been lately caught in a web of procrastination, unable to finish anything she eventually started. Is this why my other students are currently undergoing such creative lunacy?

Paria Kooklan, who’s writing a children’s fantasy novel that includes ghosts, time travel and a Scottish castle, actually had three chapters of the book before she began. She’s been trying to write this novel since graduating from law school two years ago; after months of being in outline purgatory, she then wrote and rewrote the beginning. She hopes NaNoWriMo, in forcing her to move forward and not edit, will help her overcome writer’s block. This extreme process, she says, may be her only hope.

Caroline Donahue “desperately clawed” her way through last year’s NaNoWriMo without any prior preparation and loved it, even though she hasn’t worked on the manuscript since. The process was liberating, she said: she could indeed write enough words to fill a book! This year Caroline has prepared in advance, picking a story that will hold her interest once the month is over – in this case, historical fiction about art forgery and theft in Paris during the German occupation. Although Caroline has a blog and contributes to another, and has been writing short stories for my classes, she says she doesn’t write nearly as much as she’d like. She hopes the momentum of NaNoWriMo will help her keep up a regular writing practice in the future.

Manny Chavarria is writing a mystery/horror/love story involving a fictionalized version of himself hiring a private detective to find a girl he’s lost – but he assures me it’s much more grotesque than that. Like Caroline and Paria, before this month, Manny wasn’t writing as much as he’d like. Without structure, he was slacking off, and real life was intruding.

Aside from Joyce Carol Oates, I doubt anyone is writing as much as they’d like to. When things aren’t going well with my work, I often question my writing process: maybe, I reason, I should stop reading each paragraph out loud, or maybe I should write by hand, or maybe I should write in the evening instead of the morning… I could go on forever like this. The funny thing is, I’ve never been able to change my creative routine. I’m pretty certain that if I did participate in NaNoWriMo, once December rolled around, I’d be back to my daily tortoise-pace, editing as I wrote, planning ahead, and so on.

But Kelly tells me that NaNoWriMo did change her writing process for the better. She says a month of maniac output taught her how to deal with writer’s block; now she doesn’t worry if her prose isn’t perfect, she simply keeps writing because she knows inspiration will return, and because revision will always rescue a bad sentence.

These are terrific lessons, but as Paria says, “Not everyone needs to take such extreme measures. If you already have a writing practice you’re comfortable with, you don’t necessarily need to do it.” Thank you, Paria.

Part of me thinks writing a novel in 30 days would take some joy out of the process. A novel is much larger in scope than a short story, and the complexity of that world demands time to explore it. I don’t want to rush through the first draft of my book because I’m enjoying the process of investigation and experimentation. Writing a novel, for me, is more than putting one word in front of the other.

Still, I must admit, I’m a little envious of my students: the way the nearly impossible word count sends their characters in surprising directions; the community of writers the project provides, and the good old fashioned competition among friends who are also participating; the feeling of success with each daily goal reached, the column of pages rising and rising and rising.

All of my students say NaNoWriMo isn’t as hard as they thought it would be, and that the amount of work they’ve already accomplished is invigorating. I applaud them, and I look forward to reading their new books!

is a staff writer and contributing editor for The Millions. She is the author of the novella If You're Not Yet Like Me, the New York Times bestselling novel, California, and Woman No. 17. She is the editor of Mothers Before: Stories and Portraits of Our Mothers As We Never Saw Them.


  1. Having NaNo'ed myself two years ago, I can whole-heartedly agree with Kelly. It's a revolutionary experience that will change you forever — if only in little ways. The fact that you call your process "tortoise-pace" shows you may be less than comfortable with parts of it. By exploring, you'll discover new ways of working that you never imagined before… and you're always free to keep the aspects of your process that you do like.

    For me, writing a novel in 30 days BRINGS joy to the process! You have to keep writing those words, so you have to keep coming up with interesting things to keep going. When you banish the "That would never work" censor to his cave, all sorts of magical characters, events, and settings suddenly appear. NaNo is great because it forces you to be all right-brain all the time. It rewards investigation and experimentation because it increases your word-count!

    Tough and manic as it was, my NaNo month was still one of the fondest memories of my life. My NaNo novel will take months of editing to get anywhere close to saleable, but it's still one of the most beautiful things I've ever written.

  2. Thanks so much for your comment, tkersh. I love the positive perspective, and you may be right, that perhaps I'm not wholly comfortable with my writing process. Still, I have a feeling the extreme nature of the NaNoWriMo isn't for me–but I love hearing about others doing it!

  3. Oh, and one more thing: One of the joys of writing for me is writing each sentence, really paying attention to the language. It seems to me that NaNoWriMo places the emphasis elsewhere–moving the story forward. That's terrific in some ways, but for those writers who revel in the language-making aspect of writing, the process might be without magic. Maybe I'm wrong?

  4. I'm with you, Edan (great piece, by the way). I find myself hung up on "language and the representation of consciousness," in James Wood's formulation, and sometimes wish my gifts, such as they are, ran more toward plot. I'm reading Balzac right now, and I envy what I call his Seven-League Boots, wherein he leaps broad swaths of event in a single bound. That said, when I want a book to lose myself in, I always find myself coming back to more language-driven things, which I guess makes me both a suspect reviewer and a poor candidate for NaNoWriMo. I admire those who are cut out for such work!

  5. What a bizarre and intriguing idea–I may try to import it into the realm of academic writing by declaring a National Dissertation Writing Month.

    I may, in fact, be forced to declare such a month for myself this May if the pace at which I am now writing continues to afflict me.

    Procrastinating, as ever, Emily

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