Top 3 takeaways from my first NaNoWriMo win


image credit: jonas vincent

Top 3 Takeaways From My First NaNoWriMo Win

As I mentioned to the awesome folks getting the Thrill of the Unknown newsletter (100% shameless plug), I was planning on participating in NaNoWriMo again this year.

I’ve participated for several years now but never officially “won” and this year I was determined to see it through to the end.



What the hell is NaNoWriMo?

For those of you that still have no clue what I’m referring to, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. Every November over 300K people take on the challenge to write 50,000 words in 30 days.

It’s free to join and I’ve always had lots of fun participating. They offer local and digital write-in events. Plus it’s a very supportive community. Which isn’t all that surprising given that our idea of “fun” is torturing ourselves with the task of writing a novel in 30 days. Some even write those 50,000 words only by hand! Talk about physical torture.

“Do you at least get a prize if you win?”

Well, no, not exactly. It’s a non-profit after all.

If you reach the 50,000 word count you get a digital winner’s certificate and, more importantly, a sense of great pride and accomplishment in yourself (price tag = priceless?). There are also special discounts available for writing tools and resources like Scrivener.


My new approach to NaNoWriMo

This year I decided to do a few things differently. And I’m super pleased with the results.

To be completely frank with you, I totally kicked ass this year. 💥🥊

I logged in my final word count at 51,106 words on November 22nd. A full eight days before the deadline.

Given this result, I’ve been reviewing the how and why I won this year. What specifically did I do that made such a big difference compared to all the previous years? What are the lessons learned that I could share with others and apply elsewhere?

Without further ado, here are my top three takeaways from my new approach that I believe helped me win NaNoWriMo:

1. Give yourself permission to suck

image credit: alice achterhof

The point of NaNoWriMo isn’t to write a NY Times bestselling novel. It’s to simply write 50,000 words. Even if it’s just a jumbled mess of incoherent thoughts and random words about your novel. It still counts.

Perfectionism is one of my stumbling blocks. If I’m not careful I will give myself the expectation that I have to write this mind-blowingly epic masterpiece on the first try.

Yes, seriously.

You can imagine how that train wreck goes. It’s way too much pressure on myself.

I mentally start to freak out and the creativity process comes to a complete halt. My inner critic then sees this as her moment of glory. She pops up and starts her monologue on how it’s not good enough and there’s much better writing out there in the world.

In an effort to combat this problem, this year I decided to give myself permission to just completely and totally suck at this.

Every day I reminded myself of this commitment by writing the following before I got started:

I give myself permission to write horrible + grammatically incorrect words and sentences.

And it worked.

That insane pressure? Whoosh – gone.

I was able to keep the creativity juices flowing and had a blast with the writing process.

Plus I was able to tell my inner critic: “Yes, yes, thank you for your input! I know it sucks. It’s SUPPOSED to suck. Now, GO BACK TO YOUR HOVEL! I’ll ring for you when you’re needed.”


This experience has lead me to start looking at other areas in my life where I can apply this same strategy.

Now I’m not suggesting this is the right approach in every situation.

I’d be personally terrified if I was going in for brain surgery and overheard my surgeon giving himself a little pep-talk that it’s “totally okay to suck at this.”

Umm, no thank you. I’d leap off the operating table and flee the room.

But for those projects and tasks that don’t really matter – like a first draft – giving yourself permission to suck may be just the right approach to keep the perfectionism at bay.


2. Find the right music to inspire + motivate

image credit: eric nopanen

I don’t usually listen to music when writing. I’ve found it to be really distracting. Even Bach and Mozart.

Given my past negative experiences, I’d completely written off this technique. I figured I was one of those people where it just didn’t work.

A year or so ago I stumbled upon Audiomachine and Two Steps From Hell during one of my failed attempts to find the end of the internet. They create music for movie and videogame trailers. I found some of the songs moving and added them to my workout playlist to alleviate the complete mental boredom of running on a treadmill.

I figured that’s where they’d stay.

During the first week of NaNoWriMo one day I felt completely uninspired and just stared at the blinking cursor for who knows how long. I decided to give Audiomachine a try at the whole motivating music thing since I had nothing to lose if it failed like all the others.

After a few minutes it felt like a faucet was turned on and now I was hunched over the screen frantically typing to keep up with the mental images pouring through my brain.

In the blink of an eye I went from 0 to 3900 words.

Chalk it up to chance? No, I repeated similar results multiple times throughout those 22 days.

I’d simply found the right music for novel writing.

Now I’m curious about applying music to other areas. What type of music might work best for writing articles? Or editing? Or even housekeeping? And, perhaps more importantly, what other techniques have I completely dismissed when all that was required was some tweaking?

If you don’t find music inspiring for writing like I originally thought, maybe you haven’t found “your music” yet either. Or maybe you never will and inspiration will come to you in a different form like art and drawings. Or maybe it will be something completely unexpected.

But keep trying new things until you find what works for you.


3. Establish a minimum tactic for those “bad” days

image credit: kristopher roller 

I applied the minimum tactic concept to NaNoWriMo for the first time this year.

The sole purpose of the minimum tactic is to help you maintain progress even when you feel like shit. You do this by doing the least amount of work – such as 1 pushup or 50 words – when you’ve hit a mental wall and then chalk it all up as a win.

Because progress is progress. No matter how small.

I’ve written more about minimum tactics here and I continue to believe it’s the best strategy for helping me to fight an all-or-nothing mindset.

What do I mean by all-or-nothing? Well, for example, if I feel like I can’t write 2,000 words today, I have a strong tendency to not write any words at all. Since I already can’t meet that daily count (aka failure), why bother with anything?

This doesn’t just apply to writing either. I’ve seen this same negative thinking pattern in all areas of my life such as exercise, eating healthy, housekeeping, etc.

I know it sounds completely silly to a lot of people. But I also recognize it’s something I need to be diligent about or it will trip me up.

My solution is to set two different tactics for myself – a high-end and a low-end.

The high-end tactic is for those days when I feel productive and energetic. The low-end is for those days when I feel the complete opposite. When I encounter a “bad” day, I focus solely on completing the low-end tactic. That way I’m still able to maintain progress and keep my momentum.

For NaNoWriMo, my high-end tactic was to write 2,000 words every day, including weekends. The low-end tactic was to continue to write every day, but only 500 words.

Except for three days, I passed the 2,000 word count.

And as for those three “bad” days? I still met my minimum tactic of 500 words. 😊


Not every day is going to feel like a home run.

I’ve had more success in my personal life by acknowledging this simple fact and working it into my planning strategy than anything else.

NaNoWriMo was just another positive example of this.


Now, it’s your turn. I’d love to hear from you!

Did you participate in NaNoWriMo? How did you do? What were your takeaways + lessons learned this year?  

Thanks for reading,

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