This year I set out to write a complete story in the span of 30 days. My plan was to write every weekday and not stop to edit until the whole draft was done. Despite the fact that I ramble often for other people, I have never sustained a personal writing project of such duration and frequency. This experience was not unlike whole30 or 30-day-fix, or at least I imagine they are comparable. Here’s what I learned from completing my first Nanowrimo.

Learn from previous mistakes.

This is my third attempt at Nanowrimo and first time finishing. Actually, it’s the first time I’ve even sustained the effort for the entire month. Most of the time I gave up before the second week was over. The only reason I made it this time was because I had a plan based on mistakes I’d made the first two times. I wrote by hand to get myself into a different head space since I work on the computer all day already. I found a semi-regular time to write and gave myself alternate times in case things did not go as planned. (Which was frequently.)

Pursue my own goals.

The official marker of success with National Novel Writing Month is to write 50,000 words in 30 days. My final word count was about 13,200 and I wrote actively for maybe 25 days this month. In previous stages of my life, I would have considered this failure. But some people run marathons and some people run 5Ks. I am just proud to have finished. (That’s what she…never mind.) When I planned it out, I knew that I wouldn’t need 50,000 words to tell this story. So I didn’t make that my goal. Especially since becoming a parent, I have learned to value economy and efficiency in setting and reaching my goals.

Embrace shitty first drafts.

There are lots of reasons I chose to write my story longhand. Besides wanting to avoid the distractions of writing at the computer, I also wanted to curb my impulse to overedit. Had I typed the first draft and had the option to revise as I wrote, I’m convinced it would have taken much longer for me to finish writing. Throwing the words out on paper (in pen, no less) got me into the “just keep writing” mindset. Knowing I’ll be able to edit the transcript later helped me keep pushing when the words felt awkward.

Privacy is liberating.

I thought about sharing the story as I wrote it or even just small snippets. Ultimately I decided against it because I didn’t want the pressure of producing “finished” work. Almost everything I write these days is intended to be read by someone else, which seems kind of obvious until I consider the enormous quantity of words I used to write privately in my journals. Most of these words were about boys or Jesus (and sometimes confusing the two) but there was a certain freedom in that privacy. Knowing that I wasn’t going to share this first draft prevented me from dawdling over plot snags and bumps in the language. It was useful to post updates and get encouragement about my word count and scene schedule.

Inspiration and interest cannot replace planning and practice.

This is actually a general life lesson that has finally taken root over the last five years or so. When I was younger, I relied on passion and talent to carry me through. That pretty much stopped working after I graduated college but I didn’t realize it until several years later. I’ve learned that you’ve got to have dedication and a plan to keep you going when passion fizzles. (Which will be frequently.) It might be less romantic and inspirational than just letting words flow from my pen, but for this project I followed the Snowflake Method to map my story out completely ahead of time. This was super helpful when I inevitably got lost in the weeds of a particular bit of dialogue. (Knowing I had a schedule to keep was a good motivator too.)

Writing is a muscle.

It seems appropriate that my 30 days of fiction writing coincided with a two-month course of daily HIIT workouts lasting 30 minutes or less. As my body got stronger with daily exercise, so did my writing. By the end of this month, my focus was a lot better. I could write (slowly) even with a toddler running around. I was also sufficiently immersed in the story that I could write a few paragraphs at a time, go do something else, and come back to it later without too much difficulty. That might seem like the opposite of focus, but for me, not needing to lock myself in a dark cave for seven hours in order to write is a big win. That kind of dedicated time just isn’t available to me in this stage of life. On the second to last day of the month, I threw down a draft of a very emotional labor-intensive piece in about two hours. I’m not confident I could have done that a month ago.

The ability to write isn’t some divine spark that some people get and others don’t. It’s a skill you can learn and a skill you must practice. If you write every day, even a little bit, you will be able to write harder, better, faster, stronger.