3 Things I Discovered With a 50,000-word Goal and a Tight Deadline

A look back on my first NaNoWriMo-esque challenge after finishing early

I was minding my own business, writing to process thoughts, emotions, and life in general like I always do when it started to take the shape of a nonfiction book. 

Over the last few months, I have been doing quite a bit of inner work and felt like I was close to something important. But no matter how much I tried, I couldn’t figure it out. So I just kept writing. For months, I wrote and wrote. And in many cases, I thought, Hey, this could be a blog. So I would polish it up and then publish it.

When I had done that several times, I thought, Hey, these blogs actually fit well together. So I put them in one doc and started filling in the gaps.

One day I sat back and thought, Oh. It’s a book. I’m writing a book. I mean, I knew that’s what I was doing, but I was in denial. Though I was doing something I’ve always wanted to, I didn’t tell anyone — not even my husband. Even in my own mind, I didn’t call it a book. I didn’t know why, but I carefully kept it secret.

Finally, a couple weeks in, I told my coach. As a fellow writer, she was excited for me but asked why I hadn’t told anyone else. I didn’t exactly know, but I felt squirrelly about the whole thing — about writing it, calling it a book, telling people about it, everything. I’ve been writing basically my whole life, but I’ve also always been private about it; I rarely shared my finished work with anyone. I also told her that I didn’t want to make a big deal out of it, and I didn’t know if I could do it. 

She stopped me there, “Hold on. It’s not a question of ‘can’ — you’re doing it. You are doing it. So it’s not a question of can because we already know that to be true.”

I was silent for a while. Uncharacteristically. Then I smiled as the lightbulb flicked on, and I bobbed my head. “I am doing it. I’m doin’ it!” So my coach gave me an assignment for that week: Tell at least 10 people that I was writing a book. I started that night and found that once I told one person, I couldn’t stop. I texted every person I talk to regularly, and they were all super supportive and excited. I was most nervous about telling my family, but I told even them. My mom, bless her heart, said, “It’s about time!” with maybe 20 exclamation marks.

My brother-in-law (BIL) is also a writer, so I told him I was working on a book, that it started organically, and that somehow I ended up with 21,000 words. He congratulated me and said that his 13-year-old son (my nephew) had started NaNoWriMo this year. My nephew had given up on it a few days before we had this conversation, but my BIL expressed pride that his son had even tried — I agreed. That’s more than I’d ever done; I’d been too intimidated by National Novel Writing Month because writing 50,000 words in one month seemed out of reach for me.

But when I heard that my nephew had made the attempt, I was inspired. I checked the date (November 13), did some math, and got serious. Even though my book is not a novel, I decided to aim to finish the first draft by the end of the month. I wasn’t too worried about the word count — I don’t want to write more words for the sake of writing more words — but was more interested in feeling done with my first draft. And if I didn’t get the feeling of being done because it was a draft, the word count was a good goal post.

But then some funny things happened because of that word count.

It motivated my inner completionist.

Although it’s just a number that I specifically didn’t want to get hung up on, the word count actually helped a lot with getting past that deliberation phase. I used to hem and haw about what should come next and get caught up in the planning, but with NaNoWriMo, ain’t nobody got time for that. You just write and write and write, then clean it up later.

That’s exactly what I did: I wrote over 9,000 words in one weekend, and it was incredible! I’ve never done that before, and I was in awe of my accomplishment. It made me realize how much I’ve been holding myself back by questioning whether or not I “could” do it. Of course I can! One word at a time.

And I did. I buckled down and wrote every day, laser focused on getting to that 50,000 even though I kept telling myself it was ok if I didn’t. I found that the more I wrote, the more I could write. When I needed a break from working on my book, I would write an unrelated blog post instead. In other words, when I needed a break from writing, I would write some more!

Writing without editing afterwards is liberating.

Generally when I write blogs, I write them with a pretty good idea of what the structure and main points will be, and then I edit them within a day or so after the writing is done. But I worked on this book for weeks and barely edited a word. Sure, I had a rough structure in mind for the book, but as I was writing, I could tell some sections didn’t belong where I wrote them. Even so, I just kept writing and had fun focusing on the process, leaving those tangents for editor-Teena to worry about later.

It helped me dig deeper.

At first that 50,000-word goal seemed daunting, but eventually, I started to think of it as a blessing. Writing a book feels so spacious! It’s like moving into a house after living in a studio apartment.

I often found myself ignoring the predetermined structure in favor of stretching out and digging deep into the topic.

The continuous practice of writing led me to uncover aspects of the topic that I might not have thought to add. They came to me as the writing was flowing, when I wasn’t thinking too hard or planning ahead. Now my book has several sections that may not have been written if I hadn’t been trying to reach 50,000 words.

Closing thoughts

In the interest of full disclosure, this book includes some previously written blog posts, and since this started organically, I know I didn’t start writing exactly on November 1st. But the bulk of the writing was completed in November, and I finished at 50,042 words on Sunday, November 22 at 10:37am PST — I noted the time because it is a milestone in my life!

The draft, as first drafts tend to be, is going to be a mess, but I’m genuinely looking forward to editing the hell out of it. I’m so happy that I had the opportunity to try NaNoWriMo because it has been a life-changing experience. As I crept closer and closer to that 50,000, I started realizing the possibilities that were available to me if I stopped questioning whether or not I could and just did it instead. Thanks, Coach!

Not only am I excited to have discovered that word counts and deadlines are effective motivators for me, but I also now know for a fact that I can write a book-length work.

Now, a short break, then on to the editing! 😀

If you haven’t already tried NaNoWriMo, I highly recommend giving it a shot, even if it’s not November anymore. Setting a real deadline with a quantifiable goal helped me realize that books aren’t written overnight; they’re written one step at a time with hard work and focus.

If you’re doing NaNoWriMo this year:

Photo by Wilhelm Gunkel on Unsplash

Teena Merlan