NaNo, I love(d) you, but it’s not you, it’s (mostly) me

October 12, 2002. Dialup internet was the norm where I lived, and I shared that precious internet time with my brother. One of us regularly stayed at our grandparents’ house down the street so we could both be on the internet at the same time. What a world that was.

This particular day was a Saturday. I had spent the rest of the day at the library and hanging out with my church youth group, playing HORSE and Duck Hunt. I was tired of the person I was, or rather, I was still in that long and arduous process of discovering myself.

I got home from church, hopped online, and started reading some Diaryland blogs. And there it was: someone mentioned writing a novel in a month. Next month, in fact. I could do that! Right?

I clicked that link and signed up immediately, sealing my fate as the name you’re reading now. If I could finish writing a book, I reasoned, I could call myself a real writer.

November arrived, and I started writing a book about a high school girl who wants to be a writer and is going through some existential angst. Sound familiar?

I got a good start but fell behind after the first few days. Before I knew it, the month was halfway over and I had barely written 10,000 words. I seriously considered quitting at one point; school was getting busy and my wrists were starting to hurt from the daily grind because I had never written that much per day in my life and I never learned how good ergonomics worked. (That’s right, those keyboarding classes in middle school never told me about the importance of ergonomics. That would have been useful.)

Meanwhile, I discovered the NaNo forums, filled with writers of all ages, but mostly grownups. I had to hunt for other teens on the forums, but I found them; we started an AIM chat room, mostly filled with teens and very young adults.

Reader, these forums and the chat room were an oasis. In a world where I didn’t fit in anywhere, suddenly I did. I chatted about everything and nothing on the forums and in the chat room. I learned the disturbing thing about urinal cakes (and a lot of other things). We dared each other to write ridiculous things into our novels.

And for some reason, I didn’t quit. It was mostly out of pride; after all, I had already told everyone I was writing a novel in a month and my teachers and classmates were asking about it. I couldn’t come back on December first and say I fell short. Pride goeth before a fall, and teenage Sushi held her pride close to her chest.

Sure, winning NaNo meant I had to write 35,000 words in a week. Sure, it meant figuring out what the heck I was actually writing. But impossible? Never.

We all know what happens next. Somehow I do write 35,000 words in a week and win my first NaNoWriMo.

If I could do that, I could do anything.

Having more classes in computer labs meant finishing my work in half the time and then spending the rest of the time on the forums and updating my blog. Email was blocked, AIM was blocked, but Diaryland and NaNoWriMo weren’t. (I still remember one time when a friend teased me for having internet time and using it to write in Notepad so I could post it to my blog later.) As a result, I spent even more time on the NaNo forums, eventually competing for the top poster on the forums.

NaNo became home, and even though I talked a few of my high school friends into doing NaNo with me, only one of them kept doing it.

I went to college in a large city, but more importantly: a large NaNo region. At first I was the youngest participant in the region, but as NaNo’s participant base kept growing and I kept getting older, that started to change. By my last year of college, I had created a small email list of six or seven other participants at my college, writing mini pep talks every week, hosted a daylight savings time write-in, and kept them in the loop for wider Atlanta area write-ins (which were usually hosted at the coffee shop near campus). In a way, I was MLing before actually being an ML. And I loved every minute of it.

I finished my second NaNo a day or two earlier in a less rushed fashion. I finished my third NaNo a day or two earlier. I never wrote more than about 55,000 words, usually writing until The End. This pattern continued through college, where NaNoWriMo lined up with the end-of-semester crunch time, so I wrote 50,000 words, finish mid-month, and then let the novel sit while I caught up on coursework.

Then I finished college, and I was free to keep writing.

The overachievers have always been around, even if there weren’t as many of us in the early days. I don’t remember Cat Valente’s post in the NaNo forums about trying to do NaNo in 10 days instead of 30 but I do remember seeing a few people with wild and wondrous word counts. Heck, in my first year, everyone who was on track was performing some act of witchcraft to me.

And yet, I was reverse overachieving with my wild race the finish line.

That change came in 2009. I knew about the Overachievers thread (yes, thread, not forum) in 2008, and I even reached 60,000 words that year, but I had a secret to that.

Remember Write or Die? You set a goal, a time, and a punishment, and if you don’t reach the goal within the stated time, the punishment happens, ranging from the screen turning red to the website literally deleting individual words. This was the kind of motivation I needed when I was taking an overload to finish two majors, an independent study, and a special study while maintaining a long-distance relationship.

Every night, when I returned to my room from the library or math center, I set Write or Die to 1667 words in 30 minutes. If I didn’t write at a consistent pace for that goal, Write or Die had full permission to start deleting my words. Only when I finished could I talk to my then-boyfriend (who, despite meeting through NaNo, was getting tired of my NaNo devotion after about a year).

Write or Die never had to delete a single word. I finished on the 16th (VERIFY DATE) and wrote about 10,000 words at write-ins throughout the rest of the month to finish the book.

The next year, I had a fancy piece of paper, no job and no prospects in the worst economy since the Great Depression. What I did have, however, was a NaNo community. I was an unpaid intern at a non-NaNo arts nonprofit, and I finished 50,000 words on the 15th. The end of the book came a day or two later.

With all this spare time, I kept going with a second book, which you can read here. With that, the overachieving floodgates opened, and I haven’t written under 100,000 words in November since.

Half a year after starting to overachieve formally, I still had only a temporary job. What I did have, however, was all the time in the world and the smallest bit of technical know-how. You know what happens next, and you can read about it here. I created Wikiwrimo and started building. It became a part-time job when I didn’t have one, and it eventually helped me get started in my professional writing career.

I made one of my 2011 goals to move back to the city before NaNoWriMo 2011, job or lack thereof be damned. In retrospect, this is one of the best decisions I’ve made; it’s easy to get stuck where you are in life and then never leave, and I was miserable in that small town.

The Atlanta region had grown like wild over the last couple of years, and a couple more MLs had stepped up to help out. Even in my year stuck in the boonies, I spent a lot of my time in the Atlanta chat room, talking about anything and everything, with BattleJesus capturing the weirder stuff. When they heard I was planning to move back to the region, they asked if I wanted to co-ML with them.

I jumped at the chance.

The 2011 conflict in the ML forums during that site relaunch was, at the time, the worst thing I had ever experienced as a participant. I couldn’t deal with some of the vicious things MLs were saying, the people who were supposed to be representatives of NaNoWriMo in their local communities. On top of that, my own region planned to do even more than ever, I was struggling to keep up with adulthood, and my co-MLs were pouring substantial disposable income into ML resources, money I definitely didn’t have.

You can read more about this struggle here.

Despite this, I made 2011 a gangbusters year. I had to, it was my tenth NaNoWriMo. I completed my first 50k day and visited San Francisco for the Night of Writing Dangerously. I visited NaNoWriMo HQ for the first time and got to meet the NaNoWriMo staff. It was, by all accounts, a November to remember.

At some point, things started to change. I eventually got a real job that reduced my online availability but increased my ability to repay my student loans and tax debt from my self-employment days. (My college once asked me to be on a panel about starting your own business. I laughed while envisioning such a panel. “Why did you start this business?” “Necessity.”) Pokemon Go took over the world for a summer before becoming a niche hobby, and I made friends from that game who had nothing to do with writing or NaNoWriMo.

Writing as a whole slowly started taking a backseat in my life as I got into Pokemon Go. It was a slow burnout, but when you’ve wrapped your entire identity around one thing, it takes a lot to come around from that.

I started writing a novel for NaNoWriMo because I thought you had to do that to be a real writer. I didn’t think about all the other types of writers in the world: journalists, copywriters, technical writers, marketers, poets, short story authors, nonfiction authors… there are so many writers in the world who don’t take you to fictional worlds. I’m one of them now (and get paid far more than I would make as a novelist).

Somewhere in here, I’ve been pushing away the idea that dreams and goals can change. I never felt as serious about writing and editing as some folks do. I never felt the satisfaction of working on a long hard edit because there was no sign of progress. I’ve watched as some ideas I’ve written as NaNo first drafts have since gotten published by other authors, and as other writer friends and acquaintances have gotten book deals and published novels.

Somewhere in here, my dreams and my actions fell out of alignment. When I get a full-time job. When I stop working a second job. When I stop. When I stop.

But I have stopped. I’m still updating this site, but at some point I nearly stopped writing anything else. I stopped looking forward to NaNo the way I used to. It was my dry spell; I was writing only second or third drafts as an attempt to find the plotline of the stories I fast drafted. I may do that again this November for a story I really believe in. Every time I stare at my beat sheet and try to revise it, I find myself trying to work around what’s already there. Nothing new comes out, even though there are obvious plot holes. NaNo didn’t hold the same joy it used to hold.

My new Pokemon friends are great but most of them aren’t writers. I don’t find myself talking craft or plot holes with them, even though sometimes I just need someone to listen to me talk to myself. It’s like talking to a rubber duck about your problems. You don’t expect the rubber duck to respond, but just talking about your problem can help solve it.

I’ve also been struggling with my own productivity and time management. It’s been too easy to get sucked into Youtube or reading about the world’s highest mountains and their tragedies on Wikipedia (or whatever my current fixation is) and get caught in a loop. Breaking that loop has been the most difficult struggle for me as of late.

I also feel like I need long periods of time to do anything. It’s why my July Camp NaNo goal was to write for thirty minutes a day, to show myself that short bursts can work just as well as long bursts, and maybe they can be even better.

It’s a combination of every problem I’ve been facing.

I don’t want to say all good things must come to an end. But do they?

When we say the magic is gone, what do we mean?

There’s something to be said about relationships. The beginning phase of a relationship is the honeymoon, where everything is hunky dory and shiny and all partners ignore each other’s flaws.

Over time, things change. You know more about each other’s flaws. Twenty years later, you’re probably still the same people on the inside but for some reason they’re still loading the dishwasher wrong and mopping before dusting. (Seriously, who does that?) Your heroes and loves are flawed too, but discovering this is a journey in itself. Sometimes that hurts to hear.

I want things to be special ever year, but at some point… they aren’t. Not because of anything in particular happening, but because not everything can be special all the time.

I struggle with this a lot personally. I want everything to be better every time, more exciting every time, just… more of everything every time. It’s a personality flaw, and a more interesting answer to that job interview question than perfectionism, which would be my (truthful) answer if every other job candidate didn’t ruin it.

I finished my first NaNoWriMo in 30 days. Then a few days faster every year before finally writing 50,000 words in 24 hours for my tenth NaNo. After the third 50k day in 2013 (22 hours) I had to acknowledge that I was approaching my physical limit so retiring this antic was for the best.

The same thing happened with my total November word counts. At a certain point, writing more every year became unsustainable, both physically and mentally. I knew I could never write the million, but maybe 500,000 words one November wasn’t impossible. After my second 300,000-word NaNo in 2015 while working almost full-time, I knew 500k would never happen.

Maybe it’s my outside life that changed. Maybe it’s my own identity and dreams. Maybe NaNo itself is changing. But at some point, it became hard to make NaNo as special as it used to be.

Maybe that’s okay. I don’t need things to be better every time; otherwise I’m setting myself up for disappointment, and expecting even more every year isn’t sustainable.

That’s something to be learned from relationships; eventually you settle into a good groove where you still nurture the relationship but keep it sustainable. Not every year can be a honeymoon year. There are ups and downs.

That’s what’s happening with NaNoWriMo. They’re trying to do more every year with the same resources. Arguably they’re trying to do it with fewer resources.

The 2019 site redesign did a lot. I don’t think the site redesign by itself changed the direction of NaNo and its community. Some of it had been happening for awhile. Wrimos had found their subgroups of the NaNo community and started staying in their bubbles, often creating their own offsite groups to stay in touch. The shift in online discourse over the three to four years before the site relaunch meant that more people had gotten used to stirring up reactions and limited room for nuance. This isn’t a commentary on participants so much as it is on being a person on the internet in general. But some of the decisions and communications (or lack thereof) made by HQ related to this site launch burned a lot of trust in the community, especially among community leaders.

I wanted my 20th NaNo in 2021 to be a blast, much like I wanted my tenth NaNoWriMo to be special, but it was during the pandemic and another year of virtual-only write-ins. Still, I kept running with it, traveling to regions I still hadn’t visited and crossing states off my virtual to-visit list. I ended the year with 150 regions visited over the course of two years, something that never would have happened otherwise. That’s nearly a quarter of all the world’s NaNoWriMo regions, which is nothing to frown at.

My goal for NaNoWriMo number 22 was to reach 3,000,000 lifetime words. That sets this year’s goal to just under 120,000 words. Totally doable. Maybe.

Except… I didn’t have a novel idea going into November first. That makes things significantly more difficult. Instead of quitting altogether, I decided to write 50,000 words about all the NaNo fires going on at the forums. Here’s a summary of one of them. Yes, only one of them. There’s also Sponsorgate from last December, which was also poorly handled and sparked the ongoing discussion over the past year about NaNo culture and the community’s relationship with HQ. It is a lot, but this post isn’t here to rehash those topics or any of the other moderation and culture topics.

It’s been extremely hard to find excitement for NaNo this year. To be honest, I wish the NaNo drama was the sole reason. If it were, I could claim some moral high ground because sketchy sponsors and allegedly exploiting minors are bad things. But let me tell you, it certainly isn’t helping me rediscover that magic.

The truth is… I don’t think I’m a writer anymore.

Shocking, I know.

I’ve learned how to do the same thing: write crappy first drafts. I can do that like no one’s business. But I’ve never learned how to turn that first draft into something worth reading. My first drafts feel like a very long outline, and I have no idea where to start.

This is all fine, but I haven’t been actively pursuing how to outline or edit or how the heck to be a better writer. I try in fits and bursts occasionally but nothing has stuck, mostly because I’m not seeing any progress in the way that numbers go up when writing a first draft. Learning the other parts of the writing process is like learning a completely different way of thinking, and doing the same thing but expecting different results isn’t working anymore.

Which raises another question… how much do I care? Not just about NaNo but about my fiction writing as a whole? I’ve had my twenties and thirties to make something beautiful. The honest answer is I really don’t know, and I’m struggling to reconcile that with building my entire identity as a writer over the past twenty-ish years.

I’m still doing NaNo this year, but overachieving isn’t in the books. In fact, I’m using this year to handwrite for the first time ever. If I come up with an idea mid-month, we’ll see where it goes.

After that… who knows? Will I stop overachieving? Will I write less? How can I make NaNos 25 and 30 special, what about the events after that? Will those NaNos even happen? These are questions I never thought I’d be asking five years ago or even two years ago, and yet here we are.

I don’t know. Old writing advice says the first million words are practice. Here I am approaching three million words, clearly on the remedial course.

At some point I’ll stop. I’ll die or reach the point where writing at this pace becomes physically impossible. Maybe I’ll stop for some other reason purely out of choice or because HQ has reached the point of no return. Whatever happens, there will be a last NaNoWriMo.

From a practical standpoint, what does that look like? (Short of dying–that one’s pretty clear.)

Maybe I’ll slow down and start writing a “regular” NaNo again, telling the youths how my fingers once flew across the keyboard like a legend passed down through generations. Maybe it’ll be a sweet sigh of relief, knowing that I gave it my best, like how I made all A’s in school my entire life until finally succumbing to calculus, but making that first B was actually okay. (And half my college degree is in math so I did something right.) Maybe I’ll find myself looking longingly at my spreadsheet of past NaNo word counts and toward the current-day Wrimos, doing what I can’t do anymore.

I know only this: One November will be my last NaNoWriMo, but I don’t know which one. I’m still not sure how to feel about it.

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