a nanowrimo pep talk

by benjamin hollon on november 5, 2022

If you’ve used the NaNoWriMo website, you’ve probably seen that they’ll occasionally get famous writers to write “pep talks” to encourage current writers to keep going. Personally, I haven’t found them very helpful.

I’m not a famous writer. There are a few people who like my writing a good deal, but I haven’t yet pursued publishing in a professional capacity. I’m not the kind of person who would write an official NaNoWriMo pep talk.

But then, maybe that’s what you need. So here we go.


“I can’t write,” you said. Yes, you’ve all said it. I have too; I used to hate writing, no joke!

I’ll let you in on a little secret: you were lying. (And no, the irony of me cluing you into a lie you’re telling does not escape me.) You can write—in all probability, you can do so pretty well. You’ve had teachers, mentors, and role models who dragged you down the corridor of learning kicking and screaming, and you have now begrudgingly reached the point of competency.

Congratulations. As the Vogon guard said, “Resistance is useless!” Writing is a fundamental part of who you are, a tiny pillar holding up a deep, dark corner of your heart you never knew existed but which would send you into cardiopulmonary arrest were it to collapse. You are, at base, a scrivener.

Whether or not you believe me or are still running through the circuitous and frankly rather dubious track of my logic, let us accept as a given that you, in fact, can write. Therefore, the question is not whether you can write but whether you will write.

Will you?

I sincerely hope so, from the most writerly depths of my heart, but you’re not ready. You have questions, hesitations, walls you have to break down before you’re willing to dip your pinky toe into a puddle as preparation for the vast ocean that is writing.

Let’s work through those questions.

i won’t finish

That’s a terrifying thought, isn’t it? Fifty thousand words is no small sum, especially in so few as thirty days. Sometimes it’s easy to wonder whether it’ll actually be possible to cross the finish line.

I think it is possible, but putting that aside for the briefest moment, I would like to ask you: What’s the worst thing that happens if you don’t finish?

You have part of a novel written.

And if you hadn’t started?

You would have none of a novel written.

Is having part of a novel really so terrible? I think it’s far better than no novel.

And then, of course, there’s the very slightest possibility that you may in fact do better than your wildest dreams in which case you, my reader turned writer, will be the author of your very own novel.

the site

I need to take a moment to acknowledge something: the official NaNoWriMo site is not great. It really isn’t. It’s buggy, flashy, distracting, and very money-centered.

Well, here’s a thought: you don’t actually have to use the site if you don’t want to. I almost recommend you don’t. Or if you do, only check in once a day to plug in your word count.

NaNoWriMo isn’t about the site, it’s about the people. You don’t need the site to find people. I’ve found the people to do NaNoWriMo with first in school, then on Habitica, then on Discord, and now on Mastodon. I’ve worn my “2020 winner” shirt (bought after a particularly challenging NaNoWriMo for me) to a dining hall on my campus and had someone recognize it and say she has multiple friends who do NaNoWriMo.

Find some people to do NaNoWriMo with; that’s the important thing. Get together with them to write, whether in person or online.

People are 80% more likely to win NaNoWriMo when they’re part of a community participating together. Also, 60% of statistics are made up on the spot.

But still, find a community.

i don’t know what to write

Neither did I the first time I tried. I only went for half the goal that time, 25 thousand words. (That’s a valid approach too, by the way!) I went in without a plan for more than the first few paragraphs.

It was absolutely terrible. The central plot twist that gave the story it’s main ideas revolved around a tap-dancing chicken, and at one point the villain materialized in the same room as the heroes, threw cupcakes at them, and then disappeared.

It was absolutely terrible. I stored the file in a place I would never run across it by accident and haven’t looked at it since.

But it was something. And a couple years later, I remembered that and said to myself, “Maybe I should try this again.” I did the full 50,000 words this time and absolutely aced it, ending up with a complete mystery novel that I later realized was almost identical to Agatha Christie’s Curtain which (a) is an incredible book and (b) I had just read. So that year’s novel was a wash too.

The next year I wrote a realistic fiction novel that I realized afterward was (a) very, very similar to my own life and (b) wasn’t actually very interesting at all.

The next year I wrote a science fiction novel. I put in huge amounts of planning and it was actually going very well until Windows locked me out, didn’t upload the recovery key to where it was supposed to, and so I lost the first 43,000 words. But I still rewrote the first seven thousand to finish the month. I haven’t revisited the story, but I can someday if I decide to.

Then I tried to write three novellas that would add up to 50k words, but I had a big school project and ended up counting my 14k word count from that project during November toward my goal of 50k words.

This year I’m doing well so far, even a bit ahead. But it’s a busy month, so who knows?

Did you see the point to all of this? I didn’t know what to write when I first started, and sure enough the result was horrible. But it’s led to wonderful things and achievements, and I honestly think that if I hadn’t done NaNoWriMo that year, I wouldn’t be on my current path of wanting to be a professional writer. It was lifechanging for me. And all I did was take the plunge of writing something without planning, then to realize that I actually enjoyed writing, even though I was horrible at it then.

I heard once, though I don’t remember who said it, that every writer has a million trash-level quality words inside of them when they start out. They need to write all of those million words before they start getting to the good ones.

I like that picture. Thanks to NaNoWriMo, I’m now a quarter of the way there. And I know my writing is already much, much better.

So it really doesn’t matter what you write as long as you write. Your NaNoWriMo novel won’t be winning the Nobel prize for literature, I can assure you of that. It probably won’t even get published, if you’re first starting out.

But it’s an amazing place to start. Even if you don’t think you’ll end up writing long-term, go ahead! I know it’s already part of the way into the month, but go ahead even so! Remember, I only wrote 25 thousand words the first time. You don’t have to do the full NaNoWriMo, but you might as well write something while there’s a large community of others out there to support and encourage you.

There’s no better time to start.

to current writers

I’m aware that many of you reading this may have already started. You were already convinced.

Can I just offer you my hearty applause? Good job.

You might not be doing too well right now, and you were coming here for advice or some tip or trick to help you keep moving. I’m sorry, but I don’t have any sage advice for you.


Don’t forget about community. There are people here for you to move you forward through every step, even as we’re struggling ourselves.

I’m in it with you, myself. If you ever need someone to encourage you, brainstorm with you, do a word sprint with you, or just tell you a joke to get your mind off your novel for a few minutes, I’m here.

And you know, that goes for life in general. I’m here for you to the extent I can be as a flawed human being who doesn’t know what he’s doing half the time.

But you matter to me, you can be sure of that.

Otherwise, would I have written exactly 1,500 words on this when I could have been writing my novel? Now excuse me, I need to go write.

And you should too. You’ll do great, believe me. Go get 'em.

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