Nanowrimo Postmortem

December 8, 2013

So November is officially over, and, like a new butterfly, I have successfully emerged as (although as a novelist rather than a flying insect). It’s a strange feeling – stranger than I would have expected it to feel – so I thought I’d do a postmortem of my experience and attempt to highlight some of the things I learned about myself in the process.

A Little Bit of Context

For my 100-level English class (don’t ask), this term I had to read C. S. Lewis’ classic The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. I had previously read it as a child, and while can’t distinctly remember this to be the case, probably liked it. I liked a lot of things back then.

But, as it turns out, I absolutely hated it while rereading the novel for a second time. The characterization was weak, nobody in the entire book had a damned lick of sense, and the religious propaganda definitely pressed my buttons in all the wrong ways.

Having no real plan for nanowrimo, I decided that I would instead rewrite the book and attempt to fix these shortcomings. I drew heavily from the world, but most of the plot line was either original or extremely subversive of the original.

The First 20 Hours

Something I learned over the last month is that churning out words every day is really hard. Like, seriously. I’ve always been a bit of a perfectionist when it comes to my writing, usually writing and rewriting a sentence four or five times before I’m happy enough with it to continue on. The flow of the words is something I consider of utmost importance, so you can imagine my frustration at needing to pump out a solid 1667 words daily just to keep up. Clearly rewriting each and every sentence wasn’t going to cut it.

And so I started to just write as quickly as possible – at approximately 1100 words/hour. It wasn’t good by any sense of the word, but it was words on a page, and that’s really all that matters for nanowrimo. As a result, I felt myself slipping more and more behind as I realized that all I was producing was total shit. Really. It was terrible, and that’s a depressing realization to come to, especially when embarking on such an endeavor.

Thankfully, I had had the foresight to setup a commitment mechanism – that I would publicly post my progress, and if I failed, whoever bothered me the most to keep going would receive $100 of my hard-earned cash. And so I continued on, toiling away at writing a terrible novel, if for no reason other than to save face.

It sucked.

And then, something remarkable happened. The whole thing just clicked, and near the 35k mark (70% complete) I wrote a chapter that I actually liked. It was followed by more shlock, but then I managed it again. Two chapters that I liked. The frequency at which these chapters emerged only increased over the remainder of the novel.

a beeminder of the whole affair

This is the beeminder graph of my word-count. It kept track of when I hit certain word counts, so I checked the date that I hit 35k words – November 23. I cross referenced this date against the pomodoros (25 minutes of continuous work) I had spent writing by this point, and noticed something cool.

35k words corresponded to 18 hours of writing. What’s the significance of this, you might be wondering?

In his book, The First 20 Hours, Josh Kaufman lays out a deceptively simple strategy for getting good at things quickly: deliberately practicing them for about 20 hours. It’s not enough to get you into the world championships, but diligently working away at something for so long is significantly longer than most other people would be willing to spend on it. As a result, you get (relatively) good at things. And in only 20 hours. That’s kind of cool, and that it pretty closely corresponds with my anecdotal findings is even cooler.

Oh, and by the time the month closed, I was writing at an average of 2100 words/hour – almost double my initial speed. And it was higher quality, too.

Success Through Social Commitment

I hinted at this earlier, but literally the only reason I made it through nanowrimo was due to a few individuals stepping up and calling me out on the public promises I had made. These people are the real heroes of my story, and so I’d like to take this opportunity to publicly thank them.

Matt Maclean is the man who would have gotten my money if I had failed in my novel-writing quest. Not only did he manage to bother me on an impressive 12 days, but he also sent a motivational video my way each time. What a guy!

People who are also super cool and deserve shout-outs are (in order of how much they bothered me): Charlotte Neville, Jeremy Thomson, Austin Dobrik, Marie Kim, Malcolm Ocean and Shale Craig.

Seriously, thank you all so much. I couldn’t have done it without you.

Nanowrimo and Productivity

Throughout November, I felt as though regularly sitting down and writing this novel of mine put me into a productive mindset; that it broke down the procrastination barriers and primed me to continue working on other tasks once my daily writing had been accomplished.

Of course, I didn’t formally track this, but it certainly felt like a real phenomenon.

I’ve been using beeminder as a productivity hack for the better part of a year now, and while I am quickly becoming disillusioned with it, it’s been invaluable for providing me with raw data about my work habits. Especially when I realized that I could use it to see if there indeed was a correlation here!

And so, as a fun exercise, I decided to graph my tracked productivity over the last five months, and see how November compared. It’s a stacked bar chart of how I’ve spent my spare time, in units of pomodoros.

my productivity over five months

My data, it must be admitted, is pretty spotty here. July and August track purely extracurricular pomodoros, as I tracked my productivity at work in a separate beeminder. Homework as a pomodoro category hadn’t been invented yet in September, but I would expect its breakdown to be similar to October’s.

Nope, it doesn’t look like there was a significant boost in productivity in November if you take away the massive amount of extra work I was doing. But hey, that’s OK. Science happened a little bit!

Miscellaneous Findings

I don’t have any cool graphs for this section, so I’ll just lump everything in point form.

  • (I find) creative writing much more taxing on my mental faculties than blogging or writing papers for school. I think it’s the added stress of needing to make up plots, in addition to ensuring the whole thing is logically sound AND trying to make sure the whole thing flows relatively well.
  • One beer or a shot of Baileys in my coffee was instrumental in shutting up my inner editor. I fully explain the increase in my writing speed due to my rampant, light alcoholism going on by the end of November.
  • As I read through the Narnia wiki, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe started sounding like the worst of the books by far. So many cool things happen in Narnia!


When I hit that fateful 50k mark, I have to admit, I cried a little bit. It was a tremendously moving moment, just due to the fact that I had hated every moment of it for the last 28 days, and suddenly it was all over and I now had something cool to show for it.

Sandy Maguire, Novelist. I’m going to put that on my business card one day. Seriously.

It was an experience in grittiness. I can’t think of the last time I girded my loins and sat down and actually finished something. Wow. Intense.

Here I am, on the other side, not any different a person than I was a month ago, but now I’ve got an accomplishment under my belt. I’ve got something to point to and say, “I wrote a novel. What have you done lately?”

I have every intention of doing it again next year, and then the year after that. I have every intention of recommending it to each and every one of my friends. Every bit of nanowrimo sucked, but wow was it worth it.