"Winning" at NaNo just means writing a manuscript of 50,000 words; ideally, you'd finish the novel's storyline within the month, too. (I didn't, and reckon I have 10-20k left to wrap things up.) They aren't meant to be good words, and trying to make them good is explicitly discouraged. The idea is to get a first draft that can later be made good, through editing and re-writing. You can't edit a novel that exists only in your head, after all.
History and whining
I won NaNo the first year I tried it, 2008. It seemed like a good time to try it: I'd graduated from university the previous summer and was unemployed and staying with David at PodHouse, having moved from Southend back up to Cambridge at the end of October to have a better chance at finding a job there. Of course, it was hell. Living at home for months after graduation had made me horribly depressed, and job-seeking only intensified that. I had nowhere near the executive function required to get up and dressed, apply for jobs and write 1667 words every day. Still, after a lot of crying and tantrums, plus writing an epic 7000 words on the final day, I did it. The novel draft that resulted was terrible and never progressed past that point, but I still have plenty of affection for the characters and hope to resurrect some of them one day.
The next year, in fulltime employment, I attempted NaNoWriMo again and crashed out emotionally after about nine days, convinced that I was a horrible creative failure who would never complete anything. My inner editor was taking up all the space inside me and wouldn't shut up, so no wonder.
Over the following Novembers, I varied between ignoring NaNo, attempting it seriously and failing, attempting it with a cutdown word count and failing, and, recently, attending events with the SwissWrimos group although I wasn't really doing NaNo. The group was set up by our super-ML (Municipal Liaison) Sabrina and has write-ins throughout November, a kick-off party before and Thank God It's Over party after the month, and sparser meet-ups throughout the year. Whichever path I chose, November usually involved an existential crisis of greater or lesser magnitude.
This year I won and it was... not easy, exactly, but very painless. I have not cried about writing once this month. Although I spent most of the time behind the projected wordcount, it was never by more than about 3000, and I wrote on all but two days. What happened?
First things first: I have a great antidepressant and I actually know how to handle my ADHD these days, yay! David and I also walk five kilometres to my office most weekday mornings, which has been instrumental in staving off SAD.
Writing can be a lonely occupation, but NaNoWriMo works best when you have friends who can cheer you along and share the experience of the ridiculous thing you're doing to yourself. That's because it's easier to devote the required energy to it when you're diving into a month-long alternate universe, where it's normal to talk constantly about plotting struggles and act out the physical contortions of the fight scene you're writing, to spend your lunch breaks anti-socially typing, and to mark off the calendar in multiples of 1667, than it is to squeeze writing into the end of every day after acting like a normal person for sixteen hours.
The second biggest factor of my being able to write so much this month is the fact that David did NaNo as well. We spent a lot of evenings writing together, and discussed our respective plots and characters most mornings on the walk to work. As well as him and the SwissWrimos group, my coworker Christian is a writer and, this year, Sabrina's co-ML. We often wrote together at lunchtime, and with his encouragement I'd get down 500-900 words then. I had writing dates with my friends Janina and Zoulfa, and Janina and I even wrote together when we took a weekend trip to Nottingham!
There's a lot of enthusiasm in the SwissWrimos group for continuing write-ins throughout the year, which should be helpful for maintaining a steady habit, even if it's not every day now.
I've always been more of a pantser than a plotter, though I recently started trying to change that and have done a lot of planning and note-making for the novel I'm writing long-term, The Cold Shores. My NaNo novel, Corpse Position, started as a joke. Then I protested too much that I wasn't going to actually write it, which naturally led to me committing to write it in a month.
I don't know how well this approach would translate to other projects, but a review's worth of plotting turned out to be just enough. I knew the main characters' names, the premise of the story, and a couple of key scenes, as well as the mistakes that their fictional author had made, at least some of which I thought I could avoid. After a few free-associating conversations with David, I figured out who (and what) the bad guy was, and I was ready to go. Technically, I believe this makes me a plantser.
The story changed in several surprising ways as I was writing it, mostly to do with the fact that my characters were much more sensible than I'd originally thought they would be, and didn't hit it off immediately, as I'd planned. I think this is a good sign.
The facts that this isn't my 'real' novel, is based on a joke, and is in a genre (urban fantasy) that doesn't intimidate me as much as some others do, have all definitely helped me get words down without worrying too much about where exactly they fall. I hope I can bring some of this energy to The Cold Shores once I get back to my draft of that.
The NaNoWriMo website encourages participants to upload a cover for their novels, claiming that doing so can improve your chances of winning by 60%. The cause and effect here is not clear, but after David created a beautiful cover for his novel, Biologicals, I asked him to make one for me. Here it is, and it's perfect. Simple, legibly about both yoga and murder, and just schlocky enough with the blood spatter. Please enjoy his lovely work.
I'm writing Corpse Position in Google Docs, because it's accessible from my phone and all the computers I might use, and backs up automatically. That's the most important part! The file started to take several seconds to load once its wordcount got above 30,000, unfortunately.
All my notes are in Joplin, a wonderful open-source notes program that runs on the desktop in MacOS, Windows and Linux, as well as having apps for iOS and Android, and syncs between them. That means my notes are also accessible from everywhere. At times when I didn't have internet access (i.e. on trains in England), I wrote prose in Joplin and copied it into Google Docs afterwards.
I'd used the WriteOrDie website a couple of years ago, and on rediscovering it this month, I found that I can write two to five times faster with it than into a regular text document. I decided to splash out on the desktop app, which is fairly expensive at $30 but came with builds for MacOS, Windows and Linux. I've been using it heavily and, though it's decidedly not perfect, with a few weirdnesses in the UI, it hasn't lost my words and it's helped a lot.
Synthwave and cyberpunk mixes on YouTube became my favourite soundtracks to write to.
Finally, and of course, I made a Beeminder goal for my wordcount and hooked it up to the Google Doc I wrote in. The resulting graph looks very similar to the graph from the NaNoWriMo website, just prettier and with all the usual Beeminder goodness like reminders and incentives. (Not that financial incentives really work for me, oh well.)
I've gone through multiple Beeminder goal configurations for The Cold Shores, with varying levels of success. Finding the right weekly wordcount to aim for is still an unsolved problem. This will probably continue until I've finished writing the damn book, but perhaps I'll get lucky.
For years I thought I flat-out couldn't do NaNoWriMo, given how often I'd tried and found it detrimental to my mental health. I can now point to one not only successful, but fun and fairly low-stress, year. Was it like this for others all the time?
This may be a one-off but I will try to repeat it next year (possibly with book two of the Molly Sheldon series, Down Dog?). I'm also planning to finish Corpse Position over the next week or two (there's a lot of travel time coming up for me) and edit it into a reasonable second state early in 2019. After that... I don't know if I want to go through the stress of multiple further edit rounds and submitting it to agents and editors; I might just make a print-on-demand edition for friends.
I may make a book cover for The Cold Shores, and I will definitely try to work on my current draft of it with some of the carefree abandon I've got used to in the last month.