Posted in Today's File, Writing

Breaking my own Rules: Observations from the NaNoWriMo Lab Notebook

breaking rules, a pirate at heart...

So I signed up for NaNoWriMo this year—the Extreme Writing Event wherein crazed participants skip sleeping for the month of November and work to turn out a 50,000 word novel in 30 days…  And those of you who have been reading here for a few weeks know that I pledged not to blog about the thing till it was over—but here I am (unapologetically) breaking my own rule.  The reason I didn’t want to write about it was because I thought there would be nothing to say except for word-count reports and possible excerpts of whatever my brain was spewing into the keyboard in the wee hours of the morning, but it has turned out to be a much more enlightening experience than I’d anticipated.

Cranking out a word-count has never been my challenge (as anyone who hears me rattle on in person can confirm—“Verbosity R Us” is my husband’s joke about the pair of us, as there’s never a lack of conversation to be had in our household, and the same seems to apply at the keyboard).  The word-count achievement I don’t expect (or wish) to beat was a 45,000-word freelance job, researching and writing about 600 dive-sites around the world, which I turned out in four days.  (I hadn’t slept so little since I was working on my Master’s Thesis, and I certainly don’t consider that a “sustainable” pace, but I can do it.)  Halfway through November, I’ve already put out far more than 50K in non-Nano-related writing this month.

So my challenge to myself with NaNo wasn’t whether I could plow through fifty thousand words, but whether I could invent a fiction to sustain fifty thousand words in some coherent and unified piece that at least resembled a novel.  If nothing else, this would be a great learning-experience about myself and my own writing. That’s the science-major poking her nose in things, treating my writing as an experiment to observe.  And  frankly, the Scientist’s Lab Notebook is far more interesting to me at the moment than the Writer’s story, though I’ve been having fun with the latter and I don’t think it’s a bad little creation so far.

In college I declared a Zoology major straight out of the gate, but pretty soon I was adding literature classes and writing workshops to “dilute” the heavy lab-load of my schedule, and ended up five years later with a double degree.  (This was aided, I must confess, by convincing my English Committee that they should count science classes toward the 20 credits of “electives” for the English degree, because “a real-life writer needs something to write about,” and science was it.  They bought it.)

One of the exercises I remember from those writing-workshops, and which I’ve applied to the NaNo project, is the idea of “timed free-writing.”  A professor would set the clock and tell us not to lift the pen from the page until time was up, no matter what random drivel might be spilling into our notebooks.  That was my beginning approach to NaNo, that whenever I sat down to write for it, I would WRITE, without stopping, regardless of whether my writing was “to the purpose” (ANY purpose)… and see what came of it.

As a result (so far—we do still have half the month left) I’ve got the beginnings of that fun little fictional creation that actually is shaping itself into, well, something-or-other…  And I also have thousands of words more, typed into my “NaNo” file, that have nothing to do with the fiction, the novel, the story, or NaNoWriMo in general.  The fact is, there’s a lot more NON-fiction in that file than fiction.  It’s highly probable that when I cull out the actual fictional story from this file, I won’t have a novel of sufficient length to submit to the official NaNo word-counter and declare myself a “NaNoWriMo winner.”  I’m okay with that; being a NaNoWriMo participant was the object all along, in my case.  And although I don’t intend to abandon my story (my ten-year-old Reader is likely to enjoy it, if nothing else) it’s the Lab Notebook of my science-self that I’m turning to with interest.  Here’s what she sees about my Writer-self…

  • The Writer finds people fascinating, believes she’s surrounded by Stories every day, and maintains an ever-expanding file of sticky-notes about things she’s heard, seen, and experienced that she wants to write about.  Even with a blog-posting every day, there’s no way she can keep up with her sticky-notes, and she’s not worried about ever running out of “material” to write about.
  • The Writer does have a well-exercised imagination, and keeps it in a healthy state of fitness with the help of her children, but fictional inventions don’t hold her attention for nearly as long as the REAL stories playing out around her on a daily basis.  When it comes to creating fiction, she’s liable to get distracted by a “shiny thing” in the form of an actual event or observation, and go haring off in pursuit of capturing that instead.  If she keeps this up, her fiction is likely to get sulky and feel neglected.
  • Initial findings (pending completion of the full NaNoWriMo experiment): this Writer has no reason, aside from the commitment to her November project, to spend her time inventing things.  She’d do better to put her time at the service of the existing Stories that attract her interest.  Fiction-writing is a good mental exercise for her to push her boundaries, but she seems to be a Non-fiction Writer at heart.
"coincidence is God's way of remaining anonymous." Quote by... Anonymous?? Hmm..

As if to highlight and emphasize this “discovery” about myself (and because God has a sense of humor!) we have the synchronicity of a note I received through this blog last week.  A New York book editor (bless her generous heart) commented that she is “impressed by [my] writing” and I should get in touch with her for an expert’s advice when I’m ready to publish.  It isn’t as if I’ve been offered a book-deal or anything, but I won’t lie: that little “ping” from the publishing world made me downright giddy.  No joke: it took me two days to wind down enough to reply with anything resembling calmness (though I probably blew my “cool” by confessing that fact in my email to her).  Yup, that’s me: the giddy teenager who just got told she might get asked to Prom someday.  I try to keep “Publication” off my list of reasons WHY I write—but we all know I’d be a phony if I claimed it didn’t interest me.  I said as much to her, shared my (or rather, the Scientist’s) observations on the NaNo project, and asked for any advice she’d have for a writer settling into nonfiction as a venue of choice.

The “greater” experiment, this Fall, has consisted of my choice to take on Writing full-time after my seasonal summer-job ended at Labor Day.  I put out feelers for freelance jobs, launched this blog as a setting to keep myself writing “for myself” as well as for pay, and thought I’d try on “Writer” as an honest descriptor of myself.  Not the way I’d worn it before (I-think-I-do-it-well-and-I’d-like-to-consider-myself-one), but as a descriptor of what I actually do with myself—and see where the experiment took me.  A crazy-ass choice, seen from a practical or financial viewpoint (I’m making regular money with freelancing, but it’s nowhere near “making a living,” just keeping gas in the car and helping out with a bill here and there)—but I can’t help but be astounded at how positively that crazy choice has been playing out in just a couple short months.

I’m focusing myself (now with some greatly appreciated guidance from an Expert Mentor) and I’m feeling that I’m doing something I’m meant to do.  If there are just a few things that God really designed me to do, I think Parenting is one (when I’m Sober!) and perhaps Writing is another.  Writing non-fiction, that is.  We’ll see where that takes me!

My husband and I were joking the other night that there’s always something to write about, even in the “nothings” of a regular day (rather Seinfeldian philosophy, I suppose) like curling up with the kids and our books on a rainy afternoon…  Case in point, just now: 1400 words in twenty minutes on the fact that I’m “failing” NaNoWrimo…  If you’ll excuse me, the Scientist needs to go jot that observation in her Lab Notebook.

Write on, NaNo-ers!  I love reading fiction, and I’m glad there are so many people out there better suited than I to create it!


I am... a writer, an explorer, a coffee-drinker, a recovering addict, a barefoot linguist, a book-dragon ("bookworm" doesn't cover it), a raconteur, a sailboat skipper, a research diver, a tattooed scholar, a pirate, a poet, a spiritual adventurer, a photographer, a few kinds-of-crazy, a joyful wife, a mom... a list-maker! :)

49 thoughts on “Breaking my own Rules: Observations from the NaNoWriMo Lab Notebook

  1. Congratulations on the “ping” from that editor! Wow, thanks for sharing this! I, too, write non-fiction(essays) as well as poetry and short stories. I personally am planning to turn all of my posted verses and “thoughts” into a novel. My verses are already fictionalized versions of real experiences. Right now, I decided not to participate in NaNoWriMo; as I am just emerging from a couple of decades of self-effacement and non-writing. I am feeling so much more confident to keep writing everyday with such professionals as yourself following my blog. This online blogging community is proving essential to me!


  2. Congrats on the ping! It’s so nice to read about how NaNoWriMo is working for someone. I tried it about five years ago but didn’t follow through. My excuse this year was that I started writing classes and couldn’t concentrate on anything else (except for my blogs).

    Way to go. I really like your writing and am so glad you found me and then I found you. Thanks.


  3. I am at 30,133 words on my novel for NaNoWriMo as I post this, but reading you blog makes me wonder how we can do everything we need to do. My writing priority this month is NaNoWriMo. How do you have time to comment on blogs, write your own blog and write on your novel for NaNo? have to be honest that I feel a little discouraged. But, be that as it may, I’m glad for you Kana. I hope you don’t take the questions I posed here as me being critical. I just don’t know what to do right now.


    1. I’m pretty sure YOU’RE the only one who can answer those questions for yourself–but don’t handle them too heavily. Our decisions about how we use our time over the next couple weeks are merely that–choices for the next couple weeks. If NaNoWriMo is a priority for you, that’s SUPER–give yourself permission to knock yourself out with that, ignore my blog (and your own) for a couple weeks, put yourself all into NaNo if that’s the thing you want to be doing. And hey, you’re already almost 2/3 there, so clearly you’re doing something “right” with your time! :) Celebrate what IS happening, don’t fret too much about what doesn’t happen in any given day (Notice I didn’t get a blog-post up yesterday? oh well.) and just WRITE, Baby, write! :)


    1. We can start a club–we’ll be the Jolly Jalopies of the NaNoWriMo world, maybe missing the finish-line, but learning a heckuva lot about maintenance along the way… :)


  4. I did NaNo last year. Once was enough for me. Honestly, it’s really not that hard. 1,800 words a day and you’re home free. The thing with my last year NaNo is I got so burnt out on it by the end of the 30 days I stepped back for a bit to catch my breath before finishing it.

    I’m still breathing, the book is still sitting, and I can’t seem to find the motivation to pick it up regardless of how much nudging I get from people wanting to read it. It’s like procrastination on steroids.

    Keep up the daily grind!


    1. You’re exactly right–it’s not the 1800 words/day that are the challenge… “Procrastination on steroids”–now that’s a shot I DON’T need! ;)


  5. Wow that is one heck of a challenge. Good luck. Sounds like you’re well on your way. Interesting how that “fear of nothing to write about” lurks about in the brain, isn’t it? You definately have an effortless style for picking up a subject and making it interesting. Enviable.

    Congrats on the PING!


    1. I suppose that’s an advantage of writing about “nothings”… I’ll never have to FEAR having “nothing” to write about!


  6. I just came upon a notebook-full of your high school and college writing. And, as I think of it, it’s all non-fiction…though sometimes a bit enhanced by either wishful thinking or art on the part of the author. Enjoyable all!
    Love from your very first “Ping.”


    1. My goodness, I’d be interested to see that–I bet you have some “oldies” there that I haven’t laid eyes on for a while. ;) You DO know, I hope, that my storyteller-idol is my Ma, who modeled that art for me on a daily basis… And you were, indeed, my very first “ping,” the distributor of my written odds-and-ends to people who would appreciate them. There’s a topic for another day’s blog! ;) Love you.


  7. The PING is what we all dream about.
    Instead of doing NaNo with my private writing I chose to do Picture Book Idea Month. I’m brainstorming an idea a day for a picture book. Like you, I have lots of ideas. My hope is I turn those ideas into a story book later. I have already fleshed out a couple.
    Like your idea to turn yourself into a lab rat.
    I may try that.


  8. Nice! I am green with jealousy and glowing with happiness for you on your ping!

    I am SOO far behind on NaNo, it is ridiculous. But I love my protagonist and am using her to vicariously unzip my mental straitjacket.

    “Know thyself!” It is good to be able to identify yourself as a writer and non-fiction keeps the rest of us from slipping into idiocy, so thank you for that. Best wishes for continued revelation and success!


  9. Having someone take that sort of interest in you and reach out is always an honour – regardless of the outcome. It couldn’t have happened to a better writer! I’m so interested to read that non-fiction is your place, your go-to, despite taking on the challenge this month. Keep having fun and thanks for blessing us and yourself with the continued “for you” writing here.


  10. Keep it up and see you at the finish line… This is my 3rd year on NanoWrimo and I always promise to not do again. But I love challenges and I’m back on the ride again. Congrats on all you do! :-)


  11. I always thought good writers really made up their characters, stories, plots, scenes, etc. I only use people and events I’ve seen and scribbled on my notebook because I’m not a really good writer.

    Then I read Mark Twain’s autobiography — and apparently nearly everyone in his books are either specific neighbors or a compilation of them. So here’s to post it notes and random notebook scribbles!


  12. Kana, I got stuck and couldn’t get moving again. Something wasn’t flowing right. I (God forbid) deleted a few hundred words. Changed the plans. And in minutes was up and running. Maybe you need to send a character to Wal-mart – what is in the cart, who are they hiding from in the automotive department – or have a surprise relative show up at the door in order to get that muse working again. Don’t give up. I know you’ve got a creative mind so let her rip! See you at the finish line.


    1. Sending her to WalMart–THIS is going to be fun! (maybe more fun than the story–there’s the danger…) I wonder how the Wally-greeter will feel If a Dragon tags along?… ;)


  13. So, so happy for you to get that notice from the NY book editor! I’m half-way through the NaNo 50k, though I can’t tell yet if I’m cut out for novel writing. It’s my first attempt and I feel like each chapter is a short story (which I enjoy writing). Maybe that’s what this little NaNo challenge is all about: discover your writing strengths and stick to them. You sure are an inspiration, Kana. Thanks for sharing your life with us. P.S. How is your name pronounced? I read it as if it rhymed with Anna.


    1. Actually, Kana rhymes with… Iguana, Madonna, I wanna… (and don’t ask me what that choice of rhyme-selections says about ME!)
      It’s short for my middle name, Makana, which means “precious gift” in Hawai’ian. That’s both the literal translation of my given name (Janna) and, in its shortened form, the phonetic translation in Hawai’ian–it’s what my (Hawai’ian) husband has called me since we met, and I added it legally when we Married. How’s that for a long answer? ;)


      1. A long answer but worth every bit of its length! One of my best friends is getting married on Friday to the love of her life and he’s Hawai’ian. I’m going to make a booklet of wedding photos for them, and now I know a word I can use to make it special!


        1. If you find yourself in need of additional words when you’re working on that project, just let me know. I’ve got a translator sitting right next to me. ;)


  14. “Even with a blog-posting every day, there’s no way she can keep up with her sticky-notes, and she’s not worried about ever running out of “material” to write about.”

    This struck a real chord with me. I don’t use sticky-notes but I do have three laptops, an ipaq, and a desktop with hundreds of notes and reminders to write about x, y, or z. My problem is always settling on just one thing to write about. For example a month ago I was writing a collection of scifi shorts as a build up to a full blown novel. Then I went to sleep dreamt about having rampant, torrid…well you know, with Athena (yes the goddess). End result is that now I’m writing a fantasy, adventure, romance with religious discussion.

    The worry about having so much material to draw on isn’t not having enough to write about, it’s very much not flitting from one project to another. :-(


    1. I hear you! That’s what my husband and I jokingly refer to as “Shiny Thing!” Syndrome–I go flitting off on what just caught my attention, instead of the thing I *meant* to write about.

      But then… Most of my most interesting writing happens that way, so I’ve stopped fighting it. (Except for when I’m writing “on assignment,” that is–in which case I have to behave.)


  15. Hey! Are you allowed to put in everything you write over a month into your NaNo file? I didn’t know that; that brings my word count up considerably! (I am a recovering rule follower.)

    And yes, I know what you mean about being a freelance writer. I started in earnest one month ago (although I am trying to do it in odd hours between my full time job) and I have found it very interesting so far. I am sure if you stick with it long enough, especially as well as you write, you will be able to make full-time living with it soon. That’s great about the ping from the editor! (In case she reads your comments: my blog is at!) :)

    Have a great day!



    1. Gosh, I don’t know what the “official rules” are on the NaNo file–I do currently have lots of non-novel-related stuff in my own document that’s named “NaNo,” but I’ll be taking most of that out before I hit the NaNo-word-counter with it at the end of the month. Honestly, I think you can do whatever you want to do with this thing. For myself, if the *fiction* reaches the 50K mark in time, I’ll turn it in and get the official word-count-NaNoWriMo-seal-of-approval… And if I don’t reach 50K (of fiction, that is), then I’ll keep going merrily along with the self-knowledge I gained as a one-time Nano *participant*… :)


  16. As someone who has never got much past the 5000 word mark I’m very impressed. Not sure if you’d consider it as a subject for you, but I reckon from what you’ve managed to do this month, you could write a good piece on time management and achieving goals. Whatever you are doing, it’s working!
    Congrats on the publisher contact – I’d be so chuffed with myself if that happened to me – you deserve the recognition.


    1. Oh yes–that would be titled “How to be MY Kind of Crazy.” :) Not sure other people would want what I have, but it could be a fun project nonetheless. ;)

      (And by the way, thank you for the new-to-me phrase: “chuffed with myself.” Happy to have fellow writers who introduce me to new things, and the “SlangBot Urban Dictionary” that fills in the rest!)


  17. I love this post! I think that, as a writer (and I am, for now, comfortable with using it not as a title but as a personality description), it is very difficult to come to terms with the fact that I’m just not a writer of fiction. Granted, I’ve never given it the honest effort that you have, but I think deep down there is a part of me that doesn’t want to admit that it just might not be my thing. Many years ago as an undergrad, and english professor told me that “there are two kinds of writers: those who are good storytellers and those who are better suited to edit stories.” I walked away from that with a complex about which category I fell into. But, as I have spent the past several years grimacing at comma splices, wincing at billboards (example: “Malibu Tan’s”), and subconsciously disliking anyone who ends a sentence with a preposition, I’m realizing that my love affair is actually with the structure and detail rather than the story itself. But while I am not entertaining people with my fiction, I wonder if it’s perhaps an even greater feat to entertain them with something so silly as my own thoughts. You’ve certainly been entertaining me with yours! Write on. :)


    1. I wonder, though… Would that professor have included non-fiction writers in his definition of “good storytellers?” My story-telling IDOL (as I mentioned in a comment to her above) is my mother, who has a mind-blowing talent for humor and dramatic timing (and occasional “adjustment” of factual details) that combine to make her the best story-teller I ever hope to know. (I keep hoping she’ll pick up a pen some day–she’d blow ME out of the water, no question! Are you listening, Ma?) :)

      All that to say… That those of us who realize we’re not fiction-writers shouldn’t outright dismiss the idea that we may be still be good storytellers. And your admirable attention to structure and details would only serve to enhance that ability, right? :)


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