National Novel Writing Month—also known as NaNoWriMo—is when aspiring authors, vexed procrastinators, and precocious middle schoolers around the world challenge themselves to write a 50,000 word novel within the month of November. In the mix this year was me. A high school senior, desperate for independence and creative validation on the cusp of legal adulthood, I decided to embark on this journey with thousands of fellow insane people.
Truth be told, this wasn’t my first time attempting NaNoWriMo. Some naive part of me had always believed I had enough grit and expressive drive to carry me through a whole novel, and in 2017, I had extensively planned for a semi-autobiographical novel, centered around a protagonist named Nadia, a cleverly disguised name that means “hope”. It suffered from an acute case of nonexistent plot structure, and I couldn’t get past the first 7000 words.
The quality of my prose actually didn’t change much over the past year; my writing has gone through no drastic improvement. Being a fledgling writer, my unformed style just seems to haltingly reflect whomever I happen to be reading at the time— last year, it was Plath, complete with stark metaphors and unsettling adjectives; this year, it’s Woolf, with run-on descriptions and commas upon commas. So what had changed this time around? Surely I had a better plan heading into the month. I had more solid, differentiated characters, an actual conflict, and a fuller synopsis. I had one running theme, which, as it turns out, is much better than having seven.
But what truly saved my quest was finally setting my story in Seoul. It’s really the only place that I understand deeply enough to concretely ground a story in, and I can only regret the years I spent writing with the vague backdrop of “somewhere in America” in mind, naming my characters something like “Abigail” or “Joey”. I found strength in being able to write about Korean saunas, sugar pancakes from street food vendors, and the endless plastic surgery advertisements on the streets.
I also discovered an incredible community of NaNo writers in Seoul (mostly expats). I felt out of place seeking out the cafe write-ins, being the only teenager and usually the only Korean, not to mention my usual apprehension of talking to strangers. But everyone I met was kind and supportive, and I never felt judged for being the youngest at the table. It felt like a little cult, separated from my usual experience living in Seoul, bouncing from home to school to home again. It was nice to know that somewhere on Sunday afternoons, there was a group of people repeatedly putting themselves through “word wars”— 20-minute sprints of highly focused writing.
So did I end up with a good novel that I’m proud of?
No. Honestly, it’s pretty crap as of now. But I have finally come to understand what it means to take pride in the process and not the product, because writing continuously for 30 days, spending anywhere from fifty minutes to five hours daily, is not a task anyone can follow through with, and it takes no exceptional artistic talent nor writing experience, but sheer stamina and commitment. As someone whose critical weakness has always been a lack of those virtues, I gave myself a little pat on the back.
When I hit my goal word count, I jumped out of my seat. It had all been worth it— the amount of lost sleep and the volume of unwritten college application essays I had pushed aside. Through this grueling part of the semester, when schoolwork presented me with no challenge nor joy, the theater department was off-season, and my friends seemed too busy with college applications to have fun, this was the one thing that pushed time forward and gave my days a bigger purpose.
I ended at around 50500 words. That’s about 101% of my goal. I quite like that extra bit, as insignificant as it seems. I would be very pleased if I could go on through life meeting my challenges at their fullest extent, and perhaps an extra one percent on top.