I Wrote a 50,000-Word Novel While Balancing a Job—Here’s How It Helped Me Grow

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If you’re a writer, you probably know what NaNoWriMo is. It’s the National Novel Writing Month, where writers from all around the world pledge—or at least try to—write 50,000 words in November each year.

I first heard of NaNoWriMo when I was 15. It was a challenge I had always been too scared to try. There was always an excuse – PMR, SPM, then exams and assignments throughout my university life. The list was endless, and it was easier to blame something else other than my own laziness.

Last November, I was free. I had just graduated and finished my summer course in Europe. The workplaces I applied to had not gotten back to me in weeks. The only thing left to do was to strap in and start writing my freaking novel. So I did.

Things seemed to be going fine, at first.

Then the email came. A start-up offered me the part-time job I applied for. I couldn’t bail on the company, but I couldn’t stop writing my novel either.

The only logical answer was to do both.

I took it as a challenge. I told myself that “hey, you can do this. You were just lazy for past 9 years.” Even if I failed, I would have at least made progress on my novel.

Balancing work—during peak season, no less—and NaNoWriMo was tough. Here’s what I learnt from it:

Showing up

The first thing I learnt, was that I had to show up. I had to write when I said I would write, even if writing was the last thing I wanted to do after a 13-hour shift.

My friends held me accountable. I told them not to message me, or reply my messages until I showed them proof that I had written at least a page after getting back from work. I wouldn’t touch my TV, or any games on the weekends until I hit my word count for the day.

By hook or by crook, I had to do it. I could rest after the month was over.

It was tough. There were days where I would come back from work, hungry and aching from standing all day. Still, I had to write my daily 1,667. Some days, I was in a constant cycle of dozing off for 15 to 20 minutes and waking up to write two to three paragraphs.

Despite the challenges, I made progress. When you change “I should” to “I must”, you just get things done. Make it a point to do what you set out to do for the day, regardless of whatever stands in your way. It’s that simple.

Another thing which got me through NaNoWriMo was…

Taking baby steps

While I was learning how best to process NaNoWriMo, I was also learning the ropes at work. There were days when I had to work with the efficiency of a robot, just to keep up with my team.

Visualising it into bits and pieces, rather than one huge chunk, made it more achievable.

Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither is a novel. 50,000 words is daunting, but not impossible.

Split 50,000 words over the course of 30 days, and that’s only 1,667 words each day. Split that even further into 3 sessions of writing, it’s only 556 words each – roughly about a page and a half.

NaNoWriMo is much like a marathon. If you keep putting one foot in front of the other, you’d look up and see that you’ve walked a mile. In the same sense, putting one word in front of another would form a sentence. Do another 3 sentences, and it becomes a paragraph. Eventually, it’ll make up a page, and by the time I realised it, I had already met the word count.

Every little bit adds up. It’s all a matter of finding a pace that clicked.

After doing that, another important thing is,

Time-management

One of the most important things I learnt, was how to manage my time. Timing myself became second nature. I figured that if I could write 500 words under 30 minutes, then reaching my daily count would have taken me an hour and a half.

It helped to plan for the month. I printed a weekly overview of the days I was most productive, and days I failed to reach the daily word count. If I was short one day, I’d make up for it on another.

It wasn’t just monthly either. I also planned for whatever free time I had during work.

I would plan what to write next in between the minutes where I’m taking a break, or during lunch. Sometimes, I would even write a few sentences on my phone to use later. Even while I was stuck in traffic, I’d brainstorm the plot.  

NaNoWriMo taught me how to make the most of my days, by being mindful of how I managed my time.

Still, remember to…

Know your limits.

As you can imagine, writing every day without rest was draining. I was completely burnt out by the third week.

I knew how my novel was supposed to go, but the words just wouldn’t come. I was simply tired of writing. It started out fun, but exhaustion and fear of failure eventually caught up with me.

At the same time, there was tension at work. I got gastric from spending so many hours hungry, while a few of my co-workers cried from the stress of working past midnight.

I would go home earlier to write, receiving dirty looks from colleagues as I walked out. Once home, I would finish around 1 am, and go straight to sleep so I could wake up for work the next day.

I was at my breaking point. The stress of not reaching my usual 500 words every half hour made me panic.

This went on for a full week, and my anxiety was at an all-time high. My boyfriend saw the toll it took on me and urged me to rest.

And I did. At first, it felt horrible not showing up. I’d beat myself up for not making good on my word. Guilt overwhelmed me whenever I rested because I feel like I didn’t deserve it.

But the truth is, I had reached my limits. Taking a day off wasn’t a luxury, it was a necessity. I promised myself that I would come back, and make up for it, which I eventually did.

At the end of the day, it’s important to know your limits. Resting is different from not showing up. I wasn’t putting off writing because I’d rather do something else, but because I needed the energy to focus again.

Earning a livelihood while pursuing your passions isn’t easy. I now have a newfound respect for writers who make time to write, while balancing a job and/or taking care of their children. I learnt first-hand just how difficult it was.

I’m a better writer after imposing this challenge on myself. It taught me how to make good on my promises, to take things at my own pace, manage my time productively, and to be mindful of my limits.

To anyone that’s thinking of participating, my advice would be to manage your time wisely. There’s never a good time to work on that novel – so you just have to try and do it regardless of whatever else you have going on.

Don’t stress yourself, manage your time, take it easy, but most of all – have fun. Because what good is a passion if you don’t enjoy doing it?

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