This is the second biggest question in the universe!! (The first is "Doctor who?" -- and okay, it's really only the biggest question in the months of October and November, and for writers, but go with me.)
Here's my answer. Ready. It's going to change your life! CHANGE YOUR LIFE I SAY. To show it the best, let's turn to this lovely picture:
There are thousands of people who write books daily -- and none of these people write the same way. Some of us are plotters and some pantsers; some analyze every single sentence before they move on and others power through a whole entire book filled with crappy words. There is no one single right way to write a novel.
And while we know this, there's something about NaNo (especially if you are like me and hate failing at a goal that you want to achieve, and even more so if a prize is involved and everyone else is doing it!) that makes us feel like less of a writer if you don't try to write 50k words. Or worse, you try and fail.
This is wrong. And that's taken me a long time to come to grips with.
Even though there is one 'rule' of Nano -- which is to write 50k in a month -- that's not an actual requirement for success. I've done NaNo four times (this is four right now) and I've only won once. Only once. But does that mean the other times I tried and didn't write 50k words I failed? No.
That's because I do NaNo my way.
I know what works for me, my life, my schedule, my strengths. I know how best to achieve the goal before me. I often feel like the years I didn't win were more important to me as a writer than the one I won.
The first time I did NaNo I wrote a lot of words, but not 50k. I was a brand-new baby writer and this seemed like a great idea. I learned a lot about my writing process that year, and even though I failed, I gained something useful. It was a very big learning experience--and now that book lives in a closet (It's so bad!) but the things I learned from that year changed the way I did the next book, and the next year of NaNo.
The second time, the year I won NaNo, I was a rebel and started a book that I was rewriting. (Follow Me Through Darkness, actually, revision 2 or 3 of 8!) I had an extraordinary amount of time to devote to it. I had clear direction with that story. I wanted to win and I had something to prove (mostly to myself) and so I dove in with everything I had. It was really hard, but I did it. I was so proud of myself that year, not necessarily for winning a prize (though it helped) but for accomplishing what I set out to accomplish.
The third time (last year) I tried NaNo and I had just started a new job, and I was in a new place and working on the sequel to FMTD. I'd already had 20k words before NaNo, and I was going to finish it. I didn't. In fact, I wrote 30k but they were so bad. I failed NaNo. Was I sad? Yes, because I really wanted to finish that book. But later I ended up sending that 50k to my editor --and she made me through that whole sequel out because it wasn't working. It was the wrong side of the story. So in the end, I was happy that I hadn't wasted even more time trying to force a book to work just so I could win NaNo.
This year, I wasn't going to do NaNo.
Even though I wanted to.
I didn't have time. I didn't want to lose myself in it. I didn't know what happened in Salt 2 so how could I write it? I made it exactly seven hours into Nov 1 and then I signed up. Why? Because I love NaNo because I like the other people involved. It makes me feel like I'm not alone. Plus, I'm competitive, so I watch all the other charts go up up up and I want mine to go up. (It brings out an ugly side of me.)
But this year I went in with my own goals: write 25k words.
That's all I want. 25k.
Realistically, I knew I didn't have that much time to devote to getting 50k words, but I needed the words and, again, I like the charts/competition/community feel of it. So I went into NaNo wanting that.
It's day 17 when you're reading this (day 14 when I'm writing it) and I have almost 16k words. Good words. Words that I will probably get to keep! And I still have half the month to get the other 10k words. The best part is that when it's over, I'll have a portion of my book. I didn't have that 14 days ago. I didn't even have an idea 14 days ago.
I say that's success.
What's the key then? Do it your way.