I Failed At NaNoWriMo -- And It Was Good For Me

I could have run myself into the ground, trying to write a novel in 30 days. Instead I didn't. Failure is usually a better teacher than success anyway.

Dec 6, 2011 at 3:00pm | Leave a comment

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is an annual event in which people are encouraged to write a whole 50,000 word novel over the 30 days of November.

It is nothing short of complete mayhem as participants struggle with plotting, research, word counts and the inevitable block, but some do manage to finish every year. Some people even get published! Erin Morgenstern's "The Night Circus," for example, started out as a NaNoWriMo project. 

I failed at NaNoWriMo this year.

More accurately, I never really started NaNoWriMo. I thought about it, I did, and I tossed around some ideas for a story and did some outlining and started researching, and I told myself that I might work on it during November, but right from the outset, I promised myself that my goal wasn’t to write a novel in a month if I wasn’t enjoying myself.

I had a lot going on in November, and was legitimately concerned that trying to force myself to write a novel in a month might be a bad idea, especially since 50,000 words is more novella level, and I’d rather write something much longer.

I gave myself, in other words, permission to fail, which is definitely something new for me.

People use words like “driven” when they describe me, because, well, I’m driven. I work a lot. I am constantly working, actually, turning out close to 50,000-70,000 words a week in an average week.

The result of working a lot is that you can tend to strain yourself, and when you’re like me and you keep taking on more obligations without thinking about the cost, you can find yourself backed into a corner. An unfun corner.

I resolved that I’d do NaNoWriMo as long as I was having fun, but that I’d stop if it wasn’t, and this was a pretty radical step for me. I don’t take on obligations by halves. I’ve never said that I’d stop doing something if it wasn’t fun. In fact, I will keep doing something, keep hammering it into the ground, long past the point of no fun.

NaNoWriMo was, in a sense, an experiment for me: Could I allow myself to fail at something?

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As November progressed and my friends provided word count updates and talked about what they were doing, the excitement was kind of infectious; I was glad so many people were staying on track and their projects sounded fun and they were having fun. Meanwhile, I wrote almost no fiction at all1 in November.

And I was strangely OK with that. I didn’t feel like a failure or like I’d done something wrong. Because I did something more important in November: I gave myself permission to take care of myself, which is something I do not do very often. I spent several days mostly sleeping because I had a ferocious cold, and I refused to feel guilty when I woke up and hadn’t done very much work and oh look, it was 9:00, so I might as well just go to bed for the night.

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I spent a lot of time reading in November, and refused to feel guilty for that, eitlher. I read some good books and some not so good books, curled up on my chair with the cat, and I could feel my brain taking this great huge sigh of relief, kind of like how the springs of an old bed groan when you get up in the morning. Finally, my brain said, you’re giving me a freakin’ break.

NaNoWriMo isn’t a format that works well for me, honestly, although I did “win” last year2. It tends to encourage me to hurry, and that makes me sloppy, and I end up having to do the work over again anyway. I am by nature an impatient person, but novel-length fiction doesn’t lend itself well to impatience. If you’re crashing around without a clear idea of a plan, it’s going to be noticeable, as beta readers pointed out to me.

“This would be the point where I normally give up in sheer frustration,” one beta said. It was immensely helpful feedback.

This turned out to be an interesting experiment for me: I recognized that NaNoWriMo was happening and loosely committed myself to doing it but gave myself permission to not do it. To commit the dreaded flakeout, and just... not finish.

Round about the 20th, I started feeling a sense of guilt and panic rising. I could hammer out a 50,000 word rough draft in 10 days, I thought, especially since I already had about 15,000 words already. I could do it. It would be out in my word processor and I would win.

And then my cold reared up again and I spent a day insensate on the living room floor and thought “No, you know what, screw it. I don’t need to win.”

The experiment gave me hope: Could I allow myself to fail at other things in the future? Could I maybe start prioritizing all the projects in my life, learning to say no or stop doing things if they weren’t interesting for me anymore? Could I, in other words, achieve a work/life balance?

’fess up, XO Janers -- did you do NaNoWriMo? Did you succeed?


1. For me, I mean; I ended up getting around 20,000 words into a project I will probably keep developing in the coming months.

2. I subsequently cut close to 30,000 words from that novel and added 50,000 more.