How I Failed NaNoWriMo and Why That’s Ok
Hi. My name is Ellie and I failed to complete NaNoWriMo.
Phew. It feels good to get that off my chest.
It is incredibly hard to admit that you failed something. Believe me—I mostly just spent time pretending that my NaNoWriMo didn’t exist for a while.
But it did, and it still does.
Even though I did not complete my 50,000 words in 30 days, and so technically did fail, I don’t truly feel like a failure. There is more to it than just the numbers.
One sunny August afternoon, my favourite writing buddy Sophie and I were hanging out and bouncing ideas off one another. I made the suggestion of writing NaNoWriMo.
‘50,000 words is doable, if we plan enough.’ I insisted. She was dubious. I secretly was too.
The NaNoWriMo website described how you take 2 months to plan, September and October, then come 1st November you have 30 days to write 50,000 words. Surely if we spent two months planning, it would practically write itself?
I was naive. But I was determined.
We got to planning just days later—tent pegging and snowflake methods flying everywhere, inciting incidents coming out of our ears, swimming in character development. It felt so good! I felt like I was becoming a writer.
For those 2 months I put together a detailed plan of the story. Every day the characters felt like they were developing in the back of my head, having conversations amongst themselves. I loved it.
I was new to planning. It sounds silly really, but I mostly just wrote what I felt like writing. I enjoyed constructing my story.
So to hit 50,000 words over 30 days, you need to write 1,667 words per day. This sounded doable!
I was ready and eager to go
Sticking to writing that many words every day is hard.
Still, I carried on. People would ask what I was up to; I enjoyed being open and telling them about NaNoWriMo and about the story I was writing.
I started to feel like a real writer for the first time ever.
Not long before I had set up a Twitter account under @ebettswriter to give me medium to socialise and network with other writers. I found the support from other people taking part in NaNoWriMo on there astounding. That also helped.
When people asked what I was writing for my NaNoWriMo, I loved telling them about it. Previously I had only ever written stuff that I wasn’t that proud of, or not suitable to be discussing with your colleagues, for instance.
But this story was interesting, and the more people I discussed it with the more my ideas would flow and bounce off their reactions. It was fantastic.
In particular, my original NaNoWriMo buddy Sophie was the best person to spend time bouncing ideas off. Having someone who was in the same boat as me was a fantastic luxury.
Making plans to be writing every day gave me some structure, too. It meant that I didn’t just make any old plans with anyone as often as possible. I set aside time for writing, something else I hadn’t done before.
Up until this point, I had every confidence that I was going to do this. And it felt good. I felt like I was finally achieving something.
Day seven was when everything started to go wrong.
I woke up in agony having somehow hurt my back. I had no idea what I had done, but I certainly didn’t feel like writing, let alone anything else.
For the first six days I had kept a sliver ahead of my goal, writing a little over 1,667 words per day. Then nothing.
My streak was broken, my momentum crushed.
Watching the word count getting further and further behind was so disheartening. My little graph on the website was a huge weight on my shoulders, and the little bar sitting under the goal like adding to that.
Realistically I had still achieved something, albeit different to my original goal, but I couldn’t see that then.
I felt like a failure.
I started a new job the following week. I told myself that I would make time in the evenings to write. I didn’t.
Initially I used the bad back as an excuse to not write, but then the new job taking up all my time became my new excuse. It was only really me that I was trying to make up excuses for.
I had let myself down.
Change of perspective
There was a lightbulb moment for me towards the end of November. I decided that I was no longer going to just give up on everything I had achieved so far. It was time to adapt, make it my own.
It felt like there was more to be done.
When I really thought about it, the main negative hanging over my story was the time frame. Knowing that I wouldn’t finish it by 30th November made me not want to write it.
But when I remove that deadline from the equation I felt like I wanted to write my story again. I wanted to finish it.
Gathering up the courage to speak to my original NaNoWriMo buddy and confess my failure, I found that she had ended up in a similar situation. I pitched the idea of removing the timescale to her and she seemed to like it too.
I decided that I was no longer a failure because I had gained so much from NaNoWriMo.
After a very quick Google search, I realised that I was not alone in having not having won NaNoWriMo. In fact, I found one blog post by Sean Munger, who said:
I believe that NaNoWriMo is a net negative for new writers. I think it fosters inaccurate and misleading expectations of what it means to write a novel; I think its rules, process and philosophy generally thwart, rather than enhance, the creative process…
I can see why he might say this.
There are a ton more articles of a similar vein, but that stuck out to me.
A novel just cannot be written in a month. That’s not exactly true, I am sure that there are both experienced writers and naturally talented writers out there that can absolutely write a novel in a month.
But I am not an experienced writer, I am still learning every day.
As I mentioned in my last post, writing is something you can learn. It is a skill that takes time, and you need to invest that time in all aspects in order to improve.
If you have never written a novel before, just like I hadn’t, then how can you reasonably expect yourself to be able to absolutely nail it in 30 days?
Would I do it again?
For those 68 days (planning in September and October, plus six days actual writing) that I was effectively doing NaNoWriMo, I learned so much.
I would agree that it is not a healthy amount of pressure to put on a new writer like myself, but I have learned so much from that. And now, wearing my first NaNoWriMo battle scars proudly, I think I would still consider it this time next year…
Here are some things I learned from taking part in NaNoWriMo that I think are worth sharing:
1. Planning is fantastically helpful, but long-winded
This may seem obvious, but I learned a lot about the benefits of planning when it came to my NaNoWriMo.
As I said, planning begins on 1st September. That gave me two whole months of planning before I sat down to write anything.
It was difficult. But not for the reasons you may think.
Sophie and I sat down with some planning methods and at first I felt stumped. I knew nothing about my characters, how they developed over the course of the story, or even how the story itself developed!
Filling in as much as I could to begin with, I then let it sit for a while. Slowly but surely, it rolled around the back of my head. Just like a snowball, it got bigger and bigger as it did so.
Every time I sat down to plan I ended up adding more and more to the original document that I had so many blank sections on to begin with. I was proud of my visible progression.
When it came to then writing these characters, it was much easier to dictate how they would or would not react to any given situation because I already knew them so well. They had spent weeks inside my head.
Not only with my characters, but I also found that my guideline for the story was much more fleshed out having spent so long planning it. Plus, I actually knew where the story was going for a change!
Making plans to sit down and write every evening did focus me in the beginning.
Instead of filling my week day evenings with whatever I felt, I was taking my ever growing writing hobby more seriously and actually scheduling dedicated time for it. It was great!
Organising my free time around NaNoWriMo was fantastic. But, going forwards, it doesn’t have to apply just to that.
I now know that I can organise my time and dedicate some of it to writing. I also know that I actually rather enjoy doing so!
So much so that I have already decided that my new year’s resolution is to dedicate one day a week to writing, and I shall be roping my writing buddies in with me. For once I can’t wait for January!
Now obviously structuring my free time a little more to ensure that I make time for writing isn’t going to make me a better writer overnight.
But physically making that time in my schedule and planning it in my head helps me take it more seriously as well, which can only be a good on the path to be a Real Writer.
As I mentioned before, I started a Twitter account for the purposes of finding other writers out there to connect with. I am so glad that I did!
Not only did I find tons of people in the same boat as me, trying their hand at NaNoWriMo as well, I also found some genuinely lovely, supportive people whom I hope to continue chatting with for a long time.
We don’t chat regularly, I don’t post on their enough, but the feeling of knowing that you can pick up your phone and either be there cheering someone on (which has become one of my favourite pastimes) or have someone give you a little encouragement when you are having a problem, is amazing.
It wasn’t just online that I found my support.
I started to discuss my plans and my story with friends and colleagues, much more than I ever previously had. I am lucky to have very supportive friends anyway, but when I was discussing the story with them I found that they seemed genuinely interested.
I starting bouncing ideas off them as well as my main writing buddy, and found that this was also incredibly helpful.
So even though I didn’t finish my story, I have still discovered the benefit of having support in my endeavours, and how wonderful a thing it can be to support others, too.
4. Don’t give up
If I had absolutely given up on the whole thing after day six when I hurt my back, I wouldn’t have learned anything.
As it stands, because I decided to just adapt and overcome instead of giving up, I have found myself in a much stronger position.
Instead of focusing on the negatives of what happened, I have found myself thriving in focusing on how much I have learned and gained from the experience.
5. I can do it
I never thought I would be able to do anything close to writing a novel.
But, during this time, I have proven to myself that it is possible.
If I structure myself, and plan enough, and don’t try to go it alone, I do have it in me to be able to do this.
That is a fantastic feeling.
Now that I have removed the time constraint of NaNoWriMo, the beginnings of a story that have come out of it will be picked back up and dusted off, ready to carry on with.
I can’t wait to finish my story.
So, realistically, did I fail?
No. I succeeded.
For the first time ever, I succeeded in structuring my time to allow for writing, planning a novel, creating interesting characters, weaving together a story that is enjoyable, and not giving up.
There are so many blogs out there telling you why you should or shouldn’t take part in NaNoWriMo, but realistically it is a judgement call. I would do it all over again.
Of course, there are good sides and bad sides to taking part in NaNoWriMo.
But taking part in NaNoWriMo was the catalyst for learning everything I learned during this time.
If it hadn’t been for NaNoWriMo, I may have still got around to doing all of those fantastic things that I did during my (short) time taking part, but NaNoWriMo gave me a much needed push.
So if I really did fail, I don’t regret ‘failing’ one bit.