What I Learned From Failing NaNoWriMo (Twice)

It’s November again, and many writers know what that means: NaNoWriMo.

If you’re not a writer, or if you simply haven’t heard (I didn’t know about this until 2014), NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month, which is a challenge every November in which writers strive to write 50,000 words in 30 days (the length of a short novel) to “win.” It’s an intense challenge, and once you start following hashtags and other writers, you may be inundated with Preptober (October NaNo preparations) and NaNo information everywhere.

Since I learned about NaNo, I have participated in (and won!) several Camp NaNoWriMos (which happen twice per year in April and July where writers set their own goals) and in two full NaNoWriMos. And I’m participating again this year to finish my fantasy work in progress. But you know what?

I’ve never won November NaNo.

But I have learned quite a bit. Here are the biggest things I’ve learned from my two failures at NaNoWriMo.

  1. It’s not for everyone. While this kind of program can be the kick in the pants a lot of writers find useful, it doesn’t work for every writer. The more we write, the more we find the style that works best for us. It may not be an intense NaNo format, and that’s okay.
  2. It’s a great way to build a habit. One of the hardest parts of writing is discipline, and NaNo can be really helpful to get your butt in the chair and work… which develops a regular habit that will help you for months or years down the line. It can establish a precedent that will help you treat your writing like a job, something that is necessary should you want to eventually make it your job (but that’s a topic for another day… in the meantime, check out this video by Meg LaTorre).
  3. Writing regularly builds excitement. Creating this regular writing habit, like through this event, is a great way to build momentum and excitement for your story. The more you write, the more you may find you enjoy it and want to dive back in.
  4. Writing quickly helps keep your story consistent. Another advantage is that by writing quickly, you reduce the possibility of adding inconsistencies in the story that may otherwise build up over a long writing period (say, years to finish a novel). When the process is drawn out, remembering small details, even as simple as an eye color, can become difficult, and small errors in consistency may build up and create extra work for you during edits.
  5. It’s easy to beat yourself up. Let me tell you, missing even one day can overwhelm you. Writing 1,667 words every day is hard, and it piles up fast if you don’t keep up. Because of this, it can be really easy to despair if you fall behind and to simply give up. For me, this tends to happen once Thanksgiving hits and family events start up… I lose writing time, and when it’s so close to the end, it feels impossible to catch back up. It’s hard to keep going. But when this happens, it’s important to remember the last point.
  6. You never actually “fail” as long as you write. Even one word written is something you didn’t have before. And that’s progress toward your goals.

In my first couple of attempts, I put so much pressure on myself to meet the goals that when I failed it was hard not to feel down on myself about it. But at this point in my life, I’ve decided it’s better to use NaNo as an ideal goal and not as a marker of success. As I said in my last point, every word added is a triumph, so you can’t truly fail as long as you try. Already this year, I’ve written thousands of words I might not have gotten to yet without NaNo to give me a push. And I am excited to finish my manuscript.

So you know what? This year, NaNo is going to be my kick in the pants, a goal to get me to finish the draft of this novel. But it is not going to be full of the pressure I used to put on myself. If I don’t finish what I set out to do, at least I have pushed myself that much closer. And that is enough success for me.

Fellow NaNos, please remember to cut yourselves some slack this month. NaNo is stressful, and a lot of it is from pressure we put on ourselves. So if you meet your goals, congratulations, and that’s a huge accomplishment! But if you don’t, remember that you still succeeded by adding to your manuscript. Either way, you have something to be proud of!

Good luck, and happy writing!

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Are you participating in NaNo this year? How “successful” have you been in previous years? Tell me your tips and tricks below!

When You Don’t Meet Your Goals

So NaNoWriMo was in the month of November. Show of hands, who participated? Who is close to completing the goal? For me, yes on the first and no on the second.

Unfortunately, while I participated in NaNo this month, I was not able to complete my goal. I am not going to be able to reach 50k unless something really drastic happens. I was on track for much of the month, though, and I did write over 30k, which is still the most I’ve ever done.

And I have to admit I’m disappointed in myself. I feel like I let myself down. I feel like I let my fiance down, since he was rooting for me so much to reach my goal. And worst of all, I feel like I let my dream down.

So what happened?

Very simply: life.

Long version: I was on track, then I had a friend visit for a few days, so I was entertaining instead of completing my writing. Then I went home for Thanksgiving. Then I was in South Carolina for the weekend. And by that point, I was hopelessly behind, even though I did try to catch up when I could.

Now, this is the second time I have attempted NaNo. Last time I made it to 14k before I called it quits. That time, it was an intensely stressful month and the onset of a depressive episode that blocked by path. This time, it was poor planning. But I still got closer than last time.

So how do we handle it when we don’t meet our goals? Here are some tips that I’m trying to keep in mind and might help you also.

1.  Acknowledge how you feel. Don’t try to bury your anger or guilt or sadness or whatever other emotion developed from you failing to reach your goal. It’s okay to feel. Let yourself feel it. Just don’t let yourself stay there and sit in the mud.

2. Evaluate what happened. Take stock of the situation. What prevented you from reaching your goal? Where did it come from? Be realistic: was it preventable?

3. Cut yourself some slack. Don’t beat yourself up for failing. If you really tried, then you still accomplished something that hadn’t been done before. In the case of NaNo, if you wrote at all, you still added words that didn’t exist before November. Just because you didn’t finish the entire goal doesn’t mean you deserve to feel like crap about it. Life happens. Things happen. We mess up or get lazy or have too much to do. It’s okay. Accept it for what it is and strive to do better as best you can.

4. Create an action plan. After you figure out what prevented you from reaching your goal, set up a way to reach your next goal. For example, since I didn’t complete NaNo this year but still want to, I will alter my approach next year. I will weight the writing at the beginning of the month so that I have the room to spare at the end, when holidays and life really get in the way. If illness got in the way for you, like it did for me last time, make a plan to address it. If it can’t be resolved or won’t be resolved for a time, create a plan to cope and fit your writing in around it. Remember: your health always, always comes first.

5. And most of all, don’t give up. Yes, failure can feel very personal and devastating. Don’t use it as an excuse to throw in the towel. Pick up your manuscript and keep working on it. Just keep putting those words one after another, and you’ll get through it. Don’t stop writing, and don’t give in to whatever negative emotions come up.

There you have it: advice for the writing failures in your life. I hope this list of tips is helpful to you. For now, I’m going to shift back to my own writing now. I might not be able to complete the 50k this month, but I can do my best to get close.

Happy writing!

The Power of Writing on a Schedule

There are so many things I could say about this. But today, as I was trying for the millionth time to catch up on my NaNoWriMo word count, I had a moment of realization.

Let me back up for a minute. This morning I had been driving to work when an old story paid me a visit. It was a story I had so much enthusiasm for at one time, but I never made it very far because it was a bit outside of my usual genre… definitely more on the thriller side than the fantasy side, even though there is potential magic at work. So after 14 single-spaced pages, I had closed it up and walked away.

Well, the main character came back to me. Cara Ebner, a girl with a pretty tragic past and some crazy happenings in her current life. A girl from my own life, one with Pennsylvania Dutch (German) roots, a rural upbringing, and a brain for science. A girl finding herself at college and alone for the first time ever. She didn’t remain alone for long, since she was befriended by a sweet English major named Bronte Celestin, a smart girl who was born in Louisiana but moved to Ohio at a young age (more I don’t really know how to write… never been to Louisiana, and I never wrote a woman of color quite like her before, and it scared me to mess it up).

I loved and still love this story. But there was so much that was challenging, I moved on to other projects. But this morning, Cara was whispering in my ear. “Where’d you go?” she crooned. “I need resolution!”

“But your title was just taken by a published book,” I tried.

“There are other titles.”

I didn’t even need to think that hard to come up with a new title I loved, and I love it way more than the original title. I’ll refrain from sharing it here, at least this early. But just like that, my interest was reignited. I still want to write the story of Cara, of her first experience in college, of the things that haunt her.

And this is my realization. This is one of the secrets of NaNo that not everyone notices. When you write consistently and on a schedule like I have been all month, you just want to write more. You’re never satisfied with where you are; you see where your current story is going, you see the next story, you see how to fix the last story.

I was feeling pretty discouraged when this all started, that I wasn’t a writer worth anything and that perhaps I should give up on storytelling. But now, with one draft awaiting the end of its resting time before edits, one draft being hacked at with huge chunks falling off every day, and one draft waiting in the wings, I feel like I have more passion to keep going than I did in the last three years.

Let’s do this, writer friends.

New Draft Complete!

Exciting news: I finished a new draft!

A brand new story, so shiny and sparkly, is finally drafted after an agonizing year of trying to get through it. I never fell out of love with the idea, but slugging through the middle was really hard this time around. I knew where I had started and where I was going, but I spent a long time figuring out how to get my characters there. There were definitely some surprises and twists along the way, and I fell in love with relationships I hadn’t originally planned. Actually, two of my characters were supposed to hate each other… and they ended up in love! I gave myself warm fuzzies, and I can’t wait to give them to you, too!

Then I hit the last third of the book. Once I knew what was going to happen again, the words flowed like I had turned on a faucet. And last night I hit that last key. Finally. This feeling. Ugh, amazing. If you’ve ever completed a large project or a passion project, you know this feeling.

What’s next? Well, letting this one air dry for a bit (about a month, just long enough to work on a new story for NaNoWriMo!) so that I can come back to it with new eyes. As I was writing, a lot of different things changed, like the age of my main protagonist and her feelings about another character, so I know there is going to be a lot of rewriting and cleanup. After the sitting-period, I will print off the draft, read through it for overall notes, and then open up a brand new file to redraft… something I’m actually really looking forward to. I can’t wait to shine up this story, to tie up the loose ends and plot holes, to implement the new ideas that I had mid-drafting.

What’s this new story about? Without creating an actual summary, here’s the idea:

Ember is a half-human, half-Nis (fox spirit) hybrid who never quite felt like she fit in. Then, she finds herself forced to graduate (or, you know, expelled) from Nis school and moves in with her brother. However, she is left with this warning: she must learn how to be a real Nis, or she will be rejected from their society altogether.

Then she meets Sora, a Swan-shifter. Sora is part of a discreet organization known as the Knights Errant, an organization claiming they want equality and justice for all types of supernaturals, not just the Nis. This quest for equality strikes a chord in Ember’s bruised heart, and she begins spending more time with Sora. However, not long after this, her pearl, the seed and anchor of her magic and the most important part of Nis life, is stolen. If she can’t recover it, she may just be banished from Nis society permanently and without the chance to make amends.

In an effort to recover her pearl, she begins going to Knights Errant meetings with Sora. Before she realizes what has happened, she’s in over her head and forced to resolve a centuries-old cover-up by the Nis Elders… one that could ultimately destroy the world. With the help of her brother and her new friends, she joins the fight to stop an ancient evil and find her place as a true Nis.

So there you have it! I’m so excited about this story, and I can’t wait to polish it up and get it out into the world.

In the meantime, anyone else doing NaNoWriMo this year? I’m going to try to complete it with a new high fantasy based on a D&D campaign I wrote a couple months ago.

Tell me your stories and plans in the comments!