Why I Don’t Regret Failing the NaNoWriMo Challenge. Twice.

For authors, November isn’t just a month of pumpkins and first snows. It’s also NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, that time of year where thousands of writers across the world dedicate themselves to writing a novel in just one month.

Logo_of_National_Novel_Writing_MonthWhen I first heard about NaNoWriMo, I knew I wanted to try. As an author, one of my biggest struggles is with motivation, staying on track and forcing myself to finish projects. I tend to start new books every time I’m frustrated with a current draft, which means I have about 50 first chapters to 50 different novels I’m planning on writing some day.

It was with this attitude that I decided to throw myself into NaNoWriMo the first time. The year was 2012, I had a book that I wanted to finish by Christmas, and a novel writing month seemed like just the ticket. I joined the online NaNoWriMo community and got started.

And then I failed. Well, I think I made it through week 2. I wrote about 15,000 words (far short of the 50,000 word goal). Next year, I’ve got this, I thought. The following year, I tried again. That time, I made it to week 3, with about 20,000 words under my belt. Another failure.

So, no, I am definitely not a NaNoWriMo success story. But through my experience, I learned a lot about myself, my writing process, and the writing community as a whole. And while writing a whole novel in a month might not be for me, I will never regret the time I spent devoting myself to the process.

For those of you attempting NaNoWriMo this year, here are the five biggest lessons I learned when I embarked on (and then dropped out of) this daunting task:

  1. 50,000 Words is a lot, but That Doesn’t Mean They All Have to Be Good

To stay on track with NaNoWriMo, you need to write roughly 1,667 words a day, which doesn’t sound like too much on the surface. But every writer is different, and I’ve never been the type to sit down every day and write at least a thousand words. Instead, I’m a feast or famine writer: Inano write a couple of times a week and pump out 3,000 words, which I then painstakingly revise until they’re perfect. So every day I fell behind in NaNoWriMo, I started to feel more and more panicked. I can make it up if I write 5,000 words today and then 3,000 words tomorrow with no revision at all, I’d reason with myself. But those numbers kept creeping higher and higher and suddenly I felt like a dieter who kept rationalizing their decision to not go to the gym.

What I’ve learned since is that no one goes into NaNoWriMo thinking that they’re instantly crafting the next great American novel. It’s about quantity, not necessarily quality. So my process of writing a bit and revising a lot was not helping me hit my word count. Your regular writing process will probably need to go out the window for you to succeed at NaNoWriMo; the whole point is to get your butt in the chair and just produce, with the mentality that you can always go back and revise once November is over. In order to be successful, I needed to adapt my process to the exercise – a lesson that I learned way too late.

  1. Friends are Just as Important as Word Count

I may not have gotten a full novel out of my NaNoWriMo experience, but I did make a lot of friends. And, actually, that was my favorite part of the entire process. The pressure of hitting my word count made me anxious, but it was a lot easier once I joined a writing community – both in person and online.

During those months, I was constantly chatting with other authors, sharing tips and discussing progress. I joined write-ins, where local groups would meet in person to either offer support or just quietly sit and write. I participated in writing drills on Twitter where we’d write in 3 minute bursts, trying to beat each other’s word counts. It’s a technique I still use today as a way to get my creative juices flowing. I never did hit the 50,000 word mark, but I certainly met a lot of cool people along the way.

  1. Anything that Gets You Writing is a Good Thing

If I hadn’t tried NaNoWriMo in the first place, I never would have gotten 15,000 words on paper. Or 20,000 words. Or the motivation to keep going on those particular projects. It reminds me of that exercise quote: no matter how slow you go, you’re still lapping everyone on the couch. Getting started is always tough for me and NaNoWriMo was great motivation to stop spinning my wheels and actually produce. It might not have been enough to “win,” but it was certainly more than I had when I started.

  1. Discovering Your Process as a Writer is Insanely Important

You know that writing process I just described above? Where I write prolifically a few times a week and then revise the crap out of it? Joining NaNoWriMo helped me discover it in the first place. Before that, I had been a write-when-the-spirit-moves-me writer, and I’d never given much thought to how I actually liked to work. When I tried to write a novel in a month, I realized what I didn’t want that process to look like. I started sitting down more to write, but also devoting myself more to revision. Now, my writing process is something I’m constantly evaluating and working on – it’s a fluid relationship and one that’s extremely important to my identity as a writer. As cheesy as it sounds, NaNoWriMo helped me start that conversation with myself.

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  1. “Winning” Doesn’t Always Mean Finishing

When I first “failed,” at NaNoWriMo, I beat myself up a lot. I really thought I would rise triumphant, holding my perfect novel aloft like a paginated baby Simba. Obviously, it didn’t happen. But looking back, I did succeed. I did finish that original novel by Christmas – I just didn’t finish it all in November. Which was maybe a good thing in hindsight: having the extra time helped me create cleaner work than I was capable of producing on a tight deadline. But if I hadn’t attempted NaNoWriMo in the first place, that never would have happened. Beyond that, I also learned lessons that I’m still using as a writer today.

So if you’re in the process of writing a novel this month, good luck. And just know that no matter the outcome, NaNoWriMo will be an experience you’ll never forget.

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