Failing the NaNoWriMo Test

So this November I tried for the second time to complete NanNoWriMo (for those unfamiliar with this, it represents an opportunity/challenge to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November). Although I never publicly launched a new novel or attended any of the social writing events in either attempt, I did start both challenges with the intention of trying to see if I could knock out a 50,000 word draft in a month. Turns out, I can’t…

This post isn’t really about my failed attempts but rather what I learned about my own writing process as a result. While I think NaNoWriMo is a great exercise for many writers it (obviously) didn’t turn out to be the best for me. In both of my attempts I was in the early stages of a new project and I thought it might be a way to overcome the dreaded internal critic and kickstart my project into high gear. Turns out my creative process just doesn’t work that way…Here is what I learned:

  1. I write quickly anyway. With determination I always finish my projects and the deadlines I set with my agent provides motivation (and fear) enough for me to push through to the end of the first, second, third and fourth (or more) drafts. That being said…
  2. The first 50-100 pages for me are critical. I have to get these right or I cannot (and I mean cannot!) move forward. I often spend the first month or so on these pages alone – making sure they are written, edited, rewritten and re-edited to my satisfaction. NaNoWriMo helped me realize and understand this – the 100 page mark was the exact point in both drafts where my brain froze at the thought of continuing on without fixing what I knew was wrong.
  3. This second failed NaNoWriMo test enabled me to come to grips with the hows and why’s of point # 2. It’s all about the voice. If I don’t get the voice and characterization correct, everything I write from that point forward feels inauthentic and forced. In this last attempt, I found myself going through the motions of writing scenes to satisfy the NaNoWriMo word requirements until eventually my creative process shriveled up and died…until I went back and started working through the voice in the first 100 pages…
  4. Word targets freak me out. I don’t do well focusing on a target number of words to write per day or week.  As a plotter I do much better with setting goals in terms of chapters and scenes than focusing on the number of words. I will often lay out an outline and move along that trajectory until I come to a point where I have to go back, reread everything and make course corrections as necessary. NaNoWriMo taught me to make peace with this…and also to realize that…
  5. Although my internal critic can be a pain in the bum it’s also what helps me craft the voice that I need to move forward with my novel. It was the same with last year’s project (which, by the way, resulted in a novel that is currently out on submission, so my NaNoWriMo failure isn’t all that bad!).
  6. Finally, I realized that I need to trust, accept, and love my own particular creative process.

So, although I think NaNoWriMo is great for kickstarting other people’s writing – I need to accept it isn’t for me. Undertaking the challenge, however, has helped me realize that I have to honor my own creative process and since mine (so far at least!) usually results in a completed novel, then it’s a process that ultimately works:)

So TKZers, are any of you doing the NaNoWriMo challenge this November? How does it work for you and your creative process?

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22 thoughts on “Failing the NaNoWriMo Test

  1. It’s good that you’ve reconfirmed the process of writing that works for you–and you still got some benefit out of Nanowrimo. I love the idea of Nanowrimo. I did try it once (not recently) but I was too poorly planned with my novel in question to make a successful go of it.

    I like the *concept* of Nanowrimo but I’ve always wondered why on earth they chose November, of all months. For me personally, by the time November rolls around I am mentally exhausted after a hard year & so depleted that trying to force out 50,000 words is just crazy. Doing something like that in January or February would seem more feasible, after the holidays when you’ve had a chance to recharge your batteries.

    • LOL, I’m with you on that, BK. A 31-day month would have helped, and Thanksgiving Day is pretty much shot after turkey (unless nap-dreaming is part of your process).

      Clare, I applaud you for trying again. I like NaNo in part for the “stretch” aspect. Even when you snap back into your preferred pattern, maybe you’ll write a little freer because of it. Nothing’s really wasted.

      The key point may be your #5. You did find a book even if you didn’t “win” the badge. I’ve likened NaNo to a great big outlining/brainstorming exercise. Material is generated. A lot of it. And sometimes that’s the basis of planned and structured project to come.

      • Totally agree – nothing is ever wasted when you get a chance for early focus on your writing. You’re also right – November is a crazy month for the NaNoWriMo challenge – before you know it it’s Thanksgiving!

  2. If NaNo works for you, great. I tried it once. Until that point, I’d never been at a “starting place” in November, and I wasn’t going to abandon a book to start a new one. What I learned: Never again. It’s not my process, and I shared my reasons on my own blog post. Rather than go into all the details in these comments, here’s a link if you’re interested. https://terryodell.com/im-not-nanowrimo/

  3. I’m with you, Clare, especially on #2. The advice to push forward and not edit until the first draft is done doesn’t work for me. I can’t ignore glaring problems any more than I could ignore a pebble in my shoe while trying to run a marathon. If I don’t fix it then and there, by the end of the first draft, that pebble has grown into a boulder and my foot’s a giant blister.

    #6 is wisdom!

    Good post, Clare!

    • Thanks – and yes, clearly our brains do not like leaving that pebble in the manuscript:) I need to feel comfortable that the first chapters of the novel are really sound before I can move on.

  4. I could relate to all your reasons for why NaNoWriMo doesn’t work for you, Clare. I’m the same way. Word counts add unnecessary pressure, IMHO. I’d rather write 50K words that work than 50K words that need a major rewrite. I also edit what I wrote the day before. It’d drive me crazy to jump in and just write for the sake of writing. Though, like you mentioned, I can see the challenge working for those who don’t have a strict writing schedule or finish projects. It’s just not for me.

    • It’s interesting but the only times I’ve really tried to focus on just getting the words down (I once spent a weekend trying to desperately finish a first draft) almost all those words had to be cut – the pressure just left my writing hollow and crappy! Now I know to focus on the writing and getting those early chapters right – then I seem to get the flow going and can continue reasonably quickly but as soon as a rush and focus on word count again, disaster!

  5. This is my first attempt at NaNoWriMo, and I am woefully behind, for a lot of the reasons outlined above. I think it’s been a great exercise, though, because it forces me to focus more on writing and less on some of the things that have bogged me down.

    I also like word count, and I have started keeping an Excel file with daily counts. For me, it’s a good motivational tool, and I like the challenge of trying to better the number. I have found that I can actually write better if I just loosen up a bit and not worry so much about the perfect word (at least not for the first draft).

    I agree that November is a bad month to have it—March would be better for me (NaMaWriMo? It just doesn’t have the same ring.)

  6. I’m on my third year of NaNoWriMo. As a new writer I’ve loved how it’s given me that push to practice things like story structure and outlining. It’s also taught me about goal setting and how to work writing into my already busy schedule. I haven’t approached these NaNoWriMo books as serious books, but ones where I try new genres, writing styles, points of view , etc. But then again, I’m still very much in the practice stage of my career. 😄

    • Well done Nichole! NaNoWriMo is great for all the points you outlined and I’m betting even in this ‘practice’ stage it’s giving you a great foundation for when you find the serious book project you want to finish:)

  7. You are not alone, Edward. 🙂

    When I read this, Clare, I thought you were channeling my thoughts. Your process sounds very similar to mine in that I, too, can’t find my way until the first couple chapters are sound and as close to final draft as I can manage. I have to find my stride and rhythm, because I have learned after 13 books that the pace and rhythm varies a little with each one. Some books come sliding out in a mad rush; others are slow and painful. I now recognize this and don’t agonize.

    The NaNo thing, I am sure, would just frustrate me.

    • I did get frustrated with myself until I realized I just have to accept my process:) Over the last 18 months I have completed an adult, YA and MG book which all have completely different voices, styles and structure – after the NaNoWriMo ‘failure’ though I realize how the process for each was the same – getting those first chapters and the voice of the characters down before moving on.

  8. Great point, Mike: “For me, it’s a good motivational tool, and I like the challenge of trying to better the number. I have found that I can actually write better if I just loosen up a bit and not worry so much about the perfect word (at least not for the first draft).”

    This is my fourth NaNo year. I come back for several reasons:
    Consistently writing every day.
    Carving out time from my family and day job but limiting it to one month means I don’t have a mutiny at home.
    The thrill of participating in a world-wide event, the support & pep talks.
    I often scrap much of the first draft in later revisions when I find the perfect voice and plot. The 50,000 words develops back story and characterization that may never see the light of day, but informs the final project.

    I’m still new so I don’t really have a style like Clare and the rest of you with more experience. For me, I like the motivation to finish something I started. Two tips for anyone who wants to “win” at NaNo: publicly declaring your novel and attending a few community write-ins or social events will greatly increase your odds of hitting the 50,000 goal.

    Lastly, I don’t like the “failure” label. Any amount you write in November or any other month is more than you had sitting on the couch binge-watching Netflix.
    Thanks for a good post, Clare

  9. The first year I did Nano was our first year in this house. I started writing exactly at midnight. I was still in my vampire garb, long black wig, burgundy velvet cape and all. I finished The Civilized Vampyre on November 30 just before midnight. I had a blast. I wrote something very different from what I usually write. I ran across it in the garage the other day and I still like it.

    There were some years I didn’t finish and some I didn’t even try.

    Decided to do it again this year. By the chart I’m way behind but that’s still more than I’ve been doing. I hadn’t planned on doing a Christmas show, but a great one was offered to me so I have day job + theatre + Nano + hosting Thanksgiving. The show opens December 1. Am I nuts? Possibly. Am I having fun? Yep. When I get tired of writing, I run lines. When I get tired of that, my brain is ready to write again.

    I’m on vacation this week so that’s a plus.

    I went on the Write Around Disney World event with the Orlando Nano group. Great fun.

    I don’t know if it’s because I started out as a columnist, but I do my best work when someone is yelling “We’re going to press – I need a column NOW!”

    If I have a lot of time to dither, I will.

  10. My process is similar to yours. Every day I edit and re-edit what I wrote the day before. Then edit at the end of each act (four part structure usually) and again when the draft is done. I know I’m done when I’m sick of he story.
    I finished NaMo in 21 days a few years ago. It was a mystery called ‘Finley’s Confession’. That and the MCs (a suspended cop and a newspaper reporter) were the only things worth saving. The rest was total and complete crap. It rambled all over the place. Names spontaneously changed. Saving it would have taken months. The sound you hear in the background is a flush.
    NaMo isn’t for me.
    I once had a friend who was one of the ghost writers for a series of westerns. He wrote on foolscap with a pencil. The publisher gave him the premise and away he went. What came out of his pencil was near perfect: grammar, spelling, plot, consistency, you name it. From beginning to end — three weeks. He had no goals except the finish day.
    All of us are different. Like you, I learned to stick to my process.
    One other thing I’ve learned lately. Novels aren’t for me. I do much better with short stories and novellas.
    Now I have to edit this post.

  11. Clare, after trying NaNoWriMo twice, I came to the realization that I am too busy writing to participate. Wait, what? Yeah. I am a notorious pantser, so my timeline never works for this annual kabuki dance. In fact, I wish they would turn NaNoWriMo into NaNoWatchMo, where I stream endless episodes of shows like ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ and ‘iZombie.’ Anyway, my internal critic is an idiot, and I’ve given him the month off. Happy writing!

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