Lessons Learned from Losing NaNoWriMo

author buried in tasks during NanowrimoI’ve been participating in National Novel Writing Month nearly every year since 2004. A couple of my favorite stories have resulted from it, including Don’t Tell Anyone. And since I had to overcome a ton of obstacles to “win” that first NaNoWriMo challenge, I felt a tremendous sense of accomplishment from pulling it off. I still have the certificate tacked to a bulletin board in my kitchen. Yeah, I know. After a certain age, that’s kinda-sorta pathetic, but it’s my kinda-sorta pathetic, so it’s staying.

Considering what was going on in my life during that first try — an uber-demanding full-time job, family stress, houseguests, a double mastectomy for my mother-in-law — I had no business taking on the added responsibility of hitting the daily word quota to produce something resembling a story. And while the writing was one of my more enjoyable tasks, and an opportunity to escape for an hour and a half or so every day, it took its toll on my health, and I spent half of December recovering.

But I learned from that lesson. Maybe that’s part of the reason the certificate is still on display. It’s a reminder to take care with my commitments. I’m pretty good at juggling — little round objects as well as responsibilities — but if I have too many balls in the air, odds are that one of them is going to succumb to the laws of gravity.

So following that first exhilarating but exhausting experience, I’d sit down toward the end of every October and evaluate my schedule. If I thought I could reasonably fit the extra writing time into November without sacrificing the really important things, like sleep and exercise and paying the mortgage, I’d commit to participating. And I’m driven to finish what I start, so when I fully embraced the challenge, I’d hit the deadline.

This past October, I said yes. November is usually a busy time for copyeditors; authors want to make holiday release dates and I’m happy to help them. But by some fluke — and an author deciding to delay her next project — I had a bit more flexibility. I even had an idea I’d been moodling over. So I thought I had a reasonable shot at 1,667 words a day, which is what you need to complete the fifty thousand words in the very short thirty days of November. I didn’t have an outline, but that’s the way I like to roll for NaNoWriMo: On November 1, I wake up and start writing.

For the first week, it was going well. I hit my daily word count; I entered it into the NaNoWriMo website; I watched my stats climb. The story began to unfold.

It’s a complex project that has two point-of-view characters, two narrative arcs, and two time frames that weave around each other. And I quickly discovered that it would require research before I could even write some parts of it. That meant time for writing, time for research, and time for my brain to piece it all together.

It wasn’t enough time. Fifteen thousand words in, it occurred to me that this might not have been the best choice of projects for my “pantsing” NaNoWriMo style. I kept at it, but the going was slow. Some days, I’d squeak out eight hundred words and feel drained from it. Some days, I didn’t want to face it at all. I watched my stats fall behind. I watched my friends move forward. My frustration intensified, as did my stress level.

I don’t like to give up. But somewhere during the beginning of Week Three, it occurred to me that I would never be able to reach fifty thousand words in the seven days I had left, let alone get to type “the end” on my zero-draft by November 30.

And that was okay. I didn’t really care about getting a certificate or any of the goodies the NaNoWriMo people give you for “winning.” Been there, done that. It’s fun to be part of a huge community all focused on the same goal. But I realized that this November, I cared less about making the 50K and more about getting a jump on the next novel and kicking my butt back into a daily writing routine akin to Martin Crosbie’s thousand-words-per-day challenge, which I’d let slide. When I decided to cut myself a break, the elephant that had parked on my chest got up and walked away.

If I decide to do NaNoWriMo again, and I’m pretty certain that I will, I’ll outline first, to give myself a better shot at finishing. And even if I don’t complete the word count in the allotted time, failure is far from fatal. If I’m not failing once in a while at my personal challenges, that means I’m not trying hard enough.

Now it’s your turn. What lessons have you learned from falling short of your goals?

Author: Laurie Boris

Laurie Boris is a freelance writer, editor, proofreader, and former graphic designer. She has been writing fiction for over twenty-five years and is the award-winning author of four novels. She lives in New York’s lovely Hudson Valley. Learn more about Laurie at her website and her Amazon author page.

22 thoughts on “Lessons Learned from Losing NaNoWriMo”

  1. Congrats on winning it once, Laurie! I wrote a book after blogging for 4 years and I now have a new respect for authors. It was incredibly challenging and I did not know if I would even be able to finish it. I’m still not sure if I’m going to write another one.

  2. “If I’m not failing once in a while at my personal challenges, that means I’m not trying hard enough.”

    I think that nails it. I’ve hear comparable sayings in different arenas that say much the same thing. One was a guy who was a mentor and my boss at two different companies who said that anyone who never makes mistakes was taking too much time and not getting enough done.

  3. Really excellent, Laurie! Any writer knows that every story is different, some come fast, some more slowly. They each have their own kind of internal rhythm.And as much as we are educated to the idea that creativity and productivity are the same darned thing, they aren’t.

  4. Given your plot challenges — and especially the departure of that elephant — I’d say you made the right decision, Laurie. And you’re still farther ahead on your book than you were on November 1, so I’d say you still won. 🙂

    1. Anything that makes the elephant leave is good. And you’re right–I have a good start now and will craft the story together as I can get it to flow. Thanks, Lynne!

  5. So resonates with me, thank you! This year has been one of extraordinary upheaval–the good, the bad, and everything in between. In terms of writing, I’ve done nothing but beat myself up over the fact that I didn’t meet my arbitrary deadline for my fourth novel. I thought NaNoWriMo might help, but as November approached, it was clear I had to accept that this year, I couldn’t participate. This post affirms it’s okay to let go and walk away, despite the fact I can be so stubborn about not letting go of certain goals!

    1. Oh, the bruises when we beat ourselves up! I know, it’s tough. I have a latent Wonder Woman gene, I think, that occasionally has to be sat down and lectured. Or, to paraphrase Clint Eastwood, “A woman has to know her limitations.” Thank you for reading, Christine.

  6. I learned that I need to write daily (I lost this year because I got sick in the middle of Nanowrimo). Plus when I get sick with the flu and it goes to the lungs that I am unable to think or write at all. I need to write all the time instead of a month a year. I did get a good start on a novel though– about 10,000 words into it.

  7. You’re braver than I am. I hate writing to a deadline. I find I need ruminating time, nap time (to dream), research time, etc. I doubt I’ll ever do NaNo, but I heartily salute everyone who does.
    The main thing I’ve learned from not attaining goals is that the earth still turns, the sun still comes up, life goes on. Thank god. If it was up to pantser, undisciplined me, that probably would not happen.

    1. I’m accustomed to writing to deadline, so that helps, and even now with the fiction I impose one on myself to stay on track. Not usually so many words in such a short time, though! For me, it was a good challenge. Thanks, Melissa!

  8. Thanks for sharing your experience, Laurie. I did NaNoWriMo this month, and while I technically “won” by cobbling together 50,000 words, it felt like a failure because it was very stressful (to the point that I dreaded sitting down to write), and the whole process put me off writing that story. I’m taking a step back from it for a while just because I still have this dread that pervaded me during NaNo about being forced to sit there are write this story. So, I wish I’d taken a page from your book and just stopped, because forcing it also has consequences.

    I think we learn something every time we try something and it doesn’t work out how we anticipated. We learn where the challenges might come and, really, we learn more about our own abilities to cope with challenges, stress and manage our time. Knowing what doesn’t work, is often as, or more, important than knowing what works.

    1. Excellent points, RJ, thank you. One year I did muscle my way through, and I haven’t touched that manuscript since. Maybe I should have tossed it in on that one, as well. But maybe I wasn’t ready to learn that lesson, back then. I have these little write-on magnets on my refrigerator, and while I was recovering from a tough injury, I’d written “progress is not always linear.” I need to look at that more often. I think overall, I’ve learned more from falling short of my expectations than I have from success.

  9. Dear Laurie,

    As I posted earlier, my “win” on NaNoWriMo was strictly by coincidence, because I don’t write well (or do a lot of things) by schedule. That’s why I love writing: it’s the opposite of a real job 🙂
    What I need is a NaNoProMo, which would force me to do a month’s steady promotions!

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