Why Failing at Nanowrimo Was a Good Thing (For Me)

I attempted to complete the Nanowrimo project twice in the last 8 years. Both of my attempts to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 day have failed.

Sure, I had lots of excuses and distractions and I did make a pretty good effort of it. In the end, I have over 25,000 words of a story that I’ve been trying to get out of me for years. But it’s still a failed attempt. And I’m OK with that.

I’m not going to beat myself up over it because I came out of the experience with a few new and reinforced ideas and tips for anyone who is thinking about doing it again next year (including myself).

  1. Writing is goddamn hard.
    Remember that. Balancing storytelling, craft, concentration, and (in the case of Nanowrimo) a focus on writing as many words as possible in a sitting — that’s difficult work. And for the most part, when I sat down to do the balancing act for two or three-hour spurts, it worked out OK. I just needed to do more sit-down sessions.
  2. Writing is rewarding.
    When I did it, it felt great. When I wasn’t doing it, I was thinking about it. If it hadn’t been for a few weeks of career woes in November (one of those aforementioned excuses/distractions), this positive feedback loop would have kept me at it. So, feel good about it when you’re doing it, no matter how crappy the work is.
  3. Know your capacity.
    One of the things I was most curious about when I started the project this year was exactly how many words can I write in an hour. The last time I did Nanowrimo — back in 2002 — I used a spreadsheet to keep track of my progress and in general it took a couple hours a day to do my daily goal of 2,000 words. Being that was 8 years ago, I wondered what, if anything, had changed in that aspect. Generally, I was able to write around 1,500 words in an hour. What does that tell me? Well, when I do sit back down again and tackle the rest of this work, I should have a pretty good idea of how much of a time commitment I’m looking at it.[1]
  4. Feel your story.
    I say “feel” because I have a tendency to over-think my stories. It’s easy to get into “this has to happen” or my story must have such-and-such element to it. But that can end up putting the story in too tight of a box. And it can also make you inflexible and stifle your imagination. Things I was very clear about before the writing began ended up being put to the test as I started getting deeper into the story. I actually brought a dead character back to life in the middle of the story.
  5. When the “real world” calls, answer.
    Yes, I’m disappointed that I didn’t complete the project. But I’d have been even more disappointed if I hadn’t dealt with the conflicts that arose. Maybe the most important thing I learned is that I don’t have to make my self-worth and esteem dependent on the outcome of a writing project.

Now that I look over this small list, I’m not sure how useful it will be as a set of tips for Nanowrimo, but it certainly helped me look at the bright side of failing. If I can’t learn something from my failures, well, I may as well just give up.

[1] I have discovered this is a useful bit of information for me. It’s often the unknown that keeps from fully committing to a project. If I tell myself, in order to finish this novel, it’s going to be X amount of hours over Y days/weeks/months, that’s the kind of data that helps my analytical side shake hands with my creative side. I need both sides to win.

Comments 4

  1. Upwardly Written wrote:

    ” Maybe the most important thing I learned is that I don’t have to make my self-worth and esteem dependent on the outcome of a writing project.”

    I think this is the best lesson I learned from NaNoWriMo. The truth is, every writer will have projects that fail or fall short. In fact, at the beginning of their career they’re bound to have many that fail. You can’t let one project determine how you view yourself as a writer.

    Posted 29 Jan 2011 at 11:28 am
  2. Eric wrote:

    Hi. This comment is off-topic, but if you have an email link here on the blog, I missed it…

    I’m wondering if you have come across any research or other academic writing on post-MFA results/attitudes/habits/practices…for example, five years on, how do former MFA participants view the process? Are they actively writing? Etc. If you’ve come across any such info, I’d be grateful if you can point me towards it…thanks!

    Eric Wyatt
    Bradenton, FL

    Posted 29 Jan 2011 at 10:29 pm
  3. GEP wrote:

    I think this is the best lesson I learned from NaNoWriMo. The truth is, every writer will have projects that fail or fall short.

    Posted 27 Aug 2011 at 12:21 am
  4. Deb wrote:

    Thank you. I needed to read this.

    A few years ago, my first “no expectations” Nano experience was terrific, but this year I didn’t finish and felt like a loser. I needed someone to put this in perspective for me.

    Posted 02 Dec 2011 at 5:27 pm

Post a Comment

Your email is never published nor shared. Required fields are marked *