What I Learned From Failing NaNoWriMo

So, I failed.

In November 2016, I set myself the challenge of writing 50,000 words of a novel in one month – thirty friggin days! – as part of National Novel Writing Month, or as it is better known, NaNoWriMo.dane swan fail - Copy (2)

Three times before, I’ve hulk-smashed this challenge like no-one’s business.

In 2009 and 2011, I belted out the final book of a fanfiction series I’d been writing since I was a teenager. It was a huge sense of achievement to complete something I first set my mind to at the age of 13. That work was never designed to go further; it just tied the bow on that green-stemmed part of my journey as a writer. In those NaNoWriMos, I even posted on Facebook saying the 50K limit was “too easy”. (2016 me wants to strangle 2011 me. YOU KNOW NOTHING, JON SNOW!)

In 2014, I tackled the first draft of my first real proper grown-up honest-to-God NOVEL. Again, I hit 50K. And I spent the following December and January clattering on the keyboard like a possessed monkey until I completed that first draft.

NaNoWriMo has given me some of the most exhilarating, rewarding, exhausting days of my life thus far. My past attempts were characterised by pulling all-nighters as I fuelled myself with bucketloads of black coffee (usually instant … love me some bitter, cheap-arse Nescafe …) punctuated by (far too) frequent smoke breaks. Sheer determination to not be a failure of a writer – which is all I felt I was at that point – drove me to keep putting words on the page until I met that goal.

But my attempt at NaNoWriMo this year ended in failure. My word count maxed out at 18,126 words. I didn’t even make it halfway there. Jon Bon Jovi is gonna be pissed.

I could list reasons as to why this happened, but for someone who hates to fail at anything, any reason will sound like an excuse. And I don’t like excuses.

The truth of the matter is this: it hurts. It hurts to fail.

Of course, the sharp sear of failure isn’t a new feeling. I wasn’t born yesterday and I haven’t had a privileged or sheltered or easy life. Like my fellow meta-humans – er, humans – I fail all the time, but I usually fail at other stuff. And those day-to-day fuck ups bother me less because they aren’t linked to the glowing talisman that buoys me through my quotidian routines – which is writing.

And failing at a writing challenge feels like I’m failing at the thing I was born to do.

(Incidentally, I’ve used the word failure a lot in this post, but I can’t think of a decent synonym for this context other than échec, which is French and won’t make any sense, and fuck-up, which isn’t quite right. Microsoft Word is suggesting I use catastrophe, fiasco or miscarriage, which seems pretty savage for a piece of software. Shut up, Word. Maybe I need to invent a politically correct neologism for failure to bubble-wrap my feelings. I’m success-challenged. No, better yet, success-diverse.)

It’s been nearly two weeks since NaNoWriMo ended, and I’ve been thinking about what I can take away from my 2016 misfire (there we go). The sting of defeat is only useful if you learn from it, after all.

So, what have I learned? Four things:

1) I need to make more time. My mantra for the past couple of years has been: “You don’t find time to write a novel. You make time.” I firmly believe this, and I’ve made time over the last two years to work on my writing. But I didn’t make time this November. On the contrary, I filled it up with work and other stuff – and I won’t make excuses (insert teeth grinding sound) but some of it wasn’t avoidable. I didn’t make enough time, so I didn’t write enough.

2) I need to fuel up. My hectic month didn’t lend itself to input, and output-only mode is not sustainable for a writer. As little time as I had to write, I had even less – none – to top up my tank. Good writing is fuelled by two things: life experience and imagination, which is spurred on by vicarious experience – reading books. I didn’t make time to live or to read. These things are vital to producing work as a writer.

3) I need to acknowledge the successes as well as the failures. Ultimately, writing 18,126 words in a busy month is better than writing zero words because I foresaw a hectic time and didn’t give it a bash at all. And writing at the rate I did, I would finish the first draft of this second novel in five or six months, which is actually not bad at all. I need to stop self-flagellating over my perceived disappointments and realise just how much I’ve achieved.

4) I need to go easy on myself because life can be a bastard. Sometimes life throws you a curve ball. And sometimes it likes to throw a dozen at you, all at the same time, just to fuck up your sense of balance. And it usually does this just around the time when you look around all wide-eyed and go, “Hey, things aren’t going too badly right now.” BAM. Life enters. And that means plans don’t always work out. I just have to adapt and adjust and keep moving towards the real goal – which was never to finish my second novel in a month, really. It was to finish my second novel. As long as I keep doing that, I’m on track.

I’m ultimately proud of my failure this month. Not because it’s fun (yay! I suck!) but because it has galvanised my resolve, made me more determined than ever, and made me keen not to repeat the same mistakes next year – which means I will be making changes in my approach come January.

2017 is going to be an epic year in a lot of ways. I can’t wait to get started.

Holden

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