Why I’m Failing at NaNoWriMo and I Don’t Feel Bad About It

Unsolicited Opinions / Thursday, November 8th, 2018

So my first-ever attempt at this NaNoWriMo thing? Not going so well. Oh, I could provide a litany of excuses. In fact here’s five, in no particular order, that I just thought of:

  1. I’ve had to closely monitor media updates on Ari and Pete’s breakup and subsequently listen to thank u, next 5 million times a day on average.
  2. I already write almost 5,000 words a day for work and other projects, so the inside of my brain is not so much gray matter as cotton candy by the time I can sit down for NaNoWriMo.
  3. My sister got new puppies and they’re really cute.
  4. I’ve been traveling a lot for family reasons-stuff-things.
  5. Daylight savings?

While I’m pretty sure each of those items constitutes a rock-solid alibi for my lackluster writing performance this November, I realized the real reason last night. And it was fairly liberating. Here’s my process of discovery, in three digestible stages:

Stage One: Why is Everything I’m Writing Crap?

It’s not that I’ve been having any trouble writing. It’s just that everything I’m writing is crap. Because I write for a living, reaching word counts isn’t that much of a challenge for me. Like a little robot, I let my eyes glaze over and I tippety-tap-tap away until my page fills up with words. Sometimes, I don’t know what I’ve written till I read it over. Sometimes, this is a mystical and marvelous process that creates something surprisingly tolerable. And sometimes, this is a disappointing part of the process, indeed.

Over the past few days, I’ve found that although I can force myself to sit down for the requisite amount of time and write the required number of words in my new NaNoWriMo project, the resulting work isn’t leading me anywhere viable. Unlike previous projects I’ve done, my characters aren’t taking me by the hand. In fact, they fucking hate me. There’s a detachment, a lack of emotional connection, and it really comes through in the writing.

My refrain over the first week or so of November has mostly just been: WHY IS THIS CRAP WHY IS THIS CRAP WHY IS THIS CRAP.


Stage Two: How Have I made this work in the past?

Although my three part series (yes, the one I’ve blogged about incessantly) is potentially crap, it doesn’t feel that way to me. It feels exciting and fulfilling, and a lot of the times it’s the only project that I’m proud of in any given day. And when I wrote the first drafts for those books, I followed a similar model to NaNoWriMo: I wrote a certain amount every day, for a period of time, no matter what. And it worked.

So why isn’t it working now?

Last night, I even went back to my very first chapter in the very first book in my series that I started two years ago.(Like the weird miser I am, I keep copies of ancient drafts that have since undergone drastic revisions.) And though it was very clear this first chapter needed editing, it definitely had the spirit and the style that encapsulates my series. In other words, this initial chapter already read like it belonged. Even before edits.

So far, nothing I’ve written in my NaNoWriMo book has given me that feeling.

So why would a strategy that worked so well for that previous series fail so hard this time around? I mean, I’m really excited about this new story idea, and I feel like it’s a relevant and prescient story. And yet. I haven’t written a single word that I’m proud of! I want to delete everything! And I didn’t even write anything for this project last night I was so disheartened! What gives?

Stage Three: Realization

After further midnight digging in the glorified graveyard of my old writing projects, I started to sprout flickery light bulbs over my tired brain. In addition to that first chapter in M&J, I uncovered some documents I’d totally forgotten about. Namely, two other starts to the series that would have taken it in an entirely different direction.

These initial false starts contained neither of the main characters that are so integral to M&J (it’s 110% character-based). Further, they suggested no inkling of the dramatic three book arc I eventually conceived. Worst of all, these false starts were utterly devoid of flavor, voice, tone, and pizzazz. Reading them, I felt icky and detached and a little dead inside.

The same way I felt when re-reading everything I’ve written for NaNoWriMo.

This was my Eureka moment! And it’s simple: everything I’ve written that I’m actually proud of had a bad beginning.

Like I’ve done in the past (and apparently forgotten about)I just have to keep trying until it sticks. This means changing characters, re-working plot ideas, starting the story in a different setting, experimenting with exposition— anything to strike the right chord. Anything to gather that momentum. Apparently it’s possible for me to sometimes write fun stories, but first I have to fail a million-billion times.

So, what now? It ain’t pretty…

Everything I’ve written thus far for NaNoWriMo must go. It’s not grabbing my attention and I’m not invested in the characters, the tone, the setting, or the style….so it has to be buried in the graveyard with the other neglected documents of its ilk.

Although this may seem like a very troubling course of action (that’s many, many words to scrap!) this is actually the wisest solution to the problem. I mean, I could keep going with the characters I have and the voice I’ve established, but I know that the rest of the story would fall flat. And it would be torture to write.

Instead, my plan is to just keep starting the story until it sticks. Experiment with narrative style, characterization, and themes until I found something that strikes me as authentic and true. Until it feels right. (By the way, I think it’s more than possible that my personal muse is every bit as flighty and annoying as I am, and does this purposely to test me.) With this philosophy, I certainly can’t hope to actually complete 50,000 words or whatever this November. By the end of the month, I might only have 10,000 or 1,000 words.

But if I know anything about my writing style (which, god help us, I’ve spent enough time obsessing about), then this is simply a part of my creative process. And forcing my creative process to fit the mold of a writing prompt would lead to a disaster of a book, a frustrated me, and characters with whom I share a mutual loathing.

How’s your NaNoWriMo Going?

So, obviously my NaNoWriMo is kinda fucked. But at least I know why, and how to fix it. And that’s okay with me.

How about you? Is this something that you’re doing this year? Have done in the past? And do you have any weird writer-ly idiosyncrasies like me? One more question: how can you tell that something you’re writing is really working for you— or whether it needs to be approached from a different angle?

18 Replies to “Why I’m Failing at NaNoWriMo and I Don’t Feel Bad About It”

    1. I had no idea what it was for years! It’s sort of a worldwide communal writing project, where individual writers make a commitment to write 50,000 words a month – a novel or the start of a novel.

      I figured I’d try it this month to see if it would push me in a positive way or uncover something magical, but it turns out NaNoWriMo doesn’t really work for me as a writer.

      1. Write a novel in one month? I can’t imagine that’s enough time to write a novel that’s very good. The challenge and ‘social’ aspects of NaNoWriMo probably make it a fun event to take part in, but if one’s concerned about the quality of their novel then they’ll need much more than one month. Unless the whole point of NaNoWriMo is just to generate a bare-bones novel that participants can more fully develop later.

  1. NaNoWriMo – is a travesty, an excuse to have a million people pollute the writer’scape with schlock. Do not succumb.

    You said something here that resonated — keep “starting” until it feels right. I thought, Hmm, I have great ideas, but the beginnings always suck and I have to rewrite them fifty times. But, perhaps if I keep writing different beginnings, voice, scene, setting, pov, and do so until I find one that really matches the story line itself… maybe that’s the way to get fully engaged in a theme.

    Thanks for your insights.

    1. I figured I would try NaNoWriMo for the first time, but it turns out I’m just not that kind of writer.

      And I’m really glad this resonated with you. This post constituted an epiphany for me. Something I’ve experienced several times, but that never sunk in. Though of course everyone’s different, for me the narrative style of a novel or a short story is equally as important as the storyline or concept. And this is why projects have fallen through: I’ll have a story idea, but won’t have the right voice or tone or POV to tell it in, so it simply doesn’t work.

      Happy writing – and let me know if experimenting with The Beginnings is useful for you!

        1. I know what you mean. Not that my job is particularly hard, but it does leave my brain feeling soggy. My solution is that I wake up about an hour earlier than I’d like to, and write fiction in the very early morning before the day can destroy my creativity!

  2. Nano definitely isn’t for everyone, Mary. My first time (four years ago), I got the word count out, but the pressure killed me. I wrote those 60k words because I spent the second half of the month in bed. After that, I took three years off.

    But for those three years I did NaArbWriMo (National Arbitrary Writing Month). That was much more successful. I would just set aside a month when I and my story were at the right place to pound out the words – no pressure and no phlegm.

    This year, my bossy muse strong-armed me into participating in Nano without giving me any warning and I wasn’t ready. I’m pushing and I’ll make the word count, but it’s mostly crap (sound familiar?) The re-writes are going to drag.

    My point in boring you will this biography is that forcing ourselves to write a specific word count in a specific 30 day period doesn’t necessarily work. We need to trust our creative styles, know when we are doing the imaginative work of forming and when we are ready to do a little storming. Happy Writing!

    1. Thank you for this, Diana! I love the idea of different creative times for forming-and-storming. And NaArbWriMo would probably be way more viable for me. November is such a busy month, with holidays and family. There are definitely times of the year where I have way less going on – where it would make a lot more sense for me to bang out a word count.

      Thank you for sharing your Nano story, and Happy Writing to you as well!

  3. hehehe well #3 is definitely the best alibi 😉 I think it’s a great idea to experiment and try something different. And yeah it often doesn’t make sense to try and force creativity to fit a prescribed mould. In answer to your question, when something’s not working, I think I feel a lot of the same things as you- I just hate huge aspects of it. I find that reworking it can really help. For me, I like to play around with the plan/structure (I don’t put too much stock in what I come up with in the beginning, cos that part usually sucks for me anyway, so I usually assume I’m going to go back and change the first chapter a million times in the editing phase). That said, I can often scrap an idea, and then go back to it and realise I was being a bit too self-critical. Sometimes thinking it’s crap might just be a sign that I need a break/a fresh pair of eyes (or both), Good luck with this!

    1. Thank you! I think you’re right – it’s easy to be so self-critical in the beginning stages of writing something. There have been a few situations where I’ll go back to a scrapped idea and find that there’s something in there I can salvage. As much as I complain, I truly do enjoy learning about the process of creativity. It’s almost as fun as the writing itself!

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