I woke up this morning knowing I am a loser. November is over, and with it, NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). Every November, people all over the world try to write a novel. The goal is to write 50,000 new words in that month, and anyone who meets that goal is declared a winner.
I’ve known about NaNoWriMo for years, but this was my first time participating. I’ve never been tempted to try it before, mainly because the timing wasn’t right (I wasn’t working on a first draft) and because I’ve always been a slow writer and knew I probably couldn’t keep up with the 1,666-word-per-day pace. My normal daily word count is 500-600 words.
The way I usually begin a writing session is to read what I wrote the previous day and edit it. But NaNo rules prohibit editing. It’s all about vomiting the words onto the page, not worrying about grammar, punctuation, or style. It’s a first draft, so the words are supposed to be rubbish. You’ll fix them in later drafts (and if you don’t, you’ll make agents and editors everywhere very unhappy!).
Anyone who knows me will know these rules offend my slow, careful, grammar-nerd self. But I decided I’d try NaNo this year anyway. The timing was perfect: I’ve been struggling with the first draft of my new novel for an embarrassingly long time, and I needed a fresh start. I looked forward to silencing my inner editor for a month and churning out those words.
The official NaNoWriMo website has forums for writers to discuss their progress or lack thereof, but when I perused the forums in early November, I was surprised to see how young many of the other writers were. Eighteen year-olds considered themselves old pros as they advised thirteen year-olds. When I complained to my husband that these writers made me feel ancient, he quipped, “You should start a new forum called NaNoWrimOld.”
I didn’t start that forum, but I did begin NaNo with mixed feelings: excitement, trepidation, curiosity. I had several writing buddies, two of whom I texted almost daily so we could keep one another accountable. I really enjoyed the community support. Even just the knowledge that so many other people were writing at the same time helped spur me on.
I was thrilled with my output the first few days: I managed 1,600 words every day. From then on, I gradually slowed down, ending November with a word count of just over 20,000. That’s 20,000 words more than I had a month ago, so even though I “lost” NaNo, I’m pleased with my progress. I also learned some valuable lessons:
1. It’s very freeing not having to worry about grammar, style, or even keeping a character’s motivations or eye colour consistent. I can fix all of those things later.
2. That famous statement attributed to William Stafford is true: “There is no such thing as writer’s block for those whose standards are low enough.” I lowered my standards and just put one word after the other, repeating the same ones sometimes just to get them out.
3. Since I allowed myself to jump from one scene to another, sometimes out of chronological order, I discovered some great new ideas for the plot that I don’t think I would have come up with otherwise.
I don’t like the winner/loser language of NaNo. Although the word “loser” isn’t used on the NaNo website, that’s what you are if you’re not a winner, right? But there’s nothing wrong with failing to meet one’s goal. I often think of an interview I saw with Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx and the youngest self-made female billionaire in the world. She was raised by a father who asked her every day, “what did you fail at today?” He was disappointed if the answer was “nothing.” That man gave his daughter a precious gift. When I see my students devastated by a less-than-perfect mark, friends paralyzed by failing to meet their bosses’ expectations, or my own worry that the novel I’m writing won’t be as good as the ideal version of it in my head, I realize that we all need to fail at something regularly.
What have you failed at lately? Can you celebrate the fact that you tried?