Confessions of a NaNoWriMo Loser

nano-keep-calmI 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?

8 thoughts on “Confessions of a NaNoWriMo Loser

  1. Clarissa, this too was my first time participating in NaNoWriMo this year. For me, I also never had time, one of them being I was in college. I just graduated earlier this year and thought I would try this year realizing how manageable it was: 1,667 words? No problem just give me an idea and I’ll go for it!

    My final word count was 26k. Like you, the first week it was easy as can be. By the second week for various reasons, it broke. I fell behind and I started comparing myself to those who were older and had way more words than I did. I also didn’t feel as much support forum wise even when I left a comment, but at the same time I should have done more on that part. On Twitter that was a different story thanks to fellow writers I have spoken with and the NaNoWriMo Twitter accounts: MUCH encouragement.

    I shrunk my goal to 25k and I’m happy. Maybe next year I’ll reach the 50k but for a first try this was fun. Thanks for this post!

    • Hi Kristin,
      Thanks for your comment. I also found Twitter more supportive than the NaNo forums, but I was already active on Twitter and didn’t actually have much time or inclination to figure out the NaNo site. I think I was just very freaked out by how young the commenters were. It’s silly because I was writing when I was a teenager, and I would have been on the forums too if the internet existed back then (not a joke: I’m really that old!).

      Good for you for reaching 26K. Next year we’ll do even better!

      • Hello Clarissa,

        You’re welcome and your write-up was wonderful!! Yeah I’ve been more active on Twitter too thus why I felt more support there. Some of the commenters surprised me too and I thought jeez I’m OLD and I’m in my early 20s!! I think it can go both ways: the older freaked by the younger and the younger spooked by the older folks. I also discovered writing when I was a teenager so I know what that’s like. I also always heard of NaNoWriMo but I didn’t really bother with it.

        Yes we will I’m now following your blog too!

        • That’s a good point about older and younger writers freaking each other out! Thanks for following my blog. I just followed you on Twitter. Happy writing!

  2. I loved the Spanx founder story: it so so true. I wish more parents and young people could see failure as an invaluable lesson, much more so than success. It’s like meeting someone, or working with someone who’s difficult, or doesn’t like you, an opportunity to discover something about yourself and your prejudices, and/or vulnerabilities.

    • Yes! Thanks for this wonderful insight about having to work with someone who’s difficult. It takes courage to look at ourselves when we’re in these tough situations and use them as learning experiences, but it’s so worth it. I often catch myself blaming the other person for being difficult and writing him/her off instead of being open to what that person can teach me.

  3. Yes, failure is something I wish my students would be okay with! But your post has made me admit to myself that I’ve never done NaNoWriMo in part because I’ve been afraid of failing. And that’s ridiculous. As you point out, even trying it will get more words on the page. Now my goal is to try it for real next November.

    • Thanks, Abby! I didn’t try NaNo before for the same reason. It worked this time only because I prepared myself for failure and made sure not to beat myself up when I didn’t meet the goal. Next time I think I’ll choose a goal that’s more reasonable for me so that it doesn’t seem completely impossible!

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