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Why I failed at NaNoWriMo

Advice for writers and bloggers


What is NaNoWriMo?

NaNoWriMo is a month-long challenge when you write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. It takes place in November. So you ‘win’ at NaNoWriMo if you complete the 50,000 words by the end of November. Find out more here. 50,000 words divided by 30 days means you need to write about 1,667 words per day. Take away all the misgivings you might have about writing a novel and it’s a matter of doing some simple maths.

Your writing building block

This earlier post tells you how to work out your personal ‘writing building block’. A ‘writing building block’ is the number of words you want to write matched to the amount of time it takes you to write them, combined with your own personal preference and writing speed. (I suggested using the pomodoro technique to work yours out.) If you know your personal ‘writing building block’, then you’ll know how many building blocks it would take you to write an average of 1,667 words per day. Again, simple maths.

A couple of deviations

Because I like to contradict myself, check out this blog post I wrote for the Alliance of Independent Authors where I talk about how finding time to write isn’t about simple maths because we tend to forget that life gets in the way.

By the way, there is also a NaPoWriMo – National Poetry Writing Month – in April each year, when the challenge is to write a poem every day for a month. There’s more information here.

A ‘find time to write’ course dedicated to my students

Several of my students have taken part in NaNoWriMo. One of them used a writing activity I set called ‘The Bag’ as the starting point for his. In fact I saw so many of my students start NaNoWriMo in a fit of enthusiasm only for life to get in the way – because they didn’t do the simple maths 50,000 divided by 30 = 1,667ish words and they failed to work out how much time they needed to write that number of words!

There’s another step many of them missed out, too. After they had figured out how much time they needed to put aside each day to write 1,667 words they needed to work out what they would stop doing in order to give them that amount of ‘extra’ time! Because there are always 24 hours in a day and 168 hours per week and 720 hours in November – nothing short of slowing down the spin of the earth and / or reinventing the calendar is going to change that!

So I saw the need was there and I applied some time management strategies to NaNoWriMo and created a free course that essentially allows participants to work out how to fit NaNoWriMo into their lives. Exactly the same strategies work for fitting any ‘extra’ writing into your life, by the way. I created the course with those students in mind – and called it ‘Find Time for NaNoWriMo’ – to help them to keep going, writing a chunk every day until they ‘won’ NaNoWriMo.

So why did I fail at NaNoWriMo when I tried it myself?

Unfortunately, although I do practise what I preach with other kinds of writing, when it came to NaNoWriMo I failed to keep going. I didn’t complete my novel in a month, and here’s why:

1. My heart wasn’t in it. Don’t get me wrong, I love writing more than almost anything else. I wanted to write, but I was suspicious of the idea that I had to write every day. The valuable lesson for me was that my writing life has to be in tune with my values. For ‘write a draft of a novel fast’ to be in tune with my values, I would have to convince myself that I could write with integrity.

2. Although I’m a fast writer in terms of words typed in an amount of time, I’m slow at figuring out what story I want to tell. These two conflicting paradigms meant that I came unstuck. I could have written every day, but I wouldn’t have been writing a novel. The lesson I learnt was that writing fast isn’t enough on its own. I needed to know what story I wanted to tell.

3. My ‘why’ wasn’t strong enough. When it came down to it ‘because it’s fun and I want to see if I can do it’ wasn’t enough to keep me going. It might be enough for someone else. But that’s the thing about ‘whys’ – someone else’s why probably won’t fit. More than that, I needed to ask ‘why do I want to write a novel?’ and not ‘why do I want to do NaNoWriMo?’ What was the lesson this time? I hadn’t asked the right ‘why’ question. I needed to know whether my ‘why’ fitted the thing that I was doing. Motivation was a red herring in this case.

What I need to do next time

OK, I’m talking to myself here but I invite you to consider what you would need to do to succeed at NaNoWriMo – or at any similar intense writing task:

  • Make sure what I’m doing is in line with my values. Make sure my heart is in it, in other words.
  • Have a plan. In my case, I would need to know what story I wanted to tell.
  • Know my why. Have a very clear and strong reason for doing it.

Over and above doing the maths, and finding time and space in each day to write, what I’ve found is that these three guidelines are always important, no matter what you’re writing.

What next?

Check out my free course on Finding Time for NaNoWriMo here.

Let me know in the comments if you’ve had a go at NaNoWriMo and whether you ‘won’! Tomorrow, I look at how writing and parenting require the same skill set. Until then, happy writing.

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