What failing NaNoWriMo taught me

For all intents and purposes, I failed at my 2014 NaNoWriMo attempt.

There, I had to say it.

The most important thing I learnt (or rather had confirmed for myself) as a result of this experience was that it is an unrealistic expectation to come up with a coherent piece of 50,000-words-long work of fiction in a month without doing any planning. But here's another thing I learnt: no time is ever wasted writing. Every idea, every thought that goes through your head and ends up on paper, has a potential for something more. Many successful books have started as NaNo projects, after all.

So, let's deconstruct my 'failure' (or was it really failure?) and make a lesson out of it.

Back in 2014, when I decided I was going to do NaNo, it was an impulsive decision as well as an attempt at creative procrastination: at the time I was already deep in revisions on another project and was starting to query another novel I considered 'ready' for that stage of the writing/publishing process (it wasn't, but that's another story for another day). But... I was also under sway of a particular idea that I wanted to develop into something more. I was also curious enough about the NaNo process to give it a try. And so it was decided: 2014 was my Big NaNo Year.

Oh, it started so well.

Like I said, I had this idea.

I knew the genre of my NaNo Book was going to lean towards teen horror. I even wrote up a little blurb to get myself pumped. I knew there was going to be this kick-ass setting, while the essence of the book was something I knew and cared about deeply. Something that fascinated me as a child and still does now. I managed to cram some research into my first NaNo week. And running on wild energy that fuels all new and exciting things, in that first week I did produce the required daily word count. I was going at it full steam ahead!

But then problems started...

As I was typing up the words, I was becoming aware how my protagonist was underdeveloped, her behaviors suspiciously resembling those of leading ladies of my two other book projects. Hmm... I thought 'characters need development' and launched into detailed character sketches at the expense of my daily word count.

But then as my word count was failing, something really cool started to happen - my protagonist's voice began to emerge. And it was unique! It was different! I learnt more about my main character (and about myself writing lead female characters) as a result: such as, I have a tendency to write socially awkward but kind-hearted girls with a hidden core of steel. This development gave me a boost, but as far as NaNo metrics go, I was failing. And by the time I shaped and defined my NaNo 2014 heroine, discovering what made her tick, November was half gone.

I was back into the writing process, and all was going smoothly once more... until I hit a certain critical development that was to be a turning point for the narrator. And I got stuck. The plot demanded my urgent attention. I might've figured out my protagonist by then, but I didn't know any of my 'supporting' cast well enough to know how they'll behave under pressure!

I needed an outline and pronto - but that meant going through what was already written and refining it. I know, I know, I know, this is not what NaNo is about, and rather than thinking structure I needed to focus on content, but... November was almost up and I got a severe case of burn out. And so... 20,000 words in and a handful of NaNo milestone digital badges later, I hit a pause button and decided to focus on massive revisions of another project I thought had strong potential.

So here is what I learnt after failing NaNoWriMo:

At the very least (if you're like me and need to know THINGS in advance), you need an outline, or at least a suggestion of one, along with some research done and ready by November, when the National Novel Writing Month begins. Now, this outline thing is not a deal-breaker exactly: I personally tend to steer away from a defined outline and it usually works out well for me, but I need to have at least a vague outline which lists the progression of events/developments my heroes must follow to get to the 'end' as it gives me a safety net of sorts.

Ideally, one is unemployed or on a month-long leave - this would definitely allow a full-time concentration on one project. Having a full-time and very demanding job (I'm an academic so I do lots of writing academic too) put a lot of strain on me, especially where daily word count is concerned.

Source: Unsplash; photo by Liane Metzler. License: Creative Commons Zero

Finally, it helps to plan out each day in advance and focus on your novel one step at a time. For each day, I would set a goal, no matter how small. I'll keep that goal in my mind and try to give it justice. I'll write one scene. I'll make a plot decision. I'll resolve a character dilemma. Even deciding what's your heroine likes to eat for breakfast! No goal is unimportant as everything contributes to the big picture which is your novel!

In the end, as I think about it now in early 2015 as the heat of NaNo is over, I don't think I really failed at NaNo. After all, I still do have that premise that excites me and I have those 20,000 words on page and all the research I've done is not going to go to waste...

But, next time I attempt to write a novel in a month, I'll be less naive and more pragmatic. Inspiration and raw creativity is all fine and great, but it's all the much more effective when backed up by intense planning and outlining.


Update as of 16 February 2017: this NaNo fail story has a happy ending after all. I did finish up my 2014 NaNo project later on! After getting a literary representation with Amy Tipton (Signature Literary Agency) with my debut novel What The Woods Keep (which was not a NaNo project), my second book Oasis also sold to Erin Stein of Imprint/Macmillan in a neat 2-book deal. Oasis was my 2014 NaNo and I am so glad I took advantage of my creative spark back then and did put together those first 20,000 words!


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