NaNoWriMo: Success is What You Make It

Today is November 10, and you’re exactly a third of the way into NaNoWriMo.  Have you, in fact, written 16,666.667 words on your novel yet?  For a large percentage of you, I’d guess the answer is “no.”  Well, it’s not too late to play catch up, it’s not too early to quit entirely and say you tried.  Here’s a sad truth for you: pro writers fail to complete first novels more often than they don’t.

I’d show you my pile of rotting manuscript carcasses, but some are pretty old, dusty and mummified by now.  What I think is going to be a brilliant idea somehow seems to lose steam between other projects and commitments, and eventually they just… sort of die.  For some of you, I’d bet this is already the case.  Maybe you’re even trying to using NaNo as a way to try to jumpstart an old novel you can’t get off the ground.

Give Yourself Permission to Fail

So, NaNoite, what’s it to be?  Are you going to beat that novel into submission, or are you going to face the reality that it may have been too much of an undertaking, you might not have planned well enough or you simply don’t have the time to devote to achieve 50,000 words in a month?

You know, it’s actually ok to fail at this.  NaNoWriMo is meaningless in the grand scheme of things.  Sure, once in a while a marketable novel comes out of it, but you know that old joke about monkeys and typewriters… enough NaNos and something decent would eventually happen.  And that’s great.  For them.

But let’s talk about you.  It’s November, you’re trying to get ready for the Christmas shopping gorge and the Thanksgiving eating gorge and you’ve got family coming in from out of state in 10 days and your life is one fucking wad of chaos and stress and one more fucking thing might just make the vein in your forehead burst.  November isn’t a great time to try to write a novel unless you live alone with a cat and have no living relatives.  Fluffy’s needs aren’t many.

You have to give yourself permission to fail.  Failure’s ok.  In fact, I read this paper recently on the failures and successes of professional athletes, and it says it’s ok to fail, too.  The researchers actually discovered that a failure is more valuable than a success in some ways — successes tend to lead to swollen heads and overconfidence, which ultimately leads to stupid risk-taking that ends in serious disappointment and a big mess.  Failure, on the other hand, tends to lead to success if the loser has clear feedback and knows how to correct their mistake.

Sound like anybody you know?

How to Fix Your NaNoWriMo Woes

By allowing yourself to fail at NaNo, you’re not granting yourself permission to fail at your novel.  You’re just acknowledging that writing a novel in a month is a bit of a trick for someone with a full life.  And that’s ok.  I have a novel that’s all but written in my head and hasn’t seen paper in three years.  Sometimes the time isn’t right.  Sometimes your life isn’t right.  Sometimes you aren’t right.

If you choose to fail at NaNo but not your novel, you have to figure out what went wrong.  My first instinct is that writing 50,000 words a month is a difficult feat for anybody who isn’t used to doing it day in and day out.  But, your reason may be different.  Maybe you had to raise your own turkey, then kill it, cool it, age it and eat it this month.  That’s a busy month, ykwim?

So, let’s mend that NaNo disaster, like this:

Step 1.  Figure out what went wrong.  Don’t make fucking excuses, be realistic.  Did you fail to devote enough time to the effort?  Did you underestimate the amount of planning that a novel requires?  Did you simply lose steam and run out of coffee?  Is there something else going on that you really need to deal with first?

Step 2.  Sit down with your novel and give it a hard look.  However much you’ve finished.  Then pat yourself on the back, because you actually started to write a novel.  And you wrote that much of it.  Good job.

Step 3.  With novel in hand, make a list of all the steps you’ll need to finish your book draft.  Do you still need to define some characters?  Do you need to fix some plot holes?  Do you need to actually plan a plot because you were sure it would just “come to you” as you wrote?

Step 4.  Take your steps and arrange them somewhere visible.  Cork boards are great for this.  I write mine on 3×5 index cards and pin them on.  That way I can rearrange later.

Step 5.  Eat the Elephant.  Take your novel one small step at a time.  Don’t rush it, don’t force it, just let it flow.  Relax.  The words will come tumbling out if you stop clenching your asshole.

Step 6.  Marvel in your own glory.  Hey, look!  You completed Step 5 of my 6 Step Program.   If you did as instructed, you also completed your novel.  Woohoo!

There you go.  I officially give you permission to fail.  In fact, I think you’d be better off to fail.  I think it makes people better in general to fail once in a while, plus you’ll have more time to work on your story, and that’s nice.  Success is an illusion — it’s nothing more than the completion of goals you set for yourself.  If NaNo isn’t realistically in reach, that’s ok.

Make a new goal.  Start again.

Drink a beer.  Eat a pizza.

Go fucking write!

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