Doing NaNoWriMo When You Know You Won't Win
This is my eighth year of doing NaNoWriMo. And this will be the first one at which I will fail.
For anyone who hasn't heard me, or hundreds of other aspiring (and even published) authors, speak about it, NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month.
NaNoWriMo is a tradition which started in San Francisco by a group of friends who decided to try to write the first draft of a novel in 30 days in November.
This tradition stuck, then grew as thousands of people across the United States and other countries joined in the goal of trying to create a first draft of a book with only the 30 days of November as their timeframe. (The national organization now does charity work and has other events called Camps in both April and June where writers attempt to write the elusive first draft of a novel.)
Once a year thousands of people sign up on the NaNoWriMo website in October.
They choose a genre, make a title, make a book description, sometimes even cover mock-ups, then wait.
And on that magical midnight where Halloween turns into November 1st, they write.
Every year, thousands of people start that journey to their first draft.
Every year, the majority of them fail.
As of 2018 (the last year I could find stats for), 450,000 people attempted NaNoWriMo. Only 53,000 of them reached the goal of 50,000 words in 30 days. That’s a success rate below 12%.
Despite all the writing groups, despite all the advice, despite all the comradery and cheerleading from others during the month, only 11-16% in any given year complete NaNoWriMo with 50,000 words on November 30th.
One of the goals of NaNoWriMo is 50,000 words- and that’s the amount it takes to be called a “winner.” But the bigger goal and the reason behind the exercise in the first place is to get participants used to the idea of writing every day.
On the website you earn “badges” for every day you write (as well as badges for reaching the word count). In the past I’ve collected those badges as eagerly as I collected them in Girl Scouts. Though they are meaningless anywhere but NaNo, seeing them on my page made me feel good about myself.
At the end of the month you get a certificate if you complete the 50,000 word challenge. It’s similar to the certificates you used to get in school for things like perfect attendance. So why is it so tempting?
For me, NaNoWriMo has been about proving to myself, and others, that I can finish something.
Throughout my life I’ve screwed up every chance I’ve ever had to achieve big things.
I took one playwriting class in college where I was told I have “serious talent,” then never took another one because the idea of pursuing it further seemed crazy.
In high school I won first place in Poetry in Forensics the entire year… only to fall apart at State and not even place.
·It took me until I was 30 to finish my Bachelor’s degree and that was only because my wife encouraged/pushed me to keep going even though I wanted nothing more than to stop because dealing with classes on top of my bipolar disorder felt impossible.
I could go on and on and on about all the chances I’ve had to change my fate and complete something to improve my life and then not doing it.
So completing NaNoWriMo is about more than writing every day for me. It’s about getting that stupid paper certificate at the end that means I finished something that so many can’t.
I love the process of doing NaNoWriMo (even though it’s stressful) that I’ve become a Municipal Liaison for two years running. ML’s offer host writing events and, more importantly, offer support to people joining NaNoWriMo and making that journey to their own 50,000 word novel.
I have been the biggest cheerleader of the “even if you’re super behind, you can still do this.” My cheerleading is inspiring to some, probably obnoxious to more.
Yet I’ve believed it with my whole heart for the previous seven years I’ve done the NaNoWriMo journey.
But once NaNoWriMo is over, I get overwhelmed.
The books languish on my hard drive because the idea of editing them feels like climbing Mt. Everest in Birkenstocks.
Last year was the first year I took a book idea and ran it through a second, then third, draft and sent it out to query. So far it hasn’t received any rejections, just weeks of radio silence that say the same thing.
What I worked so hard on simply wasn’t good enough to jump those hurdles into publishing.
The success rate at getting a book published is lower than completing NaNoWriMo- so it shouldn’t surprise me that I haven’t been successful. And in a way, it doesn’t.
I think a big part of the reason that I don’t complete things, why I stop trying, is the fear of failure.
If you don’t try the big, scary thing, you don’t have to suffer the humiliation of failure. You can tell yourself that you would’ve won if only, if only, if only.
This year a confluence of life events has led me to writing barely an hour a day. There is simply no way to reach that 50,000 word goal, short of inventing new hours every day.
This year I am going to fail at NaNoWriMo. I’m learning to tell myself it’s ok to fail while I keep trying.
Maybe by November 30th I’ll truly believe it. Until then, I’d better get back to working on my novel. Because a novel doesn’t write itself (despite what those using AI to write their books want you to believe).