5 Things I Learned From Failing NaNoWriMo


I never expected to fail National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) so spectacularly, but here we are, 21 days into November, and I have about 500 of 50,000 words written. Yes. The failure is that great. Sure, we have nine days left in the month; there’s still time! But no, it’s not happening, and I know why.

I started NaNoWriMo like I start my exercise binges: looking at pretty pictures of books and wanting to be the skinny girl on the cover thinking, I could do that. Why haven’t I done that yet? I am currently 40,000 words into a project that has haunted me for the past six years. I cannot quit it, but I cannot finish it, either. This marathon month of novel writing was to be my final push past the finish line.

But after the initial buzz of November 1st faded, I realized I set myself up for failure in the worst way. I petered out early and I’ve had 20 days to reflect on it. Here are the five things I learned from this colossal whomp of a writing challenge:

1. Failing to Plan is Planning to Fail, duh. It’s a cliche, but an apt one for me. I began NaNoWriMo on a whim and, though I felt I could do it, novels need game plans. I did not carve out writing time. I currently write in the margins of my day, when I’m not working, mothering, cooking, or cleaning, or sleeping. I should have set aside dedicated blocks of time to do nothing but writing. And not tweet watch.

2. Research is Not Shirking. My writing project deals with the Black Power Movement in the 70s, requiring a good amount of side reading I haven’t done yet. Part of the reason for my stall is that I cannot write when I do not feel confident in my knowledge base. I picked up the books I need to read and have shifted my focus to gathering information.

Since, um, I’m an awful drinker, I just take that to mean drunk on happiness to be writing at all. Yeah.

3. Outlining is Not the Enemy. For six years, I’ve been writing by the seat of my pants. It’s gotten me over halfway finished with my project, but in a haphazard, non-linear fashion that exhausts me every time I think of fixing it. I realized that I need to create a skeleton to flesh out the bony parts of my narrative. No one can sink their teeth into a story with no meat to it.

4. Be Realistic About How Much Writing I Can Do. This blog constitutes the most writing I’ve done in years. It’s fantastic to do this regularly, but I didn’t realize how much effort maintaining a blog and trying to complete a book-length project would take. At the end of a 700-word blog post, I am ready to veg out, not write 2,000 more words of scene, setting, narration, and exposition. I get fatigued. The solution is to pre-write stretches of blog posts so I can focus on my project.

5. Use Editing to Turn the Corner on Writer’s Block. Going through some of my previously written chapters, I felt the fix-it bug niggling at me and before I knew it, I was rewriting scenes. This didn’t count toward NaNoWriMo because of the 50,000 word count. But in totality, it contributes to the finished quality of my manuscript. Writing is writing is writing.

I have come a long way from a year ago–I wrote nothing at all and really hated myself for dodging writing like an old lover I dumped. So, while I may not hit the golden 50K on this go-round, I did pick up some valuable tools that will allow me to pace myself. I won’t quit and not-quitting is the first step to succeeding.

Did you try NaNoWriMo this year? How did you do?

20 thoughts on “5 Things I Learned From Failing NaNoWriMo

  1. I also spectacularly failed NaNoWriMo, but have come out alright on the other side 🙂 I too went into the event chanting the mantra ‘writing is writing’ and was all prepared to write unrefined, possibly very bad chapters (I even wrote a blog post about it), but when it came down to it – I just couldn’t dive into the bad writing pool. Part of the reason I want to write a novel is because I am so tired of the bad novels out there (what I have now come to know as 0.99c mediocrity). I agree that sometimes you just have to write (because otherwise the spectre of perfection will paralyse us), but I think we can also set standards for what we accept as first draft foundations. I spent most of my NaNoWriMo indulging in the great storytelling of others and I think I am on my way to setting a few ground rules on what I want in a first draft. And the first of these is to “write life” . Just about to go back and re-outline my novel so I can include ways to (and inspirations for) incorporating a palpable sense of reality into my work – to make the words count. Funny how failing NaNoWriMo can help you find the tools you need to get on with the writing afterwards!! 🙂

  2. Hey there!
    Well, NaNoWriMo’s over and guess what? I flopped! I know I should be down about it but instead I feel happy because I learned so much from it. I didn’t win this year despite my best efforts but I gained something from the whole thing. Well let’s both do our best next year.
    Cheers to your writing also! 😉

  3. lol! Hey, I had plenty of time to think about WHY I was not writing while I was busy NOT WRITING 🙂 I’m glad my inactivity could help. Thank you for reading!

  4. lol! Hey, I had plenty of time to think about WHY I was not writing while I was busy NOT WRITING 🙂 I’m glad my inactivity could help. Thank you for reading!

  5. lol! Hey, I had plenty of time to think about WHY I was not writing while I was busy NOT WRITING 🙂 I’m glad my inactivity could help. Thank you for reading!

  6. Yes! I was saying on Twitter today that I need to learn to celebrate my small victories and not lambaste myself for not reaching Everest in a single bound.

    I enjoy your blog; write and write and write more! 🙂 I promise, this habit-forming thing only gets better with practice. I had no writing life to speak of, so it’s possible!

  7. I did not attempt a novel, but I did recently start blogging, and already (5 weeks in) I realize I’ve got to restructure my approach. It does require more time than I thought. Your post is a perfect surprise this morning! Thanks for organizing your experience so efficiently! Restructuring will be more approachable now with such a clear set of thoughts to challenge myself with. Enjoying your blog!

  8. Dara, I did not write during NaNoWriMo (Ironically enough, I only just realized what that abbreviation stood for!) But, I totally think that you should celebrate keeping a blog regularly. I saw that you have 16 posts for November– SIXTEEN!!! And apparently that’s way up from last year (per your #4 and concluding paragraph)<<<that's amazing, my friend. I've recently been thinking of ways to consistently contribute to my blog– perhaps, I should partner with someone, give myself a monthly goal, focus on themes, carve out untouchable writing time just for LLFW– all types of stuff. But at the end of the day, I am proud of myself for getting started and recognizing what it will take to maintain a blog regularly. I think this year with NaNoWriMo, you should be proud of yourself for starting and recognizing how you "failed" at going from 0 to 50,000 words on a page. Next year, you'll be ready and maybe we will all link up and push each other through November's 30-day challenge.

  9. Haha thanks. 😀 To be honest, this is my first NaNoWriMo ever so it’s kind of like a test run for me. Much fun as the whole thing is though my writing seems pretty rushed looking back. So yeah, if there’s one thing I learned this year, is that you have to prepare (research!) early for this thing. August is a good start. 😉 Let’s keep tabs on each other then. Especially if you’ll be joining again next year, you know where to find me. (wink wink)
    Hope to see you next year!


  10. I did a 30-day blog challenge in August and that was rough, too. Consistency ain’t easy. But it definitely helped me get used to writing regularly to the point where I can post 3-4 times weekly and not feel the panic I used to.

    And yes! Beating ourselves up is counterproductive. Write, celebrate, rest, and then write some more.

  11. I didn’t do NaNoWriMo. I’m doing NaBloPoMo that’s hosted by BlogHer and I still fell off. Part of me knew I would, but I’m trying to focus on writing and not beating myself up about it. This is first time I’ve committed to writing regularly and I just have to accept there are going to be some stumbles and falls before I’m consistent.

  12. If this experience hasn’t scared me and I still have a project unfinished, I may jump back in next year. I’ll just have to start prepping like, in August lol 🙂 I’d love to keep tabs on your work though!

  13. My biggest mistake was thinking it was something you could just JUMP into. NAWWWL. I need to do prep work. It’s given me some ideas, though. Glad about that.

  14. Hey there!
    I read this post while nodding all throughout. You outlined here the most common reasons why NaNoWriMo runners often fail and drop out of the competition. It’s a bold and thought-provoking read and I really enjoyed it.
    I’m personally on my 25K mark on NaNoWriMo this year but it’s the final push that I find extra hard, especially since I’m pretty much doing full time in my freelancing and blogging.

    I hope you decide to enter NaNoWriMo next year though, It would be amazing to jump back and win after learning so much. Besides, in the end, the experience itself is a much better prize than the badge, right? At least, that’s what I think. 🙂

    Hugs, Chuchi

    PS: Hey, maybe we can be writing buddies next year? I’ll definitely need someone to keep me grounded. (lol)

  15. I tried this last year. It was a disaster because there was research involved with my story as well. Perhaps, if I had done most of my reading long before the challenge I would have done better. In the end, I was left with not even a novel but what amounted to a Frankenstein’s monster–having had to waste more time fixing it and ultimately scraping. I love the concept and when I overcome my defeat, I will revisit and do right by it.

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