NaNoWriMo 2014: completed.
Verdict: I lost.
There are many reasons this happened, of course, and lots of excuses I could give – many of them relevant and valid. but in the end it still comes down to one thing: I lost. The real reason for losing is simple.
I didn’t keep writing.
But I did reach half the goal and I did finish up with a strong beginning of a novel that might, one day, be worth reading – and that’s more than I had before NaNo started.
Read on for more about why I failed and, much more importantly, what I’ve learned.
Why I Failed
As I said before the truest reason is simply that I didn’t keep writing. That’s the most truthful answer any writer can give, I think, as to why they didn’t complete this story or that poem. In order to be a writer you actually have to do the writing.
That seems like such an obvious thing to say but when you’re there, at the computer, staring at a blank screen and the words just seem out of your grasp, ‘keep on writing’ seems an enormous task. Anyone with a disrupted memory and/or attention span can tell you that’s their day-to-day; simply sitting down and doing one thing for an hour can be a chore. Someone with depression can tell you that trying to strive for something, trying to make something, can be a harrowing ordeal – anything from basic self-doubt (‘Can I do this?’) to outright self-incrimination (‘I don’t deserve for this to work’) can bring any creative impulse to a grinding halt.
I have all three, and I don’t say that in an attempt to garner sympathy. My depression, epilepsy and cyclothymia are all simply Things In My Life at this stage; I’m staring down the barrel of 39 years old next month, so pointing at those elements and crying ‘wahh, poor me,’ largely seems like a waste of effort at this point.
However, whether I’m looking for pity or not, those elements are facts of my life, and affect everything I do. Even now I stop every twenty words or so and look around the room, typically focusing briefly on the bottle of Chinotto by my side or the cup of half-cold coffee next to it. Not for any reason. Just because they’re there. Concentration – real, true, sustained concentration – is rare for me.
All of this means that when I find something that helps me maintain focus I need to grab it tight and wring everything I can out of it. The insidious nature of my conditions, though, means that grasping too tight can be detrimental. Here’s an example of what I mean.
Music helps, as long as it has no lyrics; setting up a playlist can help stimulate ideas. Listening to that playlist can keep my brain from focusing too much on the background noise of life, as it were and immerse myself in the act of writing. But when I spend a couple of hours hunting down the right music and assembling the right playlist there’s no guarantee that I won’t be too mentally drained to get anything more than fifteen minutes of writing out of the experience.
Catch-22, you see. In order to concentrate on writing I typically need to concentrate on something else – and if it dominates my concentration too much then it can actually hamper the writing process. It’s a constant balancing act.
That Dragon Age: Inquisition came out in November didn’t help. Nor did the cold I caught halfway through the month, the agonising joint pain in my right foot (which was a new experience and not one I’m eager to repeat) or the stifling heat of the oncoming Australian summer.
But still, in the end, the real reason was and is that I didn’t keep writing.
Ten Things I’ve Learned
This is not as easy a matter as it seems. Some of these things, as one might say, I’ve relearned – but nonetheless there are a few new points to this list.
1. November is Temporary
Other things will still exist after November. Most things can be put off for a month. Some can’t, of course, and events will transpire that are beyond your control, but most matters can wait. It’s okay if something needs to be put off for a little; chances are good that if you can do it in November you’ll still be able to do it in December.
Let November be for NaNoWriMo. It only lasts thirty days.
2. Some Things Won’t Wait; Work Around Them
While most things can be delayed, this is not true for everything. If you get a horrible cold halfway through the month then yes, it’s going to impact on your writing. That’s fine. You can usually work around these things and when you can’t there’s always the option of writing more in the days following whatever can’t wait, as long as you can differentiate between can’t wait and don’t want to wait.
3. Be Honest With Yourself
People can and will lie to one another. They can and will lie to themselves. But they can be honest, too.
Be honest with yourself during NaNoWriMo. This is more important than you think it is; if you’re not honest then you’ll have a hard time working out the can’t from the won’t, leading to fooling yourself about why you’re falling behind on your word count. You already know why. If you find yourself dedicating more time to explaining to yourself why you can’t write than you are actually writing, then you’re making excuses.
4. Admit You’re Going To Fail And Be Okay With That
There comes a point in time when you know damn well that your word count isn’t going in the right direction fast enough to reach your goal. At that point the why actually becomes moot – whether by circumstance or personal screw-up, you’re not going to make it. You look at your writing, look at the stats view on the NaNo site and you just know.
Seriously, so what? You’re going to lose NaNoWriMo. Has the world ended? No.
At that point you need to tell all of your fears, doubts and insecurities to firmly bugger off. Be okay with losing. You participated, after all, and probably have a lot more done on your novel than if you’d never bothered to try. Importantly, don’t let that impending loss stop you from writing. Knowing you’re not going to reach 50,000 words – and it is a high mark – can very quickly crush your enthusiasm for getting those words down.
Don’t let it. If you can look failure in the face and keep on going then, in this case, you haven’t really failed at all.
Remember: it’s not NaNoWriMo that makes novels. It’s writers. Writing.
5. Be Careful Where You Find Enthusiasm
This one is a new one to me. It seems common sense, of course, but most things do in hindsight.
This year I found a lot of enthusiasm in other people – specifically, the forums for my region. That’s not a normal thing for me; the only forums I regularly pay attention to are those at RPoL.net, a role-playing forum that I play and run a game on. Nonetheless I was happily commenting there and chatting to a couple of nice folk via private message. It felt good to contact other writers, to talk about plotting and where we were stuck, to share advice and recommendations on writing tools.
Then, near the end of the second week, the forums ground to a halt.
Looking back on it I wonder if I’d invested too much of my enthusiasm into the one source. As soon as the forums dried up my writing became much harder. I stopped paying attention to other people’s word counts, stopped daring myself to keep up, stopped working through writing issues in my head. A shining light of writing, the contact of other writers (some of them distinctly better than me), had gone.
Of course the ultimate responsibility lies with me – it’s my writing and I should have found enthusiasm elsewhere, kicked myself in the butt, made myself keep going. But I didn’t.
Be careful where you find enthusiasm for writing because if that source vanishes you can be left gasping for breath. Ultimately the best source of enthusiasm is within the writing itself because in the end it always comes down to you and the page. People’s minds, of course, typically don’t work that way, but that doesn’t make it any less true.
6. Be Realistic About Your Needs
When a human writes they put into concrete existence things that no person ever has. That creative experience is different for every individual and what each writer needs in order to be able to perform that function is going to be unique.
Be aware, in particular, that the only true, unassailable and universal advice one writer can give another is this: Write.
Did that sound trite? It wasn’t meant to be. Only by writing can you be a writer. Everything else comes down to personal foible.
Do you need music? What kind of music? How loud? How varied? Do you need music or just sound? Would a white noise generator do just as well? How about sound-cancelling headphones? Can you write with a movie playing in the background? Can you write around other people? Does this need to be private? Do you need to be able to move around or is one dedicated spot better for you? Can you only write at night or do you need natural illumination? Does temperature play a part? Do you require regular validation from an outside source or are you the type who shows nobody anything until it’s a polished copy?
All of these questions and more are utterly essential for you to work out realistically. There is a difference between a requirement and a preference; it is important that you determine which is which. Perhaps you need noise and it must be at a low level, but it could be white noise, music, a movie or the muffled sound of your neighbours having sex. Maybe you require utter silence, bar your own breathing and the click of the keys.
Whatever the case, for each and every element you can think of, be realistic about how to obtain it – and, if you’re serious about writing, make no apologies for the things that you need. As long as you’re not hurting anyone (without their consent) and you’re not breaking any laws, go for it.
7. Explore New Options
This is one that I observed others learning, rather than learnt myself.
You have the tools you love writing with. They work for you and you’re happy about that. Then you hear of some other tool or piece of advice from a friend, a lover, an admired author, a complete stranger.
Why not try it out? You don’t need to stick with it. If it works for you, adopt it. Absorb it into your routine. Make it yours. If it doesn’t work, disregard it. Either way you’ve lost nothing and potentially gained something, right?
8. Nobody Is Watching But You
This is a double-edged sword, of course. It’s a good thing and a bad thing.
There’s nobody watching over you. Nobody but yourself is aware of the half-hearted excuses you make for not writing on Wednesday, nor the unusually successful Thursday that follows. Unless you actively seek feedback by sharing your scores the chances are good that your writing buddies are too busy writing to congratulate you when you hit a milestone. This isn’t even like many other things in adult life, which have built-in feedback systems in place. Paying your electricity bill is an example – sure, nobody might be watching you do it, but the differences between paying the bill and not are enforced by external forces; the power company either continues supplying you with electricity or they send you nasty letters, cut you off and send the debt collectors after you.
Because you have nobody but yourself to monitor your behaviour it’s up to you to supply the necessary impetus to do the right thing. NaNoWriMo has no debt collectors. You are your ultimate arbiter. Hold yourself accountable – with simple truth, if nothing else.
‘Many things happened this month – but in the end I didn’t reach the word count simply because I didn’t keep writing.’
Or whatever works for you.
9. Live Your Life – Even During November
In the same way that there are things that cannot be put off, there are elements of your life that should not be delayed.
Don’t forget to live your life. Hug your significant other. Pat your cat. Ring your Mum. Take time out. Smell the roses. Go out with friends. Watch your favourite TV show. Make an awesome dinner.
These things aren’t evil and dedicating a bit of time to them doesn’t make you a bad writer. Yes, you should keep writing, but no, you shouldn’t write to the exclusion of all else in your life. Come up for air now and then.
10. It’s Not Just November
The adventure doesn’t stop when NaNoWriMo does. Writing is not a short-term endeavour.
This is an important thing to note: if you intend to become a writer you will be at it for a long time – months or even years – before seeing a truly polished finished product. Writing is not quite a marathon and definitely not a sprint. It’s rarely even a relay race. It’s a triathlon with spiked pits, hurdles and wild vipers along the way – but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be running it.
Don’t stop writing when November is over. December is a busy month for anyone, of course, and the good habits you may have made during NaNoWriMo will probably be battered, bleeding and broken by the time January shows its face. Nonetheless it’s up to you to keep writing however you can because it’s the only way your novel will get written and nobody else will do it for you.
Epilogue (or, TL;DR)
It’s true, I failed NaNo and I don’t really care. It’s not the first time I’ve failed and I’ve still won more times than not. but even if I hadn’t, there are people who’ve been doing this much longer than I who failed this year.
Ultimately I came out of it better than I went in – and that’s really the point of NaNoWriMo. I have the strong start of a novel, I’ve learned some things, I’ve remembered other things.
All in all, I don’t see ‘failing’ NaNoWriMo to be a failure at all. It’s a lesser win.