Why “Losing” NaNoWriMo Was The Best Thing For Me To Do

Well, I “lost” NaNoWriMo this year.

To win, you’re supposed to write 50,000 words in 30 days. I realize it’s only Day 29 (and early on Day 29 at that), but if NaNoWriMo is a marathon, the sweep van has already picked me up and dropped me at the finish line. I might get a nice participation trophy or something, but I’m not getting that finisher medal.

My final word count for November (on the novel) is 22,284. Just under halfway to goal.

Could I write 13,858 words today and then do it again tomorrow? Maybe. I doubt it, but I’m betting it’s not physically impossible. But I am actively making the decision to not do that to myself. And here’s why:

Sometimes we need to “fail” in order to see how we can succeed. 

I learned so much about myself and my writing process over the last 29 days. Here are some of the lessons I’ll be taking with me into Camp NaNoWriMo (you didn’t think this was just a November thing, did you?) in April & July 2016, and into NaNoWriMo in November 2016.

NNWM Lesson 1: Maybe I’m not a “pants-er” after all…

Up until this month, I’ve always believed I’d be a “pants-er” for NaNoWriMo. A “pants-er” is someone who writes by the seat of their pants. Inspiration is their guide, and the words just flow from their fingertips. The writer is on a journey as much as the future reader will be — no real road map, no real decisions made ahead of time.

I believed I’d be a “pants-er” because I believed I’d always been one in other things I’d written. This, my friends, is a damn dirty lie. Yes, I’m a “pants-er” when I write flash fiction sometimes (750 words or less). And I’ve “pants-ed” short stories, poems, monologues, and a scene or two. But anything I’ve truly written of substance — academic papers, full-length plays, spec scripts, longer creative pieces — I plan. Planning doesn’t look the same for all of them, but there’s some planning involved. Outlines, key points, research, basic structure.

Last December, the piece I started for NaNo 2015, was not something that should have been pants-ed. It was a complicated timeline (who the hell decides to write their first novel OUT OF ORDER? oh, right, me…) and complicated narrative structure (whhhhyyyy did I decide to switch back and forth between narrators?), two things that did not benefit me at all when I sat down to write and had to spend more of the writing time I’d carved out going “Wait, how old are they supposed to be now? Which siblings have had kids? Have they gone to this place or that yet? Did the big fight happen, or is that coming up later still?” Trying to recheck those answers (and still not even KNOWING the answers to some of those questions) meant a lot of wasted writing time. And it meant unnecessary frustration, which in turn led to me being mad at my characters and not wanting to spend any time with them.

Looking at Last December now, I’m realizing I could have been kinder to myself (and my characters) if I’d just made a quick sketch outline. Heck, even if I’d made the outline as I was writing it so I wouldn’t forget what was happening, I probably would’ve gotten more words out.

What does this mean for 2016? Well, I have a handful of longer pieces I’ve been toying with for a while. Doing necessary research, writing quick character bios, and maybe even getting an outline or two written so when it’s time to write, I’ll be ready.

NNWM Lesson 2: You don’t just “find time” for writing… 

I made the CATASTROPHIC mistake of not scheduling time to write. I just told myself I’d “find time” every day. Sure. I’d “find time” in between working 50+ hours per week, attending full-length theater performances and writing educational reviews, working out, spending two weekends away, participating in Thanksgiving holiday events, and living the rest of my life, from cooking and chores to getting ready for Christmas (my favorite holiday).

This is a catastrophic mistake for two reasons. First, you don’t “find time.” It’s not just something you’re walking down the street and suddenly go “Holy heck, look! Two hours I didn’t know I had!” You know they’re there. You have 24 hours in every single day, period, paragraph, end of story. So WTF do you think you’re going to find???? 

(Also, side note from the blogger here — when I say “YOU,” I’m not really yelling at you, the reader/visitor to my blog; I’m talking to myself. It happens sometimes.)

Second, it’s a mistake because I know it doesn’t work for me. How do I know? It’s the same thing I used to do when I was working out. “Oh, I’ll find time to go for a walk…” or “I’ll find time to go to the gym…” AND I NEVER DID. What finally got me doing those things? MAKING A PLAN AND A SCHEDULE. Now, I know which 30 minutes I’ll work out every single day. It’s part of my routine. And if that routine gets disrupted, it only is disrupted for ONE DAY. And if there’s another plan (like a weekend away) that gets in the way of it, then I ADJUST MY SCHEDULE to accommodate for it.

I know this to be true for myself in almost every single aspect of my life, so why did I think it would be any less true for writing?

What does this mean for 2016? It means I need to schedule time. I need to know when and for how long I plan to sit at my computer and hammer our words every. single. day. Luckily, my shiny new planner is just waiting for me to be on winter break at the end of December to start writing all these things into it!

NNWM Lesson 3: There may be winners, but there are no losers. 

I had 0 words of this novel written on November 1. Now I have 22,284 words written, which is officially the longest consecutive/single piece I’ve ever written. It’s longer than my Master’s Thesis. It’s longer than my creative portfolio for Advanced Creative Writing (which was a collection of short stories, plays, and poems that all retold the same story). It’s longer than any script I’ve ever written. It’s 22,284 words that did not exist together, in this way, in the world before I put them together. How could that possibly be seen as losing? 

Sure, it’s not 50K. And I don’t get the cool profile badge or the social media header. But those words are still mine. The characters are still there. And they’re waiting for me to get back to them eventually and keep telling their story.

What does this mean for 2016? It means I’m going to try again. Camp NaNoWriMo in April, Camp NaNoWriMo in July, and NaNoWriMo in November. And I might “win” one of those. And I might “win” all three of those. But what REALLY matters is that I’m writing. And there’s no losing in that.

To those of you who hit 50K, I am so incredibly proud of you. I think you are absolute rockstars and I cannot wait to see/read your finished works someday.

To those of you who, like me, fell below that mark, don’t despair. We did something many people never even attempt. That’s the first step.

And to those who didn’t attempt it for fear of “losing” or “failing” or whatever — I hope what I’ve written hear makes you a little less afraid, and that you may be willing to come to camp with me and my fellow writers in 2016. My username is “ThatColette” over there  too if you’re looking for a cabin mate. Here’s the site again, just in case: http://campnanowrimo.org/