What I Learned from Failing NaNoWriMo

In May of this year, I decided to attempt to write a novel in a month. I knew it was a long way before November, but my story was demanding to be written—immediately. So I went for it, and I failed.

I know people who have won NaNoWriMo three times, four times; heck, some of them five times! Surely I could do it once. So on May 1st, I sat down to begin my one month noveling adventure, only for it to come screeching to a halt roughly around the 25k mark. However, despite not reaching the illustrious goal of 50,000 words, I don’t consider my NaNo experience a complete failure for two reasons.

The Power of Habits

I’m proud to say that I was more productive in the twenty-one days I spent writing in May than I have been, perhaps, for the last three years. For the first time in what seemed like an age, I felt not only productive, but prolific.

The magic spell? Habits. For twenty-one days straight, I sat down each weekday at 9 o’clock AM and wrote until eleven. During that time, I would write several thousand words. I didn’t write on weekends. Or if I did, it was far less, and I allowed for more flexibility in my schedule in case my husband and I wanted to go out. And with this routine, I was well on track for winning my first NaNo.

Now, before you jump to conclusions, I did not have loads of free time for writing. Fortunately, I had a flexible schedule, but I was actually working full-time as a story consultant and editor, not to mention keeping up with my regular blogging routine.

Thanks to cutting out the majority of my social media time, I never found myself “hustling” an unhealthy amount to keep up. Instead, I devoted those hours to writing, with plenty of margin left over. Taking the time to plan out my monthly schedule was a lifesaver, and something I consider to be one of my greatest writing successes.

So why exactly did I fail NaNo?

The Importance of Outlining

I spent the last weeks of April carefully laying out my writing schedule for May. Because I didn’t have much free time, I knew I’d have to be strict with my habits and intentional with my priorities in order to succeed without falling into the hamster wheel of hustle. However, I also planned on attempted something I’d never done before: pantsing a novel from scratch.

That was my fatal mistake, but it taught me a valuable lesson.

We’ve all heard Abraham Lincoln’s famous quote: “Give me six hours to cut down a tree and I’ll spend the first four sharpening the axe.” NaNo’ers, this is true for us, too.

When I reached the halfway mark in my story, it was like I’d been hacking away at a tree with a dull axe. The story was a jumbled mess of incoherent nonsense: formless and void. The more I wrote, the less sense it made. My novel was falling to pieces and frustration finally caused me to shelve the project.

Just as it’s imperative that we structure our time, it’s also important that we structure our tasks. Creating a sturdy outline for your story can save you from plowing blindly forth into the ether, only to end up lost somewhere down the road. Giving yourself a clear path to follow can be the difference between success and failure.

Planning for Your NaNo Adventure

Consider October the Axe Sharpening Month.

Spend the next several weeks not only developing the framework for your novel and characters, but creating a budget strategy for your time as well. Perhaps you work best in the evenings after coming home from your day job? Block out the hours between eight and ten.  Early bird? Set your alarm for five instead of seven. Arrange your schedule however you must. And above all: hack your internet time ruthlessly.

Let’s chat!

  • Are you busy prepping for NaNo? What are some of the strategies you’re using this year?
  • If you’ve won NaNo in the past, how did you go about budgeting your time? What is your most valuable outlining tip?
  • If you’ve failed NaNo in the past, what was the biggest lesson you learned?

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3 thoughts on “What I Learned from Failing NaNoWriMo

  1. Hahaha. As one of your three-time-winning-friends let me say that it is impossible to write a novel in a month outside of November. At least for me. I don’t know why. I tried Camp NaNo twice, once in April and once in July and I couldn’t do it. But every November it seems to work out for me. The first time was a test novel that I planned…possibly using the snowflake method. I think. The next one I did something similar. But last year I wrote maybe a page about the novel and went off of that for the entire book. I stopped for over a week in the middle of the month and then still managed to finish on time. I have a feeling that for me it’s just that I hate to lose. When other people aren’t involved. If it’s not entirely my fault I don’t mind as much. But I somehow see November as the Novel month and Camp NaNo as less official, so it’s probably just a deadline thing. If any of that makes any sense.

    • Yeah, I wonder if the time of year had any impact for me. It’s possible. I know I won’t be prepared to write my current WIP this November, so chances are, if I end up doing NaNo again soon, it’ll be camp NaNo, simply due to prep time. That is interesting, though, and it makes me want to do it in November sometime, just to see the difference.