NaNoFAILNo: Cracking the code

Ever feel like these 2008 Olympic tri-athletes?

I did last month, when (ten years postpartum) I decided to get in shape. Though our three golden retrievers have always kept me walking, this fall my prodigious cross-country-running son inspired me to pick up the pace a bit and run.

I followed all the training recommendations, slowly building up pace and stamina. I alternated running and walking until I could run a good couple of miles without stopping. As I trained, I noticed a tiny twinge in my left knee. Nothing major. Nothing too painful. Then I ran a 4.5 mile race on Thanksgiving Day. My knee hurt about half-way through, but I continued, finishing the race with a dull throb I thought would dissipate.

The next day, the pain felt excruciating. Days of ice, rest, compression and ibuprofen didn’t help. Convinced something major was severed—or needed to be—I went to the orthopaedic hospital for x-rays.

I left with the disappointing diagnosis of tendonitis. As much as it hurt, I expected a cast or bandage or something to show for it. Instead, I limped back home and continued rest, ice and ibuprofen for the next 5-6 days.

Finally, the pain subsided and I attempted my first walk since the race. I barely walked a block before the knife-like pain dug into the side of my knee. By the time I got home, all I could do was curl up in my bed with an ice bag and weep. One by one as if at a wake, our three dogs and three sons filed by the bed offering reassuring licks and hugs (respectively).

All of this occurred as NaNoWriMo drew to a close, along with my pathetic word count. I struggled with feelings of failure, futility, inadequacy, even doom regarding both my running and writing. Even so, I gleaned some wisdom from the experience—wisdom I thought fellow writers might appreciate.

1) First, it’s okay to try and fail.

Like most folks, I started NaNoWriMo with fervor and motivation. I had accountability partners. I tweeted word counts. Laundry piled high. Then life happened: three kids had to be three places at once; my family actually needed clean underwear; a day job and bank account needed me to work more hours; one dog licked open a hot spot and two others stepped all over my laptop whenever I sat down to write. 

All the while, that annoying NaNoWriMo daily word counter thingy crept upward. On the first day, the counter said to maintain a 1,667 words/day pace to meet the 50,000 goal. As writing time waned, the goal increased to 2,300/day. Then 6,534. On November 30, I would’ve had to write 26,000 words to meet my goal.

Still, I’m 24,000 words farther into my WIP than if I never tried at all.

2) Second, free writing leads to discovery of strengths, weaknesses and voice.

Psychologists use a journaling technique with some patients in which they tell them to use their non-dominant hand to write themselves a letter. Many times, this leads the writer in unexpected directions, opening doors to new and more productive stories. Similarly, as I continued through NaNoWriMo, I discovered new ways to write scenes. New characters felt free to emerge. I felt free to kill a few off and start over. I found my voice and lost it several times over, and even discovered new ones. Free writing, well, it frees us from editor mode, allowing uncharted creativity to emerge.

3) Keep going, but stop if it hurts.

I learned after-the-fact running shouldn’t hurt, and if it does, you should stop. Same thing with writing.

I know—I know. We’re supposed to allow our hearts to “bleed upon the page.” We ought to pour ourselves through our pens until we can sing “Nobody Knows the Trouble I Seen” in a grand, unrelenting crescendo.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. 

But, most of us writers are melodramatic, hyperbolic saps. Seriously. If it’s too difficult, take a break. Find a new angle. Cross-train by reading a few books. Settle in to what works for you. If you participated in NaNoWriMo, be proud of whatever word count you achieved. If that sort of jump-start works for you, participate again. If you hated it and the whole month felt like a proverbial knife-in-the-knee, don’t bother.

4) As Captain Barbosa (from Pirates of the Caribbean) said, “The code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”

So it goes with writing, including NanoWriMo. Writing advice on the web, in books or taught in classrooms are guidelines—not code—we need to tweak and apply to our unique lives. For example, the “write every day” advice is not feasible for my life stage, which includes boys, dogs, work and possibly undiagnosed ADD. For a long time, I beat myself up for not meeting that seemingly ultimate criterion for being a “real writer.” Now I’m learning to embrace my quirky—if manic-depressive—methods of achieving word counts.

You might wonder what’s become of my knee injury. I decided to head to the local swimming pool. A competitive swimmer in college, I returned to the place I knew I could find a niche and was gentler on my joints and 10-year-postpartum body. As I glide (pain-free) through the water, voices and the noise of the world are assuaged until all I focus on are breathing.



Pulling the water behind me.

More water.

More words.

Ever behind us.

Ever before us.

Ever beckoning each of us to write.

What about you? Did you participate in NaNoWriMo? If so, what did you take away from the experience?

32 Replies to “NaNoFAILNo: Cracking the code”

  1. I think you’re brave for trying. I think the failure is not in trying and failing but in not trying at all. I tried NaNo one year and didn’t finish and wasn’t hip on doing it again. But, what it did teach me was that I was able to pen several words a day if I actually sat down to do it. Know that at times, you have to write even when you don’t feel inspired. Someone wise once said, you can’t edit a blank page.

  2. I participated in NaNoWriMo for the first time this year. With about 5 days left I still had over 15,000 words to write and I thought I would never make it. But I did! I learnt:
    a) planning is the only way to go
    b) I CAN write every day if I put my mind to it
    c) you know how people are always saying “set a goal” – well, now I know what is feasible for a goal and I work towards that every day
    d) last but not least, I learnt that writing the first draft isn’t the hard part, even if it is in just 30 days – editing is. 🙂

  3. NaNoWriMo is quite an experience. I actually completed it in 2009. My experience, however was one of frazzled burn out and though i accomplished that one thing, I felt very unsuccessful in every other area of my life that month. I felt like a failure because I couldn’t DO IT ALL. I decided that was not how I wanted to feel about myself. If my writing doesn’t give me a sense of peace or an enjoyment, then I’m defeating the whole purpose of why I write in the first place.

    I am not against NaNoWriMo and for some, I’m sure it is a great challenge and a great lesson in discipline, but it wasn’t for me. I don’t want to take something that I truly enjoy and turn it into a job.

    Have a blessed Holiday Season, Amy!

    Merry Christmas,

    1. It IS an experience, isn’t it? I think it’s good to try, but I think we’re a lot alike, Cindy. I’m a processor, by nature, so I like to have time for thoughts, ideas and sentences to percolate. Merriest of Christmases to you, too, dear!

  4. If I did not have vacation days to burn during the month of November, I could not have finished NaNoWriMo. I spent entire workday time, drinking coffee, eating pastries, and writing. For me, the online accountability groups were fantastic. Hosting your own via Google+ or joining the silent ones made it less likely for me to procrastinate. I did not type and surf the web. I did not type and play Angry Birds. I did not type and Tweet about not typing. I could look up and see a face typing. There was a stay at home mom, taking care of a one year old, and typing. The visual determination is adrenalin. I was fortunate to do about 500 words an hour. After doing this month, I told myself that taking two months off every year can produce two First Drafts a year. It is possible. It is doable. That would leave ten months, to edit. Or find someone to edit and leave me to re-write. 2012 will be interesting.

  5. Great, common sense advice. Thanks, Amy. I did NaNo once, completed with 50,000 words, but my editing process took much longer than if I had written at a slower pace. So I don’t NaNo any more. I always think it’s better to try and fail than to not try and never know.

  6. Good for you, Amy! It’s not a failure. I think the most important thing is that every writer discover whether that method works for her by trying it once. I made it to about 38K, but there were many, many nights that were pretty miserable. Drafting that quickly is not a lifestyle I would choose for the long term.

    1. Thanks, Rosslyn. There’s a season for everything, even with regards to writing. Sometimes we need to write fast, and other times we just have to treat it like a slow dance, and still other times we need find ways to incorporate it into our daily lives. Balance, right? 🙂

  7. Great post and encouragement. Last year I “won”, but was so behind in every other area of my life the victory felt hollow. This year I wasn’t going to do it but last minute thought, I’ll write every day, but not get caught up in the word count. Two weeks in family commitments commandeered any writing I hoped to accomplish. I felt guilty for awhile, logging zeroes every day over at My Book Therapy, but I made myself log those nothings in to remind me it was okay. I only made 16K, but I don’t see it as a NaNo fail. I perceive it as a strong start for 2012!

  8. Wonderful post, Amy. I really enjoyed your wisdom, especially,“The code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.”:)This was the first year I tried NaNo and I went in to it knowing that it’s one of the busiest months of the year at the college where I work as a full time counselor. Still I wanted to see if there was anything else other than word count to be discovered and there was.

    I didn’t even come close to what you all did. I think it was around 9,000 words. But I learned that I can write long hand which I rarely do and found that by using minutes at work waiting for meetings to start, my lunch break, other stolen moments, etc. I was able to get a good start on my book due April 1st. So while I’m not fast, I’ve always admitted to being a turtle when it comes to writing, I discovered new ways of achieving word count.

    When I was done with the long hand I typed what I had into my word document and expanded word count and character and setting from there. So I would recommend trying NaNo at least once. I’m not sure, but I think I might try it next year just to see what happens.

    1. Hi Jillian and super job on your 9K! Interestingly, I wrote my last novel completely in long hand. Every time I tried to type, it came out bland, but as soon as I picked up a pencil and $1 composition book, words flew out on paper. I think I’ll be able to use the NaNo words to build on, but I’ll go back to pencil and notebook once my writing sabbatical is over this month. Blessings and writing mercies to you!

  9. Thanks Amy. Your words gave me permission to feel that I’m not a failed writer for not writing everyday and for not finishing my first NaNoWriMo due to kids, pets, household stuff, etc. Hope your tendonitis is diminishing and that 2012 will be a great year for all of us looking to advance the story.

    1. Oh, so grateful you’re encouraged, Michelle. Your writing is a gift and you are SO not a failure! Keep on, as you say, advancing the story! The world needs yours!

  10. I wanted to read this post much earlier, but, um, family demands prevented me from doing so.
    Kinda’ like the whole writing life versus real life dilemma we so often face.
    Yes, I participated in NaNoWriMo.
    I even headed up the MBTWriMo celebration over at the My Book Therapy writing community.
    And … I didn’t finish.
    I wrote 25k+ words and then my WIP derailed for a variety of reasons. Full stop.
    And I’m OK with that.
    It wasn’t wasted time, even though I didn’t earn one of those oh-so-cool NaNoWriMo Winner thingys to put on my blog.
    Lots of wisdom in this post — especially the importance of finding “me” in the midst of all the writing should haves and could haves.

    Hope you’re feeling much, much better.

  11. I have to make something very clear here -I am NOT a fiction writer. I’m intimidated by fiction and fiction-writers. So, when Nanowrimo comes around each year, I am intimidated and oddly curious. This year I even created a login name. But, still no words. Maybe next year.

    Loved this post, friend. Wish you lived closer. I could use a writer-buddy to get my butt up and moving. I think my next WSWC post will be about gaining weight when you sit your “butt in chair” for too long.

    Congratulations on the run! I’m so proud of you.

    1. Aw, thanks so much, Joanne. And of course you know I’m a fiction writer who crossed over from the intimidating world of non-fiction, so I am oddly curious and proud of YOU! 🙂 It’s all storytelling, after all. The way we accomplish it is a means-to-an-end, and I believe as Christian writers, a calling as to however God can get a message into hearts best. (Since I’m not published yet, I’m open to any and all means, of course!) 🙂 And wow, would it ever be awesome if I lived near you. Which would mean I’d live closer to Charise, too. Which would mean my butt would NEVER be in a chair but always out visiting you girls! 🙂

  12. I loved this post, Amy. I got so much out of it. I loved the analogy between your running and writing. And I really took to heart the letting go of the pressure on yourself to write everyday. I, too, struggle with that “real writer rule”. And for the same reasons as you! 😉 But in addition to my 0 count days, I get a 7000 count date so I’m easing up on myself starting now. I didn’t officially participate in NaNo, but I was with you all in spirit and still fell short, so your overall message was good for me too.

    1. Thanks, Charise! I just noticed how often I use smiley faces in my messages . . . I wonder how much that would add to my word count if the “:-)” counted as an actual word! I think so many writers are type-A personalities, which means beating ourselves up for not meeting personal or perceived outside expectations can feel overwhelming, even devastating. Hence the reason so many agents and editors have to talk their clients “off the ledge.” But with folks like you alo;ng the journey, it makes it all worth it. Blessings, friend!

  13. Love your honesty and your humor, Amy. I have never done NaMo (is that the right acronym? I always get it messed up. Note to self: learn acronym before diving into NaMo), but I still took a lot away from this post. Keep up the great work – you can do this thing, girl!

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