How I Succeeded At NaNoWriMo After Failing Three Times

#NaNoWriMo. A simple-sounding challenge: write a brand-new novel of at least 50,000 words during the month of November. For three years in a row, I started a NaNoWriMo novel but failed to finish it. This year was different. Here’s how I finally succeeded.

Novelist picture from Shutterstock

Lifehacker readers with particularly long memories might recall that I actually completed my very first attempt at NaNoWriMo, way back in 2010. Not only did I manage to write Shot, a novel about Australia’s most successful porn producer, I also turned it into an ongoing series of articles for Lifehacker, covering everything from how to make up names and writing in a food court to the life lessons that come from writing a novel.

I successfully finished a second novel, Gough Road, in 2011. The big conclusion I drew that year was that I’m a lazy bastard. As I wrote at the time:

If I’m capable of producing a novel draft in 30 days just by setting myself a deadline, I should be capable of getting more done. I’ve had two non-fiction book projects I’ve been researching in dribs and drabs all year, but neither is anywhere near as complete as my two novels. I can’t blame anyone else for that; it’s my fault.

Part of me still thinks that’s true. Neither of those non-fiction titles are completed, I’ll admit. But I’ve also learned over the following years that completing NaNoWriMo is no kind of guarantee that you’ll succeed on subsequent attempts, and that laziness really isn’t the only issue. Here’s where I went wrong, what I learned from that, and how I finally got back onto the NaNoWriMo horse and beat it into whinnying submission.

Lesson 1: Pick a topic you’re passionate about

By the time 2012 rolled around, I had a specific evil plan for NaNoWriMo. For several years running, I had been attending the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. If I wrote a thriller set at the show, not only could I tap into existing knowledge (useful when trying to write a novel in a hurry), I could also publish it on Lifehacker and Gizmodo.

The problem? While that gave me a guaranteed publication plan, it didn’t mean I was actually excited by the idea. I don’t read action thrillers, and that means I’m not very interested in writing one. As I explained at the time

I ploughed through the first 15,000 words, but I didn’t enjoy any of it. In previous years, I’ve always relished the activity of writing fiction and itched to get back to it. With those constraints in place, it was a chore, every single time. After nine days, I had to admit the truth: I didn’t want to write this novel.

The moral here is simple: writing a novel is hard work. If you’re not excited by your basic idea, you’ll never stay motivated. That’s a lesson that also applies in lots of other contexts, professional and personal.

Lesson 2: Sometimes life is just going to get in the way

There was no lack of excitement around the idea I had for my 2013 project. I was fired up and raring to go. In a week, I wrote 18,000 words. And then my grandmother died.

On a practical level, I had travel to organise, eulogies to write, relatives and friends to contact. And, more importantly, I was bereft. I had to deal with my own emotions. So that project got put aside, and I don’t beat myself up about it. It was completely beyond my control. Life matters much more than fiction.

I still think it’s a good idea, and I plan to set aside time to complete it one day. But it would feel like cheating to do it as part of NaNoWriMo.

Lesson 3: Keep your schedule clear

One factor in the two times I had successfully completed NaNoWriMo was that I deliberately scheduled two hours a day into my calendar for writing, no matter what else was going on. You need to produce a minimum of 1700 words a day to hit the target, and I’ve learned I can generally write 1,000 words an hour when I’m producing fiction. (For non-fiction I’m much faster, but that’s because of 20+ years of practice as a journalist.)

What derailed my 2014 attempt was that I also ended up doing the Note 4 Roadtrip project — where I travelled round the country for seven days doing my day job using only an Android phone — during the second week of November. While it was possible for me to work on the novel by either using dictation or by slower on-screen typing, getting my requisite 1700 words still generally took a lot longer than two hours. By the end of the week, I’d lost momentum and given up. I’d coped with shorter breaks before — I took time off in 2011 to help friends move house — but this just made too much difference.

Unlike my 2013 manuscript, I don’t think I’ll ever start this one up again. But that’s OK too — it’s important as a writer to be willing to abandon your work if it’s not (ahem) working.

Lesson 4: Don’t stop when you’ve had enough

After three failed attempts, I’d decided that in 2015 I wouldn’t try NaNoWriMo at all. But then, in mid-October, I had an idea. That was the fatal moment. Before I knew it, I’d suddenly pencilled two hours a day into my diary across November.

Compared to previous attempts, I really struggled to stick to that schedule. On at least four occasions, I skipped a day entirely. But while in 2014 that would have been enough to kill the whole thing off, this year I told myself: “You can make up for that. Don’t be a wimp. Keep going.” I had several lengthy writing sessions on weekends, and a marathon sprint of 4000 words on the final day, and I hit the word count with a completed first draft.

Lesson 5: It’s only a draft

I also kept reminding myself: hey, it is only a draft. I know that lots of rewriting and editing will be involved. It doesn’t have to be perfect.

In my head, it does have to be complete: that is, someone reading it should be able to follow the story from beginning to end, however raggedly expressed it might be in places. I know other writers who argue that you just have to produce 50,000 words — it doesn’t have to be a complete narrative at all. Insofar as most fiction these days is a lot longer than 50,000 words (triple that length is more usual), they might have a point.

However, the idea I had for this year actually feels like it doesn’t need to be any longer. It suits the length. And even if it turns out that I never publish it, or that only three people read it, the fact remains: I wrote a novel. Again. You can check out the blurb and an excerpt from the first chapter over on my blog if you’re curious.

So would I recommend other people try it? Yes — but make sure you’re really excited about the idea, and that you have the time to spare every single day. Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it’s still some of the best fun I’ve ever had.

Angus Kidman is editor-in-chief for comparison site, a former editor of Lifehacker Australia, an aspiring novelist and a technology addict who still spends way too much time comparing mobile phone plans. Follow him on Twitter @gusworldau.

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