I came, I scribed, and then I gave up. After writing 20,778 words of my NaNoWriMo novel this year, I decided to abandon the project. And I don’t feel guilty about it at all. I feel amazing.
A quick catch-up for anyone who doesn’t know what NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is: you challenge yourself to write a complete novel of at least 50,000 words during November. You can’t start before November 1, and you have to be done by November 30. That means you need to churn out an average of around 1,700 words a day, every single day, rain, hail or massive hangover not withstanding.
I’ve taken part in NaNoWriMo most years since 2010, but my success rate has been very mixed, to put it politely. I have successfully completed the challenge three times, meaning I have manuscripts describing Australia’s most successful porn producer, a universe entirely inhabited by characters who take their names from ABBA songs, and a fictitious street in London filled with some very ordinary people, several of whom die. I really should publish those sometime.
However, giving up this year means that I’ve failed at NaNoWriMo four times. You might present that success/failure ration as evidence that I’m really not very good at it. Yet I’m not despondent. Quite the contrary.
Here’s the thing. I started the month with a very clear idea of the book I wanted to create. I found the process of writing easier than I have in the past. I’ll chalk that up to practice. Writing fiction is a completely different skill to my day job as a journalist and editor. I’ve written tens of thousands of articles, so the process holds no terrors for me. With novels I’m a newbie, but I’m getting better. Even all the projects I’ve abandoned have been useful in that sense.
What became apparent to me around November 12 was that my idea this year just wasn’t as big as I thought it was. Having written 20,000 words, I’d pretty much written it all. Even after tidying up and linking together what I had, I couldn’t see it getting to more than 30,000 words. Whether it’s a good idea or not is not for me to say, but I can say this: it is not a NaNoWriMo-sized idea.
50,000 words is already a short length for a novel. 30,000 words is, in the fiction world, almost a pamphlet. And even though electronic publishing means you don’t have to worry about length the way you do with a printed work, no such handy exit clause exists for NaNoWriMo. Length is the sole measure of success, and like many an aspiring porn star, I just wasn’t long enough. And so (to continue the metaphor) I pulled out without finishing.
The reason this makes me happy is that I’ve developed sufficient skill to know that the idea isn’t worth taking any further. I’m not giving up because of external factors or because I couldn’t get organised; I’m giving up because that’s the way to be a better writer. I can trust my judgement. That wouldn’t have been the case seven years ago.
So I’m happy, and I don’t feel like I’ve failed. I’ve written some chapters of which I’m genuinely proud, and I’ve known when to stop. That’s enough for me.
Angus Kidman is editor-in-chief for comparison site finder.com.au a former editor for Lifehacker Australia and a man who has only managed to publish one book on Kindle so far. Follow him on Twitter @gusworldau.