Quit the NaNo? What? Even at this late stage, you might want to say, “Bite your tongue! There’s still time, I tell you! I’ve got a long weekend now! I’m sure I’ll write thousands of words!” And even though you’re thirty thousand words behind, you just might. There’s nothing more energizing than a deadline and a bunch of good ideas. But I am sure that there are some who have already decided that it’s just a no-go and have already quit or are about to. To you I say, “Well done, and don’t be discouraged!”
But why the heck not? You didn’t make it. That wasn’t “well done” at all. You failed in achieving the goal. You just couldn’t stick to it. You just didn’t have enough ideas. You just weren’t good enough at getting your ideas down in an interesting way/fast enough/with any skill. Etc. Etc. If you’ve dropped out, you’ve already said all that to yourself, I’m sure. But STOP. Okay? It’s not as bad as you think it is, and there are a lot of positive things that have already happened. You are a winner for just trying and planning! But before we explore why, let’s have a look at why some critics might think that you didn’t “fail” at all—but perhaps were, instead, a casualty of a setup that almost encourages “failure.”
SOME FORMAT CRITICISMS
Too much about word count?
Some people actually think that the NaNo does not really help people in their writing, because it’s just got too darn many rules and restrictions, and it sets up a completely artificial situation. Most writers don’t write for word count—they are writing their work in order to get something said. They want to tell a story or they want to provide interesting and valuable information on a nonfiction topic. Isn’t writing for word count putting too much emphasis on, well, on the words (in the sense of volume instead of meaning) rather than on the ideas?
Sometimes a profound and deeply communicative idea can be expressed in very few words. Take the famous “six-word story,” usually but alas, incorrectly attributed to Ernest Hemingway: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Adding even a single word to that little story (let alone 49,994 of them) would ruin it completely. If you’ve got a really good story that only needs to be told in, perhaps, ten thousand words, why on earth would you want to go on to add fifty thousand words of mere filler?
Perhaps the critics are right, then, that concentrating simply on verbiage does not exactly encourage the writing of a good story. Indeed, it may encourage horrific “padding” and an inability to glean the real nuggets that express the story most simply and beautifully.
Too much about speed?
Then there is the issue of the thirty-day timeframe. Good grief, who can sit and plonk out a story of any value in just thirty days? A good story, say the critics, sometimes takes time to work out (** But see below, at the end of this section). Sometimes an author has to pause and seriously mull over the plot or further explore the minds of the characters. And sometimes, if you get stuck, you might need to put your story away for a few days, allowing your subconscious to go at it so you’ll have fresh ideas available when you return to it.
I’ve often done that with a story myself. Occasionally I was just taking a break to let my subconscious work on a problem I couldn’t think of a way to solve. And sure enough, once I came back to the story, my subconscious would usually have a better answer waiting for me than anything I had consciously been able to dream up before that. Sometimes the break was not even intended just to be a “break,” but I had actually given up on the story completely. I was done with it, and I had no plans to continue writing or to finish it. But six months later, when I casually picked up what I had previously written, I discovered to my surprise that while my conscious mind had washed its hands of the whole complicated mess, my subconscious had not. It had continued to gnaw away at the wretched thing for that entire time, and as I picked up the earlier chapters, the subconscious went, “Ta-da! I’ve been waiting for you. What took you so long? Here’s your solution.” And off I went again, amazed at the solution produced by my subconscious and freshly energized to get on with the story.
You just can’t do that sort of thing when you try to write a novel in a mere thirty days. Try leaving that puppy for even just a day, and your brain goes into panic mode, shrieking, “Now I’m 1,667 words behind! I’m doomed!”
So are the critics right? It’s a stupid exercise anyway, so nobody really comes out a “winner?” I think that for those for whom this format cannot work—for those, say, whose mind instantly goes blank as soon as they’re writing to a deadline—why, this is not a format for them. And they are no more “losers” for not doing the NaNo than I am for not being a ballet dancer (a profession for which I am eminently unsuited). But I also think that this format can still be very valuable for those who give it a try—including anybody who just can’t manage to make the fifty thousand words in thirty days. I still think they are winners, for various important reasons.
(** Although, regarding the issue of being able to write a novel in a mere thirty days, I have to point out that the people who participate in the 3-Day Novel Contest might have an opinion on that subject. Since they write their novels [which, on average, tend to be 100 pages double-spaced] in a mere long weekend, they might look at the NaNo writers and say, “That’s nothing, you slackers! We could write ten novels in that time period.” But they’re kind of an exception, and most of them are somewhat mad by the end of the weekend. [I can speak for myself on that topic, because I did a 3-Day Novel attempt myself—once. I didn’t complete a novel, but I got seven chapters done of what ended up being a 15-chapter novel. So really, I got half a novel done in three days! Who can complain about that?])
POSITIVES FROM TRYING
You wrote something!
Think about this. There are millions of people in the world who wistfully think they might want to try their hand at a novel—some day. And they just never get around to their “some day,” and the novel doesn’t even get started, let alone actually finished and written. But you started. If you had not had this impetus and this push to try writing a novel for National Novel Writing Month, would you have written anything at all during the month of November? A great many people would not have gotten a word down. They would not even have thought about it, and they would not have conceived any ideas.
But you really thought about it. You thought about what sort of plot might be interesting, you thought about what sort of characters you might need to tell that story, and you did some sort of planning, even if it was just rudimentary. If you wanted to write a nonfiction NaNo, you probably narrowed things down to one or two interesting topics, you planned what sorts of things you wanted to say (and what you would have to leave out), and you might have done some research. In that case, you already know more about the topic than you would have known if the NaNo had not spurred you on.
If you have written even the first chapter of a story during November—even if that’s the only thing you managed to get down—you have started a story! If you wrote the introduction to your study of galaxies or cats, you have started your exploration of the topic! Are these ideas you can continue with? If so, you already know that you can write about them, so perhaps you can sit down and make a more realistic plan for writing. Maybe you don’t need to reach fifty thousand words in thirty days, but can you pledge half an hour a day for at least five days out of seven in the week?
You know the parameters of your skills
I think this is almost the most important thing of all. Remember how I described quitting my first NaNo before the end of the first week? It’s true that I was discouraged at the time, but I learned something crucial. I learned that I myself could not write a story in thirty days that had multiple plot lines, involved a lot of historical and political knowledge about the Middle East in the 1800s, and required immense research to make the tale remotely plausible. Because of what I learned that first year, I came back the second year and wrote the story where now and then, I threw in the occasional ancestor from my own family tree into the modern story, to see how the plot might develop. AND I kept the plot line quite simple. And the story sailed off with gusto, and I finished the story itself and I “won” the NaNo for my very first time.
You might have realized that you have to change how you structure your plot or characters next year. You might have discovered that you just can’t juggle twelve main characters at once, so perhaps next year’s story would work better with three instead. You might have realized that you still want to write a historical novel next year, but you’ll need to start researching the history in July, so you’ll know it cold by November and can handle any event your characters happen to fall into.
You may have discovered all sorts of things about yourself—what sorts of preparations you need to make, what sorts of characters you write better than others, what sorts of plots you really don’t enjoy, whether your grammar or grasp of word meanings is as good as it really should be, and even perhaps how bad you really are at time management.
Believe me, these are all things that every writer of any kind needs to have a handle on. And you have gained a pile of wisdom the hard way, learning these things in less than thirty days. That puts you well ahead of most aspiring writers already!
I “failed” the NaNo my very first time, and I have “failed” it a total of four times in fourteen tries (that is, unless something dire happens in the next five days and I don’t manage to finish this one either, but believe me, I’m not planning on that). Every time I didn’t get the NaNo finished—but most especially that first time when I didn’t even make it a week—I learned crucial things that helped me succeed the next year. (And because of the things I learned, I’ve never failed it two years in a row.)
So did you “fail” the NaNo because you couldn’t complete the usual goal of fifty thousand words in thirty days? In one sense, yes, I suppose, because, well, you didn’t reach the goal. But in many of the most important senses—no you did not. You have grown as a write, even if just a little bit. If you are really serious about “some day” writing that story of yours, you have realized that you had better carefully sit down and plan that “some day” so it becomes “today.” And most of all, you can consider your experience of this month to be a serious start on your research for next year. It’s never too early! 🙂