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NaNo OhNo

wrong way signThere's a lot to learn from participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). Usually it teaches me that I can do more than I ever thought possible. It rejuvenates my writing soul and builds my confidence. Plus, I love winning! 😉

But there's something to be learned from failure too, which made this year's NaNo a different kind of learning experience for me.

At the end of October I talked about how I need a better outline before I begin writing. And I had a good start on one before November 1st hit, but I hadn't finished it. Still, I thought it was enough to take the plunge.


So I ended up with about 16,000 words before I realized I had no idea where I was going with the book and that I could spend all of November stressing out while writing a bunch of crap to make a goal, or I could relax and work on my outline.

I chose the second option. Which was hard. I’m really competitive, and one of the reasons NaNo works so well for me is the specter of public humiliation if I don’t meet my goal.

But if you’re working on the wrong goal, completing it doesn’t help you, it only wastes time and energy. It’s like driving 70 miles per hour toward New York when you’re supposed to be heading to San Francisco.

Outlining takes so much longer than I expect to do it right, but I’m amazed at how much the story idea changed—for the better—when I sat down to work on it further. In fact, at some point I had a brilliant (I reserve the right to change my mind about that later) idea, and my hero’s entire story arc and background just fell into place.

So, no three-peat for me this year, but I think I gained something more valuable than 50K. Namely, a better understanding of the process I need to go through, and a growing outline of what I hope will be my next finished novel.

And next year, I’ll make sure I have a solid understanding of my story before I dive into NaNo for win number three.

I’d love to hear your NaNoWriMo stories. What did you learn this year?

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  1. Reply

    Sounds like you made a sensible decision. Good luck with your work in progress. This was my second NaNo and my second win, but it was a lot tougher this year than last year. I had a more detailed story last year. Like you I found myself at a dead end about 20,000 words into my story this year so I changed main characters and it worked. It was a risky strategy and one I would not have considered without the pressure of NaNo. Thanks for a great post.

    • Reply

      CG: Normally, the point of NaNo isn’t to be sensible, and in the past I’ve been able to push my way through. But this time felt different. And I was stressing myself out beyond belief, so I think sensible was good in this instance. Congrats on your second win!

  2. Reply

    I have a similar story — except it’s 14,000 words for me and I was a good 35,000 in before I realized the problem. Yes, there is currently a line in the file in 72-point bold type that reads “YOU STARTED IN THE WRONG PLACE.” (Yes, I counted those words. Hey, it’s NaNo.) Having this year embraced the fact I’m a pantser and nothing — not even the flexibility of Scrivener — changes that, I forged ahead with some scenes I knew were good.

    But writing the 14,000 had exposed a major weakness in my heroine’s motivation and in how she interacted with the hero. Some new scenes got dropped in, a new character appeared and I ended up crossing the finish line with a 50K skeleton draft. Okay, the moment you take out the stuff I know I’m getting rid of, it’s a 32,756 word skeleton draft, but if you read through it, the story flows like you’re skimming a book. There’s a beginning, a middle, and an end, just chunks are missing as if you’ve skipped some chapters. I’m sorting through it now, color-coding my cards with “developed scene”, “draft scene” (for the lightly written, info-dumpy stuff that appeared out of nowhere), and “Here be dragons” in Plum for where there’s a break and I need to bridge from the previous scene to the next. It’s really hard to miss Plum.

    There’s still a bunch of work to come, but I wouldn’t be at this point without that ticking clock. I probably would have thrown up my hands and decided to take a break or go work on the shiny new idea that popped up a week and a half in. Heading for that NaNo victory even if I knew a bunch would be cut after I validated the book kept me going.

    • Reply

      Carokinkead: Great job! I’m glad you found the skeleton of a story in your work. A skeleton draft is just another way to outline, right? 😉

      I was reluctant to quit because I didn’t want to be giving up just because it was hard. That’s such a fine line. I used to be more of a pantser, but I think I also worked out a lot more of the story in my head before starting. Not sure why my process has changed so much. Sigh.

  3. morgansc


    My story is similar, Gwen, although I was writing nonfiction in November, WNFIN. I’ve had a memoir niggling at me for years and thought November would be a good time to attack it. I used Scrivener (of course) to carve out the arc of the story using Scenes as a roadmap rather than a formal outline. About half way into the project all these unplanned Scenes began rearing their heads and demanding I write them. It turns out my memoir has a mind of its own. What I thought it was about going in, is not exactly what it wants to be. So, I did not get the requisite 50,000 words NaNo requires to be ‘successful’–more like 30,000– but I felt the month of writing and looking at my past was extremely helpful. And I certainly have a better idea of what the arc of the memoir is really about. I blogged about it here:

    • Reply

      Sarah: 30K is nothing to sneeze at! And there’s great value in finding the true theme/storyline of your work. In my mind, not winning NaNo is still not a loss if you learned something. Good luck with the memoir and its new direction!

  4. Reply

    Mine is similar too. I had reached nearly half way when I realised that the story I was writing wasn’t the story I had planned to write! However, I did find that I loved rewriting folk stories in the middle and the ones that came were relevant to my characters. So now I have a finished draft and a way of looking at my work that I hadn’t previously.

    • Reply

      How interesting, lizberg! Sometimes what I write during NaNo ends up being backstory, but there’s definitely value in that. Interesting how the story we start out to write always seems to change, even when we create an outline. I know, for me, the act of writing triggers even more creativity. That’s why I like my outlines to be loose enough to allow for pantsing my way from point to point.

      Good job finishing your draft!

  5. Reply

    This year’s NaNoWriMo was not to be. I have no excuses other than I simply was not into the story enough to pound out a rough draft. In previous years, I’ve written a lot of drivel wedged between small nuggets of salvageable material. This year, I was not of the mind to take such time. I’m not disappointed, well, a little if only because I did not meet a goal I’d set. I still have my initial story idea and the basic outline as well as characters and the beginnings of the main story. I’m okay with not wearing the purple winner’s sash this year. I’m still a writer.

    • Reply

      That’s a great attitude, Jeannie! I think in the past I *needed* NaNo to spur me on and give me that emotional boost. I will probably do it again, but I don’t need it for the same reasons. I’m all for sh*tty first drafts, but I want to produce something that makes sense. 😉

  6. Reply

    I don’t have a NaNoWriMo story this year. After my aborted attempt to participate last year (I suffered a fall and injured my left side, including my left arm and hand four days before the start.), I didn’t even consider participating this year…like I was going to jinx myself or something if I signed up. Shudder the thought of more PT. LOL.

    I’m impressed by how well all of you did, even if you weren’t able to complete 50K. I’ve just continued plugging along with my WIP. I wrote 5K that I actually love, complete and polished. That’s the way I roll, I guess. I don’t know if NaNoWriMo will ever suit my writing style. 7K left to this WIP and I plan to finish by December 31st. 🙂

    • Reply

      Jolyse: Yes, let’s not have any more PT! It’s good to know what works for you and what doesn’t. NaNo is a good push for some people, but others will panic, pull out their hair, and freeze up. Not so good.

      Five thousand polished words is something to be proud of. Go you! And good luck getting it done by the end of the year. I know you can do it. 😀

  7. Steve and Sally Wharton


    Thoughtful, provocative post, Gwen. I’d venture to say that NaNoWriMo’s own goal is to foster writing–in general and of any kind, right?

    In reply, I’d also venture to say that it’s up to us, for most anything in life, to define our personal goals and award our own prizes. It sounds like you came away from NaNoWriMo this year with your biggest prize ever!

    I personally had never heard of NaNoWriMo until this past summer when I viewed a Matt Cutts (Google corp weenie) TED talk. Intrigued, I investigated and found myself exploring the whole concept of writing and the possibility of myself as “a writer.”

    Although I initially signed up for NaNoWriMo, I found myself unable to write merely for the sake of hitting a daily goal. Mr. Cutts noted of his own win: “I get to say, “I’ve written a novel! …is it any good? No, it’s meaningless garbage, but I attained my 30 day goal.” (paraphrased by Steve; sorry Matt!)

    I applaud Matt and every single NaNoWriMo participant for their results and for their outcomes, lessons-learned, or prizes, however they are personally defined. For me, it got to be more that hitting a number.

    This year’s NaNoWriMo (from which I dis-enrolled) was about me gaining the personal license and vision to actually proceed in hopefull becoming a write.

    I’m well on my way. I just have to go about it differently. I’m learning a new software package, Scrivener, with the help of your awesome (awesome!) book, “Scrivener for Dummies.” I’ve begun to carry a pen and a little notebook around in my back pocket to jot things down as I’m standing in line at the store etc. I’m also reading again–literature, the good stuff that I avoided in high school. But mostly, In short, I’m writing! NaNoWriMo has fostered my dive headfirst into the craft.

    Next year’s NaNoWriMo will be an extension of what I’m already doing every month, and I look forward to participating.

    So, my personal NaNoWriMo “win” this year (besides knowing about it in general) is the fact that I’m writing… Now maybe someday I’ll even be a Writer. We’ll see. Congrats to you and ALL NaNoWriMo’ers.

    Every one of you came away from the month long experience as a “winner!” Cheers, Steve and Sally Wharton, Seattle

    • Reply

      Steve and Sally: What a great thing to come of NaNo! If you’re writing, you’re a writer. It’s amazing how much of a mental transition it can be to think of yourself as such, though, isn’t it? I think you’re right. In the end, the goal of NaNo is to get people writing.

      Thanks for letting me know that the book is helping you in your quest!

  8. Reply

    Gwen, I know this is a bit late, but I’ve only recently become “Scrivenerized” as I took advantage of the 50% discount off the purchase price and downloaded it soon after the conclusion of NaNoWriMo (my first). I found the month-long experience to be intense and motivating, despite having many family commitments and other activities which took me away from writing for periods of time. Somehow, though, I managed to exceed the 50K word goal and produce a pretty good first draft of a story that’s been banging around in my head since the events on which the story is based–back in 1972-73–occurred. Being a retired teacher gave me the advantage of having time and space to work mornings and nights–or those “in between” times! Now, I am looking forward to learning Scrivener and becoming very proficient in its use for editing and re-writing my NaNoWriMo novel. At this writing, I’m “working” through your “Dummies” book and am finding it quite good and helpful and think that it should be a wonderful preparation for your Scrivener class in February. Looking forward to all things Scrivener! Mark Anderson, Cortland, Illinois

    • Reply

      Mark: Great job on your NaNo manuscript! It definitely helps the writing flow when you’ve been kicking an idea around for a while. Thanks for letting me know you’re finding the book helpful See you in class in February!

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