I Tried To Write A Novel In A Month. Here's Why I'm Happy I Failed.

I actually did win something — perspective.

Write a novel in 30 days, they said. It will be fun, they said.


This was my first year participating in National Novel Writing Month — or NaNoWriMo, as the cool kids say. Every November, people around the world attempt to write a 50,000-word draft of an original novel. There's no prize for finishing, other than a printable certificate and (I assume) a proud sense of accomplishment.

I wouldn't know, because I didn't win. 

This would come as quite a shock to my childhood acquaintances, many of whom retain a mental image of me violently tapping away at a typewriter or thoughtfully dipping a quill pen in ink. (Probably not, but I like to pretend.) From a very early age, writing was my "thing." I scribbled in notebooks during recess, read recent projects aloud during preteen sleepovers, and composed prose poetry for graduation ceremonies. When people asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I never had a problem answering.

"Can't wait to read your books someday," they would all write in my yearbook. "Never change."

In many ways, I haven't changed. I've certainly continued writing — essays, short stories, blog posts, articles, movie reviews, fanfiction, the first act of a screenplay, this very sentence. One of the only things I haven't written is the one thing everyone always expected me to: a novel. Earlier this year, however, I got an idea for one. 

I've had ideas before. I've even pursued a few of them, but some combination of life, work, and self-doubt always got in the way. This time, I thought, things would be different. Once November rolled around, I would announce my plans to the world (or at least my social media followers), I would give myself a concrete deadline, and I would have hundreds of thousands of fellow writers holding me accountable. I spent the next six months gathering inspiration (thanks, Pinterest) and daydreaming about meeting my fans at Barnes & Noble. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

The premise of my novel began with a question: What if a real person became a figment of someone else's imagination? An interesting idea, right? Unfortunately, interesting ideas aren't always the easiest to execute. I had created a vague plot outline before the month began, but actually writing the thing was a whole different animal. What I'd imagined in my head to be the literary equivalent of a Charlie Kaufman movie wasn't translating as such on the page. I was suddenly faced with a whole lot of existential questions that I didn't know how to answer.

It didn't help that the month of November seemed to be emphatically against my productivity. I was out of commission for three days after the election. (It's hard to be creative when you're afraid for your country.) When I eventually got back into a groove, Thanksgiving dinner and binge-watching the Gilmore Girls revival quickly pulled me out of it. My final word count when the calendar flipped to December was 20,086. Most of that was exposition, clunky dialogue, and rambling inner monologues. And as for the plot? It was supposed to be a road trip story, but I never actually got my characters on the road.

The whole month, while following NaNoWriMo's Twitter account and scrolling through the updates of other participants, I read the same things over and over: "It's allowed to be bad!" "Kill your inner critic!" "Just write!"

I didn't kill my inner critic. I didn't even kick her out of my house. For the entire month, she crashed on my sofa, ate out of my fridge, and told me everything I was doing wrong — the worst kind of holiday guest.

That's not to say the month can't be extremely valuable to other people. If it wasn't, there wouldn't be so many repeat participants each year. Several popular novels actually began as NaNoWriMo drafts — Water for Elephants, Fangirl, and The Night Circus, to name a few. As a writer, getting started is often half the battle, and NaNoWriMo forces you to do just that, over and over again for 30 days. For some writers, that urgency can be a life-changer. For me, it just didn't click.

Maybe I was too ambitious. Maybe I didn't plan enough. Or maybe, just maybe, I would have done better setting my own goals and working at my own pace, instead of trying to race toward someone else's expectations. 

Motivational posters and commencement speeches encourage us to reach for our dreams and work hard to accomplish our goals, because anything is possible. It's a lovely sentiment, and we see every single day that humans are capable of amazing things in the face of unlikely odds. But there's also something to be said for failure. Although the word has a negative connotation, its definition is as simple as "a lack of success." And let's face it, success isn't always everything it's cracked up to be.

Am I disappointed I don't have "winner" on my profile? A little. I've always had a perfectionist streak. But when I stop and think about it, I realize that I actually did win something last month — perspective.

There's a famous quote attributed to Dorothy Parker: "I hate writing, I love having written." For years, I thought those words perfectly summed up my relationship with writing. It can be a chore, but it's all worth it when I can look back and feel proud of the work I've done. While trying to write my novel, slogging through each paragraph, and feeling less and less confident about my story, I reevaluated that quote and realized that maybe I had loved writing in the past — when the word counts were smaller and the deadlines nonexistent. It's like the song goes: You don't know what you got 'til you set a totally unrealistic goal for yourself and fail to achieve it. Or something like that.

You could say NaNoWriMo prioritizes quantity, with the quality hopefully coming later. But for me, the quality is where the fun happens. Playing with a sentence until it's exactly what I want it to be, basking in a particularly evocative image, describing someone's outfit down to the last button, letting banter between characters develop organically. That might not be the most efficient method, but it's the one that makes me feel the most like a writer.

If that means I stick to shorter pieces, or I take years and years to eventually finish one novel, or I just end up with a folder full of half-finished drafts, so be it. I'm not George R.R. Martin. Nobody's tapping their feet in anticipation of my next bestseller — not even those kids who wrote in my yearbook. So what's the rush? I might as well enjoy the journey.

And lest you think I'm just one big NaNoCryMo, there was one thing about the month that I really enjoyed: the sense of community. I liked going on a journey with other writers, tracking their progress and hearing their ideas. If you, like me, want to join the party but dislike the pressure of it all, then consider joining me at Camp NaNoWriMo, a spin-off event in April and July where you set the goals yourself — and you don't even have to write a novel. 

Now that's a WriMo I can get on board with.

Cover image: Mohd KhairilX / Shutterstock.com


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