November 15, 2019

What failing NaNoWriMo taught me

Eleanor Rasor ’23

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Confession time: I’ve never actually finished NaNoWriMo. Short for National Novel Writing Month, it’s an annual writing project where you try to write 50,000 words over the month of November. It’s a time of intense deadlines, excitement and no small amount of stress. But the end product can leave an author with a completed draft of a new book — or at least the beginning of one. Plenty of well-known books, such as “The Night Circus” and “Cinder,” had their origins in this month of intense writing.

I first heard about NaNoWriMo during middle school, but I didn’t attempt it until my sophomore year of high school. I was spurred on by the idea for the book that would eventually become “Twelve Dead Princesses,” my retelling of the gothic fairy tale that was published in 2019. I was determined to give it a try and get a big chunk of the book done by the end of the month. But this was November 2016, and we all know what happened then. The presidential election, combined with plenty of other things in my already busy life, meant that although I didn’t end the month with nothing, I fell somewhat short of my goal of 50,000 words.

At first, I felt terrible. What kind of writer was I if I couldn’t bang out 50,000 words in a month set aside specially for that? How would I fare under deadlines if I ever wanted to become a professionally published author? 

Blog_Rasor_256- telling room logo

In writing her novel, Rasor received mentorship from The Telling Room, a nonprofit creative writing center in Portland, Maine. (Image courtesy of The Telling Room)

However, as the months wore on after my failed NaNoWriMo project and I continued to chip away at my book, I realized that I’d actually learned a few important rules about writing that November: 

  1. Set aside time for writing. When I started my project, I realized that my 1,700 words a day weren’t going to get written in the five minutes between classes or while hanging out with friends. Instead, I eventually learned to block off a chunk or two of time a day, reserved only for writing, and made sure no one bothered me.
  2. Outlines are your friend. Although plenty of authors like to write without an outline in order to let the developing plot and characters surprise them, it’s not always a good idea during NaNoWriMo. With such a short deadline to produce such a large number of words, you should have at least some idea of where the story is going next so you don’t run out of ideas too quickly.
  3. Turn off your internal editor. NaNoWriMo isn’t about writing the next Pulitzer Prize-winning book. It’s about getting words down on the page as quickly as you can. It doesn’t matter if they suck as long as they exist. You’ll almost definitely look back at your writing after November and cringe, but you got it written down. There’s always time for revising afterward.
  4. Keep going. After my failed NaNoWriMo, I was almost tempted to put down my book and try writing something else. Something that didn’t have a sense of failure attached to it, something where I could start fresh. In the end, though, I decided to stick with my current work and, if I hadn’t, I likely never would have been published.

So many places to write on campus!
So many places to write on campus!

So to anyone out there believing that writing 50,000 words in a month seems too big a challenge, or who has actually tried NaNoWriMo and felt they failed, don’t be hard on yourself. There’s no one waiting at the end of the month to judge you. Whether or not you meet your goal, NaNoWriMo is a great opportunity to get some writing done, learn to stick with projects when they get hard, and discover more about yourself as a writer. 

I’ve decided to attempt NaNoWriMo again this year. I know that even if I don’t succeed, I’ll learn a few more important lessons about writing along the way.

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At top: Image courtesy of NaNoWriMo

Eleanor Rasor ’23 hails from Yarmouth, Maine. She is a lover of sci-fi, fantasy and writing, as well as of her two pet cats. She is the author of the book “Twelve Dead Princesses,” a gothic fairy tale retelling that she wrote as part of a young writer’s program during her senior year of high school. It was published in August 2019, just as she was starting at Mount Holyoke. When not working on homework Rasor can be found reading, writing or playing games with the Mount Holyoke student org Renegades.
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