NaNoWriMo 2016: Postmortem

It’s been just over two months since NaNoWriMo 2016 ended. It’s been ten months since I first started thinking about maybe trying my hand at it. It’s been exactly a week since I typed “the end” on the story I started back in November.

It feels like a good time to look back and think about how the whole thing went.

I’ll start with some backstory. (If you’ve been reading the blog for a while, you might know some of this already.) I used to write. A lot. At least 2000 words a day, four days a week, without fail. I did NaNoWriMo a few times, years ago… until I realized that it wasn’t really a challenge anymore, and that starting a new project in November would mean putting any current projects on hold for a month. I considered myself a writer before anything else.

The problem is, I’ve got a perfectionist streak, especially when it comes to writing.

I was writing a lot, but nothing ever came of it. I’d finish a draft and… I really couldn’t bear to look at it again. All I could ever see were the flaws: formulaic plots and boring characters. And while I know that all first drafts are terrible, mine felt particularly terrible, like trying to revise them into something readable would just be a waste of time. It got to the point where I wasn’t even happy to reach the end of a draft—just faintly relieved that I didn’t have to think about that story anymore, and angry with myself for spending so much time on something so awful, and for my refusal to try to turn it into something not-awful.

I had to stop. Writing was making me too miserable. That was about five years ago now, I think.

But I never really stopped thinking about writing. Story ideas never stopped coming, and I kept studying technique. It always felt like something I’d come back to. Eventually. Once or twice, the urge got too strong, and I tried to ease myself back into it, but it was never the right time. I produced some amazing prose, but always started to hate the process again before finishing anything.

And so, last spring, I started thinking about NaNoWriMo again, and how maybe easing myself in wasn’t the solution—maybe I needed to make a big scary commitment and just see if I could still write at all. By the time November rolled around, I’d (mostly) figured out my story, and got my typing speed back up, and was feeling… weirdly good about the whole thing.

I spent the whole month expecting an existential crisis that never came. Instead, I managed to make it through, writing nearly every day and hitting 50,000 words a day before schedule.

Now, remember: I only typed “the end” last week. The draft is not 50K words long—it’s just over 90K.

And… yeah. It’s terrible. One entire chapter is missing (it was a big empty hole in my outline, and I just skipped it rather than lose momentum). The plot is a little formulaic (though less than previous stories I’ve written… more on that in a minute), some of my characters are boring. But I don’t feel like I’ve wasted the past three months. I’m actually looking forward to rereading it and starting the revision (or rewriting, more likely). I’m starting to put serious thought into my next story.

I’m really glad I decided to tackle this thing.

So, looking back, what did I learn?

I am still capable of writing, and not making myself miserable.

I was genuinely starting to wonder. But I made it through the entire month of November, and the months after, and I never once doubted what I was doing, and I never hated the process. That said: I knew going in that the 1666 words/day every day that NaNo requires isn’t sustainable for me. But it was a good kickstart for that one month, and in the weeks since, I’ve established a good writing routine that feels both productive and sustainable.

I need other writers and creative types in my life.

I kind of knew this, but NaNoWriMo really did confirm it for me. In retrospect, one of the things (and there were several, not all of which are worth going into here) that contributed to my burnout was that my longtime beta reader (the person I regularly bounced ideas off of and trusted to read my earliest drafts) went AWOL, just at the moment I was starting to get serious about my writing. Without that feedback, I had nothing to balance out my perfectionism. So… yeah. That sucked.

But I made a genuine attempt to interact on the NaNoWriMo forums, and find some other people for mutual cheerleading and advice, and it helped so much. Just knowing that there were people out there going through the same thing, and who were genuinely interested in my story (and helping people through their own struggles)… it’s made a huge difference.

The only thing that really motivates me is doing the work.

Over the past year or so—not just on this project—I’ve been trying a few different methods to get myself motivated to do the work that I want to be doing. And, in the end, I’ve learned that the only thing that really works for me is seeing the progress I’m making (however I choose to measure that), and focussing on my big goals. All the tricks and lifehacks in the world are meaningless.

An outline doesn’t have to lead to a formulaic story.

I struggled with this a lot in the weeks leading up to November. I knew going in that I needed an outline, but I also knew that part of the reason that my earlier stories felt so formulaic was because my outlining process was too strict. But I managed to find an outline technique (scene-based, on index cards) and story structure (um… it’s complicated) that worked for me: it gave me the structure I needed to stay on track, and the freedom to discover the story as I went along.

I also learned that every story has it’s own process, and that discovering what that process is is half the battle. I already know that the story I’m thinking about right now is going to need a different approach, but I’m pretty sure I know what it’s going to look like.


So… what comes next?

I’m setting this draft aside for another week or two, just so I can find the distance I need to look at it objectively. Then I’ll read it over, make some notes, and start planning the next draft. (It’s going to need a complete rewrite, and probably a new outline. So it’s going to be a long process.)

In the meantime, I’ve started thinking about the next project, trying to expand the concept into something like an actual story. I’ll probably start outlining it before the end of the month. I’m still writing every day; even if it’s just vague freewriting, it’s still helping me maintain that routine.

I think the experiment was a success.