On Writing: Lessons Learned from Losing NaNoWriMo

When I embarked upon NaNoWriMo this year I felt like I was facing a marathon. Actually, that's a lie.

Every year I feel like NaNo is a marathon, so let's instead say that this year felt like I was about to embark on one of those 100 kilometre long ultra marathons. In the desert. With no water. And I would have to run wearing high heels and a two-sizes-too-small pencil skirt.

Having a three month old baby and writing 50,000 words just didn't seem to go together. At that stage I was still having days when I was too exhausted/busy/hormonal/shell-shocked/all of the above to finish a cup of tea while it was still warm, so the idea of fitting in at least an hour of writing time every single day for a month, well, it seemed impossible.

And, spoiler alert, it was. Or rather, it didn't happen. I actually do think it could have been possible, but for a few simple facts:

  1. The last week of the month was spent on a jam-packed trip to (and travelling around) the UK.

  2. For almost the entire duration of November I decided two things were more important than NaNoWriMo; my family, and my health. This meant that when Baby Bird needed me, I went to him. It also meant that when I felt I needed to spend my "free time" running, sleeping, relaxing, or simply not writing, I chose that over trying to meet my NaNoWriMo goals.

So what happened?

Although I struggled to get going, as is often the case, once I got in a rhythm and routine of squeezing in a couple of hundred words whenever I could, as well as cashing in on 4-5 hours of babysitting time once a week, I actually found the first few weeks relatively "easy". I loved hitting (and surpassing!) daily word count targets and I reached that wonderful level of productivity when you sort of get lost in the story, and in the act of typing out words that came to me quicker than my fingers could move. Of course, I got interrupted at important moments and there were days when I nearly gave myself a bladder infection from not going to the loo when I needed it so writing was a total no-no, but for the most part, I was writing at a pace that made me think I could totally balance being a mum with being a writer.

When I left for the UK on 19th November I was only a few thousand words behind target and had I not set rule b for myself, I possibly could have crammed in the extra thousands of words to get me ahead so that I could have still won even without writing a single word during our UK trip - which I think I always knew would be the case. But I was already feeling frazzled before the month began - you can read my motherhood diary entries to understand why! - so I knew pushing myself wasn't the healthiest thing to do. 

Needless to say, I don't regret this decision at all.

In fact, "losing" at NaNoWriMo for the first time in my now four year history of taking part has taught me some valuable lessons, which I'll dip into now. These lessons have given me new perspectives on writing (and life and specifically, getting a work-life balance) and they've helped me bring a bit more structure to my day as both a mother and as a writer. 

So this post is for everyone who has ever tried to do NaNoWriMo and never quite made it to 50,000 words. It's also for you if you fear trying to do NaNo because you are convinced you'll not make it to 50,000 words. Because I understand why you'd be reluctant to start a challenge that you already feel destined to lose at (I believe that was my very mindset on October 31st). But read on because these lessons will hopefully prove that being a loser at NaNoWriMo can still feel like winning.

1. The world does not end if you don't win/write 50,000 words in one month.

The sun will still rise on 1st December. Your friends and family will still love you. The washing-up will still need doing. Netflix and Facebook will still keep churning out new reasons to put off writing. Life goes on.

I'd be lying if I said that "winning" NaNoWriMo doesn't feel fantastic, because it does. But truth be told, my second and third wins didn't feel as sweet as my first and I now know that it simply doesn't correlate that just because winning feels so good, that losing feels so bad. It really doesn't. In fact, I didn't even really acknowledge that I'd "lost" until a few days later. Because I was too busy taking a moment to appreciate that I'd given it a really good go and because of that I'd ended the month with something, not nothing...

2. 35,222 words are just as important as 50,000 words.

My something was a total of 35,222 words. Simply giving NaNoWriMo a go in November - regardless of the odds being against me - has already paid off. I have 35,000 words I didn't have when the month began. Nearly 25,000 of those words form the first draft for a follow-up to my novella The Wait. The remaining words are the first drafts of two more stories for my next collection of fiction (more on that soon). 

3. Not winning doesn't mean you didn't write all month. It just meant you didn't write 50,000 words.

I don't know why this didn't click until after the month was over, but I'm starting to believe that more important than writing 1667 words every day, is the fact that you write some words every day. I'm the first to admit I didn't write every single day in November - I took a whole week off when I was in the UK - but I did write most days. Baby or no baby, that is a real achievement for anybody, especially if you're new to this writing lark. I genuinely believe - from personal experience of both endeavours - that committing to writing every day is as tough as it is to commit to running every day.

Even if you lose NaNoWriMo, you're still a writer.

4. NaNoWriMo is still as effective and encouraging a kickstart to any project even if you don't make it to 50,000 words.

With all the above in mind, it goes without saying that I still stand by my statement that NaNoWriMo is a life-changer for any budding writer. I sort of expected my opinion to change once I'd got a loss under my belt. Ever the bad loser, I'd expected it to leave a bitter taste in my mouth and a new jaded, cynical take on the 50,000 word challenge. Not so. I still believe it's a must-try for anyone wanting to begin - and more importantly, finish - a writing project of any kind.

However don't go into it thinking anything but "I'm going to go for 50,000 words". There's no way I would have gotten so many words had I not written to win. I didn't start the month aiming for 35,000 words; I started the month with 50,000 in my mind. I was determined to be a winner for a fourth year in a row. I was determined not to break my winning streak. I may not have achieved any of these things but I did achieve something and I have brought two important projects big steps closer to publication and to my readers.

5. There are more important things in life than NaNoWriMo.

Soaking up as many of my son's smiles as I possibly can.

My son meeting both of his great grandmothers.

Drinking a cup of coffee with my mum and my son.

Watching my dad cuddle up next to his two grandsons.

Hearing my partner tell me what a great mum I am.

Listening to my friends share their troubles.

Having them listen to me share mine.

Feeling more confident about my new role as a mother.

Falling asleep next to my little boy and upon waking, doing nothing but simply watching him breathe.

6. I still love writing, even when I'm not "winning" NaNoWriMo or meeting word count goals.

There's a football chant that goes something along the lines of "You're only singing when you're winning!". Not so with writing. Even when I knew I was going to lose NaNoWriMo, I still opened up my laptop to try and squeeze out as many more words as I could on the 28th, 29th and 30th November, and as I did so I felt the same highs, joys and rewards that writing gave me in previous Novembers when I knew I was going to get to 50,000 words, or when I was writing any other month of the year. Word count goals aren't only there to release waves of happiness as you surpass them; they're there to keep you moving in a direction and the journey will then provide the highs and the lows. Upon reflection, this is so obvious to me because there have been many more word count goals I've missed than those I've hit, and guess what? I still flipping love writing.

Did you do NaNoWriMo this year? How did you get on? I'd love to hear your experiences.

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Frances M. Thompson

Londoner turned wanderer, Frankie is an author, freelance writer and blogger. Currently based in Amsterdam, Frankie was nomadic for two years before starting a family with her Australian partner. Frankie is the author of three short story collections, and is a freelance writer for travel and creative brands. In 2017, she launched WriteNOW Cards, affirmation cards for writers that help build a productive and positive writing practice. When not writing contemporary fiction, Frankie shops for vintage clothes, dances to 70s disco music and chases her two young sons around Amsterdam.
Find Frankie on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and Google+.

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