How to Fail at NaNoWriMo

As all good writers (and friends of writers, and families of writers, and distant cousins of writers, and local shopkeepers of writers) will know, it’s NaNoWriMo time – that magical time of year where hundreds of thousands of people around the world decide to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November.  Cafés the world over experience a boost in patronage and coffee sales as writers do their best to reach their next wordcount target in the most bohemian settings possible.

With all of this intensive writing comes an abundance of advice on how to get through NaNo: how to create believable characters or how to create a dastardly plot that would be the envy of Machiavelli; how to deal with characters who won’t do what they’re told or how to write your 1,667 words before breakfast.

So much advice!  You could spend the entire month reading it, with the occasional (vital!) break for yet another pot of tea, and never even realise you’ve forgotten about the writing element of NaNoWriMo.  In fact, you may end up keeping yourself so busy and productive that you can’t understand why your word count’s still sitting on zero.

What you really need is a handy guide to identifying these traps and avoiding them.  A guide written by a veteran of three failed NaNoWriMo campaigns and only one success (yes, that would be me).  A guide that may feel uncannily relevant to your interests.  A practical guide on How to Fail at NaNoWriMo.

Are you working hard at NaNoWriMo and still ending up with no words to show for it? Perhaps your house is cleaner than it's been all year but your characters haven't moved beyond their first meeting. Or maybe your person NaNo spreadsheet is a thing of beauty but all it's recording is a string of zeroes. Check out this handy guide to identify if you're writing or just procrastinating really well.

How to Fail at NaNoWriMo

Obviously, the easiest way to fail at NaNoWriMo is not to write a single word.  Sorted.  You’re done and dusted before you even begin.  But that’s a little too easy, isn’t it?  There’s nothing subtle about not writing.  Anyone can do that.  What I’m offering you is a way to be fully occupied throughout the month of November and still come out the other end a NaNoWriMo failure.

Start as late as possible

Some people might have stayed up on the 31st of October, counting down the seconds until midnight so they could type out their first official NaNoWriMo words.  You’d be much better off waiting until you’ve really worked yourself into the right writing mood, which should preferably happen some time after the 15th of November.  This is not 100% guaranteed, however.  In 2013, I started a third of the way through November and finished with two days to spare.

Lack of motivation is key here.  If you put any sort of effort in, you’re in danger of actually succeeding.

How to fail at failing: Work out your modified daily target.  This may be alarmingly huge, but if you break it down into smaller sections (ie. morning, lunch-break, evening) you might just make it through with relatively undamaged levels of sanity.

Complete other projects around the house

We’re not talking about mere vacuuming or doing the dishes here – that’s basic level procrastination.  What we want here is NaNoWriMo level procrastination and that requires something a little more special.  Surely, this is the perfect time to sew those new curtains you’ve always wanted.  Perhaps you have floorboards that need polishing or wallpaper to put up.  Come to think of it, don’t you need a new writing desk?  Looks like you’re off to Ikea before you can even think about sitting down and writing.  (Don’t forget to bring back some smoked salmon.)

Think big!  The more grand your project, the more satisfaction you’ll receive.

How to fail at failing: This can all wait until December.  If anything around your house is really bothering you, lock yourself away in a space where you can’t see it.  Sorted.

Read over previous NaNoWriMo attempts

You need to be in the right mindset for NaNo, after all, and where better to find that mindset than in previous NaNo projects?  This could take all month – it’s a difficult mindset.

Don’t worry if this is your first time doing NaNo – you can read over any old writing project.  The longer the better, of course.

How to fail at failing: Resist this urge!  Don’t even read over the early parts of your current NaNo project unless you absolutely have to.  This can lead to envy of your former self, which in turn leads to reading everything you’ve even written and pointing out to yourself how much better it was, which eventually leads to sitting in your chair and staring at a wall because you’re clearly the biggest failure ever.  (Basically, give up reading for November.)

Create some graphs and stats

You’re going to need to keep yourself on track, aren’t you?  The graph on your NaNo profile page is nice, but you need something a little more in-depth and personal, possibly with day-by-day comparisons with last year’s NaNo progress and lots of colour-coding.  A day spent wrangling with Excel is a day in which you can record a nice big ZERO in your newly-designed NaNoWriMo writing graph.

Consider following up with a day devoted to adding a pivot table for no discernable reason.

How to fail at failing: If you really want to create your own sheet of stats and graphs, set a strict limit on when it can be updated.  It’s too tempting to do it every time you finish a paragraph or a particularly witty exchange of dialogue.  Save it for the end of each writing session and enjoy watching your graph go up.  (Resist the urge to change the colours as an expression of your feeling of satisfaction.)

Be distracted by other hobbies

This is by no means limited to any current hobbies or interests you may have beyond writing.  If you’ve a hankering to learn Sanskrit or pick up the ukelele, embrace this opportunity.  You can even convince yourself this is vital research for your NaNo novel.  And if you don’t currently have a Sanskrit-learning heroine falling in love with a ukelele player, then perhaps this is the time to add them.

Give preference to hobbies that will take you out of the house and away from your laptop or notebook.  You don’t want to feel the nagging call of your NaNo project when you’re trying to get to grips with tuning your ukelele.

How to fail at failing: Use this as a reward instead.  If you’re that keen to learn the ukelele, use it as a carrot to tempt yourself ever closer to the 50,000 word target.  Once you hit it, book in that first lesson!

These are just a few ideas to get you started on failing at NaNoWriMo.  You’ll probably pick up even more ideas once you get going – in fact, you’ll be surprised at just how easy it is not to write a single thing for the entire month!

* * * * *

Do I really want you to fail NaNoWriMo?  Of course not!  I’m secretly hoping you’ll use these tips to keep yourself on track and the next time you decide to go and watch your cat being cute instead of finishing that scene you’re writing, you’ll know which choice will lead to failure and which choice leads to success and to that cute little winner’s certificate you can print out and laminate on the 1st of December.

That being said, what’s your number one tip for failing at NaNoWriMo?

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Katie Writes Stuff 9th November 2015 - 9:31 am

Ah, but I am secretly hoping people will use this handy to list to realise when they’re on the path to failure and step off quick smart!

Thank-you for your lovely compliment. 🙂

leeyongsoo 9th November 2015 - 1:22 pm

I think you nailed the “path to failure” bit… as far as I’m concerned, just the fact that you even consider doing NaNoWriMo is worthy of commendation. Here I am, trying to write a simple blog post and I’m already distracted (by reading your blog, admittedly, but it’s still not what I’m meant to be doing!)…

Katie Writes Stuff 9th November 2015 - 1:55 pm

It doesn’t matter whether it’s NaNo or a blog post: the hardest part is always starting! You should have seen the levels of procrastination that went into not writing this blog post when I intended. Truly epic.

I do feel a little bit guilty about distracting you, so I’m going to make up for it by sharing this blog post I read this morning: 7 Ways to Stop Procrastinating & Start Blogging. The description she writes at the beginning about cookies is pretty much my approach to writing every blog post ever (provided you substitute ‘tea’ for ‘cookies’). It’s definitely worth a read… even if – as I’ve just realised – it will be another distraction. Oops.

Bonita Vear (@bjvear) 15th November 2015 - 9:33 pm

This post! Truth girl! Though I need to add “get RSI in both wrists from trying to write 1,000 words daily”. That cooled my jets the last NaNo I attempted… Hope you are cracking with yours!! 😀

bonita of Lavender & Twill

Katie Writes Stuff 16th November 2015 - 8:38 am

Ouch – that would certainly seal NaNoWriMo’s fate!

I’m actually taking a break from NaNoWriMo this year; I’m supposed to be using the month to work on some other exciting plans instead, but now I think of it, I haven’t done much except endlessly read and research things. It’s just possible I may be following my failure list without even realising it!


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