A letter from our own Mark Leslie Lefebvre for everyone who didn’t hit 50K this NaNoWriMo.
So it’s December 1st, and NaNoWriMo is over. And everywhere around you, fellow author friends are posting on social media that they made it, they did it. They wrote 50,000 words in a single month.
You’re happy for them, of course
But you didn’t quite make it yourself.
So what do you do?
Do you hang your head in shame and despair?
I say no.
You, see, I’m a writer who has not won NaNoWriMo 2023.
(Notice that I didn’t say “failed.” I purposely used the term “not won.”)
I’m writing this on November 30, 2023, knowing that my NaNoWriMo stats are currently sitting at about 15,633 words for this year’s project; and also that they have been sitting at that count for the past two weeks.
I got off track. I got side-tracked/side-lined, knocked out of the game. However you want to put it, I neglected to get those words done.
This isn’t the first time I haven’t made it to 50,000 words for NaNoWriMo. And it likely won’t be the last.
But what I’m doing, and what I hope you do if you’re in a similar boat as me, is not to think of that lack of hitting the NaNoWriMo goal as a failure.
Let’s look at what we accomplished. And let’s also look at how we can learn from this experience.
One of the wonderful things about NaNoWriMo is there’s this huge community of authors from around the world, regardless of their experience as writers, if this is the first book they’ve wanted to write, or it’s the hundredth book they’ve wanted to write, they’re all in the same boat, and all have a common a deadline.
We’re all going to sit down, butt and chair, fingers on keyboard, or however it is that you prefer to write. And we’re going to try to get 50,000 new words written. That sense of community and mutual support is fantastic. When we think about how isolated we are as writers, that we can do something like this and feel part of a larger community in the act of writing itself, it can be quite powerful.
So, even if we didn’t get to 50,000, we did something as part of a larger group. And that’s got to count for something. And hey, just like there are a ton of writers who hit that goal, there are also another ton of writers like us, who didn’t make it.
It’s okay. There’s still something to celebrate.
The very first thing to acknowledge is that you committed to doing something. You may not have actually achieved the initial goal, you may not have finished it, but you committed to something. You took it seriously enough that you signed up to say, “I’m going to get this done.” Yeah, okay, you didn’t get it done. But that first step is the commitment, and that’s an important first step for writers. Such a critical first step. Whether it’s, again, your first book, or whether it’s the 100th book that you’ve written, committing to getting it done is important. The act of writing down those goals, even if it’s a digital writing down online, is one of the most important first steps for a writer.
And first steps are hard. So kudos on taking that step. You all know what they say about a journey of a thousand miles. It doesn’t start until that first step.
The second thing is, even if you only sat down once to write in the past thirty days; even if you only wrote one sentence, or perhaps just a few words or maybe even just a title, you’re ahead. It’s a small measure, but you’re actually ahead of where you were before when it was just an idea that you wanted to do this, that you wanted to write, that you wanted to get a book written.
And I know it seems a little patronizing of me to say, “oh yeah, great, you’re three words ahead because you wrote three words this month.” But the reality is—and I go back to the classic book for writers, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, is that we do get there word by word. We get there little by little, in small steps that can take a long time.
My very first NaNoWriMo experience in 2006, I only got 20,000 words written.
And I never actually completed and published the book I’d been working on until 10 years later. But that book never would have been written, and never would have been published in 2016 if I hadn’t committed to doing it; regardless of the fact I didn’t win NaNoWriMo 2006, nor how long that entire process took me.
This is a reminder that it’s not just about looking at your sales dashboard online today and seeing how you’re doing today, or this hour. It is not about sitting down and saying, what can I get done in a month? It’s about what can you get done with a long-term commitment? Even if along the way, you hit bumps and things that come up that are going to slow you down, that are going to distract you from the writing.
They key is remembering that this is a marathon, and not a sprint.
What are those long-term goals, and how committed are you to getting this done, no matter how long it takes?
Word by word. Day by day. Month by month. Year by year.
Throughout our career as writers, we can have successful books, and unsuccessful books. We can have great achievements, and we can have a series of flops along the way. I failed to complete the goal for NaNoWriMo several times over the years. But I would argue that every single time I signed up to a project and committed to putting words on paper, I wasn’t just continuing to work at honing my craft, you’re learning, I was also learning more about myself as a writer, and from my errors, from the things that didn’t quite work, I perhaps learned more.
Every time you try something and don’t hit those goals, you’ve learned something new, about what wasn’t working? What did you try that didn’t work? What didn’t you try that you might want to do next time? And hat advice did you follow that just didn’t fit within the way you get things done?
There’s no one way of doing it. I can’t tell you how. It’s only after trying, after testing, after falling down a few times and learning from that process that you’re going to figure out what doesn’t work, and what might work for YOU.
So, in conclusion, I want to remind you that I did not complete, or finish the 50,000 words that I committed to write in November 2023.
But that doesn’t mean I’m going to let that define me. It’s just one bump on a long and winding road.
I’m going to see the work that I did do this month as a step forward, as one more additional step forward for me as a writer. I’m going to see every single thing that I did related to getting those words on paper, which was the commitment and the outlining and the planning and all of those things that go into making a book what it is. I’m going to look at all of those things as little successes along the way.
We spend too much time counting the failures and the things we didn’t quite get right or that we didn’t finish; and not enough time enjoying the fact that we actually did get a little something done and are that much closer to the end goal, and perhaps a little better for the stumbles and the things we learned from the stumbles along the way.
Like I said, day by day, word by word.
Completing a journey of one thousand miles begins not just with that single physical step, but the internal step that is first taken when you commit to making that journey.
The act of completing a novel does require words, a huge number of them, but similarly, it all begins with the commitment, with setting out that goal.
So if you set that goal, regardless of where you ended up on the trail as December 1st arrived, I hope that you celebrating the important fact that you did take that daring first and most critical step.