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02 December 2015

The Stench Of Failure | NaNoWriMo Update


The stench of failure.

Pretty dramatic, huh? 

That's how I sum up my NaNoWriMo challenge during November. The goal was to write a 50,000 word draft novel last month. I failed. Failure smells bad. Not as bad as a litter box, a dirty nappy or cow manure, but it still stinks.

Failure has a particular stench. Hints of sadness, undertones of disappointment and a lingering taste of fear.

But, as they say, confession is good for the soul. So, here it goes. My confession in less than 50,000 words. Feel free to provide absolution in the comments.

1 - Writing is hard. Seriously hard.

I knew it would be hard. I didn't sign up for NaNoWriMo with any illusions, but I was struck by how seriously hard it is. I can write blog posts pretty quickly, but they're disjointed little figments of my imagination. Nobody who reads this blog expects a coherent story from week to week, or anything resembling a plot with fully fleshed out characters.

A novel, on the other hand, is a different story. It's hard. You really can't wing it. At least I can't. Which leads me to the next point.

2 - I really wanted to be a pantser. I should have known better.

The folks at NaNoWriMo describe two types of writers. There are those who are extremely organized. They've outlined their plot, they've fleshed out their characters so well that they know what they have for breakfast and their pens and notebooks are neatly laid out in anticipation of the start of NaNoWriMo. These are the people who don't have a junk drawer in their kitchen. Who needs a junk drawer when your life is so organized?

Then there are the pantsers. These are my bretheren. They write by the seats of their pants. They're spontaneous, their characters develop themselves without any human intervention and the plot unfolds as if by magic. Their house might be a right mess, but the pantser's inner muse never lets them down.

I thought I was a pantser.

I wanted to be a pantser.

Turns out, I'm not a pantser.

I realized early on that I needed organization. I craved organization. I couldn't write a scene on its own because I didn't know what was supposed to happen next. I guess I really am my mother's daughter. Except, I still have a junk drawer. Or two. Possibly three. Must be some sort of manifestation of inner defiance.

I ended up pausing my writing early on and putting together an outline of my novel and creating character worksheets. But, it didn't feel right. I felt pressure to get back in the game and churn out scenes. I just wrote anything to make my daily word count target. But, they weren't the right scenes. My novel had turned into some sort of junk drawer filled with random nouns, verbs, prepositions and the like.

3 - I couldn't keep the kittens in the box.  

We used to have a cat named Sunny. She was a sweet cat. Then, one day, she had some sort of nervous breakdown because her kittens wouldn't stay in the box. She had definite ideas about what was supposed to happen. Kittens were supposed to stay confined to the box. They would get out to play and she would carry them back to the box, one by one. At one point, all she was doing was carrying kittens back to the box. Then she broke down, howled and kind of gave up. After that, she kind of sat in a corner and growled at people and kittens alike.

I had a certain idea when I started NaNoWriMo. I was going to write an epistolary mystery novel. Some of the books I've really enjoyed employ this style of story telling using letters, diaries, emails and the like. Such as The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows and Inconceivable by Ben Elton.

This was my kitten - an epistolary novel. Only one problem, she wouldn't stay in the box. I tried and tried and tried to write in this style. But, then I gave up, sat in the corner and growled.

So, I switched styles partway through and started experimenting with different story telling techniques. This, coupled with the fact that I really didn't have a plot, really slowed things down.

4 - I sat in the corner and read books.

Procrastination is one of my favorite pastimes. Since I wasn't gaining any traction with my novel, I decided to read some mystery novels. But, not read them like I usually do - devouring them up like a plate of freshly baked chocolate chip cookies that someone else made for me. No, now I was reading them from the perspective of a writer.

How did they structure the plot? What were their characters like? How did they make the action move at pace?

It's really different reading books when you're looking at them with a critical eye. To be honest, not as much fun. But educational. So, I guess in this case, this was procrastination with a purpose. Let's call it research, shall we?

5 - My boat started sinking and things went to hell.

Seriously, my boat started sinking. If you aren't a regular blog follower, then you won't be aware of the Case of the Slowly Sinking Ship. I live on a sailboat and towards the end of November, my boat started leaking in a very dramatic fashion. As they say, water outside your boat is a good thing, inside your boat, not so good.

This took all of my energy and time for days on end. The last thing I wanted to think about was my poorly organized novel with ill-formed characters. So, I didn't. And now we're in December, I still haven't found the leak on my boat and I haven't finished my draft novel.

But, I haven't given up.

My mom's given me an extension of two weeks. I didn't know she was in charge of NaNoWriMo, but apparently she has some pull. So, now I have until the middle of December to get my act together and finish the draft novel. Wish me luck. Better yet, send cookies. Even better, send kittens.

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50 comments:

  1. Sometimes it's necessary to accept failure and go on living happily wallowing in mediocrity. One may never be good at something, but having fun while trying.

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    1. I don't know if I'll be any good at this novel writing thing, but I do want to finish what I started. Although, I am quite talented at wallowing in mediocrity :-)

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  2. I find your experience strangely similar to mine when you introduced me to the blogging a-z challenge: took something that was very easy, and made it very hard, in my case by not having done any of the prep work and having to be a "pantser." (It would have been very easy if planned in advance, which, apparently, is the way you're wired as well.) The difference (to me) is that with blogging there's an inherent value in posting fresh content regularly and reliably -- it keeps your audience with you in real time. With novel writing, there's no inherent benefit in the big push, because all the audience sees is the finished product when you are ready to release it, so the challenge seems a bit ... false. Chalk it all up to a learning experience about your self as much as about your characters, and get back to making sure your boat stays afloat. The characters will perk around in the back of your mind, and there will come a time -- most likely an inconvenient one, or the middle of a night passage -- when you can't NOT write them. (insert smile face here)

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    1. That's quite interesting that you mention the A to Z challenge. I planned the heck out of that and pre-wrote lots of blog posts. I felt so on top of things and it was lots of fun as a result. You make a very good point about blogging having to be a regular activity, whereas there are no real time pressures to finish writing a novel. Good food for thought to ponder.

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  3. I am a natural panster and beleive me, it ain't easy, and it ain't fun. I fight my natural urge to write whatever pops into my head and try to plot each scene and write them with organisation. It's sucks, but it's so much easier to get the plot in the right order and acheive something like a decent first draft. If you're not a pnster, celebrate! Learn how to utilise your natural urge to plot and organise, and you'll soon be flying through that novel.

    Best of luck.

    Shah. X

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    1. I've been busy working away at a detailed outline and it feels so much better. I have a feeling once I plan everything out, the writing will come so much more easily.

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  4. Well in your defense November was a very busy month at your marina.There were lots of distractions...new people to meet, old friends to catch up with, parties with beer and music, cat sitting and boat issues. That makes getting anything done very difficult. Great stories aren't written in a month!

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    1. November was such a fun month, wasn't it! I was definitely distracted from novel writing, but it was well worth it :-) Except for that leak of course.

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  5. I don't believe in failure...you learned a lot about your process and needs as a writer. Great job!

    I'm normally a pantser (I outlined this year, because the story demanded it), so I'll comment a bit on pantsing. My first drafts never unfold as if by magic. They end up messy and all over the place. The first rule of pantsing is to be willing to make a mess and clean it up later. I have to admit, though, the outlining helped me a lot this year, so I'm rethinking my writing strategy!

    Give your mom a hug for me. She's a wise woman.

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    1. My mom is indeed a wonderful woman! I'll pass you virtual hug along :-)

      With the benefit of that pesky hindsight, trying to write a pantser novel probably was a useful exercise. It helped me figure out what works and what doesn't with my approach to writing, as well as the plot structure.

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  6. I'm glad you're not giving up. You've learned a lot this month. Don't feel as if you have to describe yourself as a pantser or a plotter. You can be a hybrid. Have fun!

    Best wishes,
    Diane
    IWSG #85

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    1. Good point - I bet I am a plotter/pantser hybrid!

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  7. I like your attitude. Don't give up. I say take as long as you need, but finish that story. Next time, I suggest writing prompts. They work for me. Who knows they make work for you. :-)

    Anna from Elements of Writing

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    1. Thanks Anna for the writing prompts suggestion. I'll look into that and give that a try next time I get stuck.

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  8. I love your writing style and Im sure that whatever you write and whenever you finish this project it will be amazing.

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    1. Oh, thanks so much for your sweet words! You've given me a real boost today :-)

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  9. Ooh, the Mom Extension Rule! I like it. Moms are the best.

    I hear you on the writing is hard and the pantsing not working so well with Nano. I'm a reformed pantser. I run at the sight of a detailed outline, but I have prep work I have to do or a book can't get written. I've figured this out along the way with many mishaps in between. Also, reading craft books and trying out new strategies, you can use that info when you get stuck. Donald Maass' Writing 21st Century Fiction has thought provoking questions and writing cues at the end of each chapter. Tons of ideas. Those have helped me get unstuck as I was writing.

    Thanks for sharing! It really does help to see how Nano is a struggle for other writers. I struggled this year and limped across the finish line.

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    1. Never underestimate the power of a Mom :-)

      Thanks for the Writing 21st Century Fiction suggestion. I'll check it out. Always good to find new strategies to get unstuck.

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  10. Sailing Wind SpiritDecember 2, 2015 at 8:00 AM

    It's okay! Really.

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    1. Thank goodness for Oreos. They help in moments like this :-)

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  11. Now you see why I never accept these writing challenges. They set most of us up to fail. I don't want to do anything that remotely feels like work. That is the nastiest four letter word in existence.

    I sure wish you could find that leak. I think about that leak often.

    Have a fabulous day. ☺

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    1. I like it. I'm going to add "work" to my official list of naughty words.

      I think about that leak often too. I'll tackle it again next week once Georgie leaves. We are supposed to get a bit of rain this weekend which should be interesting to see if it sets our bilge pump off.

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  12. Hey, you put a bunch of stuff in that junk drawer this month, and that's a huge accomplishment. What do we do with junk drawers? We clean them out, throw away the crap, and keep the useful stuff. That's how writing works too. You did good!

    You live on a sailboat? That's SO awesome!

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    1. Living on a sailboat is pretty awesome. Most of the time :-)

      I'm busy working away at cleaning out that junk drawer right now. Taking all that junk, sifting through it and reworking a proper outline. It's starting to get tidier in here already.

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  13. I have this little hanging sign in the cabin of Galapagos. It says 'Never Give Up' and then it waxes on in a most poetic way about why and how, blah blah blah. It's there for clients, but I like it, too. I believe all of us natural pansters actually crave a bit of organization, it's just that we never know exactly where to start. Seems to me like you've started by reading those mystery novels with a new perspective. Putting some kind of a time limit on this kind of learning and process seems a little like making something already difficult even harder. Still, this makes another great post!

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    1. I love that you do coaching on Galapagos! What a neat setting for that kind of reflective work.

      You'll be glad to know that I've stopped reading mystery novels and have gotten back into the groove working on my plot structure.

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  14. Could I ask you to explain more about your editing process and the novel's structure?
    I'm no expert but I did put together a novel a few years back and remember that the important thing, especially in the beginning, was just getting something down on the page.
    Even if I knew it much of it would be deleted/edited out, I gave myself the rough goal of writing a short four-page chapter after breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Twelve pages a day gives you an unedited 300-pager in about a month.
    Then you just need to be willing to start hacking away at all the fatty bits.
    Do you think that some friendly competition with another writer might help, if only to get words on the paper?

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    1. I had hoped that NaNoWriMo would provide that "competition" driver to get me writing. But, I found I really got stuck along the way. I'm feeling a bit better now that I've stopped pressuring myself to write, regardless of what drivel came out, and am instead taking a step back to structure the plot properly. Once that's done, then I think I'll go back to setting daily word count targets so that I churn the pages out without editing along the way.

      Do you have friendly competitions with other writers to keep you moving forward? How do you find that works for you? It's a really interesting idea. Probably would be more personal of a challenge then NaNoWriMo.

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    2. I think it's important to find the right collaborator - someone who you already trust, see regularly, and who will judge you for NOT writing while being completely supportive of WHAT you write.
      And you could do the same for them, of course.
      That said, you already ARE a successful writer. How many words have you written in this blog in the past month? How many people want to read what you have to say?
      Maybe you just need to identify what makes you so good at writing this blog and ask how your view of blogging differs from your view of writing a novel.
      Anyway, it's just a thought - and good luck with the leaks, as well!

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    3. Thanks Bobby for your support - very much appreciated!

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  15. I've done NaNo a few times and I've won every time--I'm a hybrid planner panster--but last year's was the hardest. I didn't find as much value in reading and participating in the forums than I had before. And story itself started out really well and I do intend to polish it and finish it, but it fell apart. Writing that many words a day isn't my natural pace and I was extremely busy at work that month as well, so it didn't work out. I won, but I ended writing some drivel at the end just to make the 50K.

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    1. Congrats on your multiple NaNo wins!

      It's interesting to hear that even though you made 50k, it wasn't a smooth process the last time you did it.

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  16. Cow manure may smell bad, but it does a lot of good when spread around

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  17. It sounds like you actually did quite a bit of work in November (not including keeping your house out of Davy Jones' locker). The outlining, prep-work, the learning what does and doesn't work for you, studying all other books to find ideas - all of these things are incredibly valuable and have to be done sometime. You may not have gained a large word count in November, but you did take away other valuable lessons and info that will hopefully help you write better words when it comes time to put them down.

    Also, that story about Sunny the Cat is the most depressing thing I've ever heard. As a parent of young children I can told relate.

    IWSG December

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    1. I know, poor Sunny the Cat. Her life was never quite the same after the kittens.

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  18. You made me laugh and I love your mom! I didn't finish either and I have given myself until 1/15/ 2016. I cannot believe I just wrote 2016. Keep moving forward!

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    1. Glad I gave you a laugh - we could all use some more giggles in our lives :-)

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  19. Go! Go! Go! I didn't finish, but I'm looking at the fact that I have some great raw material to work with.

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    1. That's a good way of looking at it - thanks for the encouragement!

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  20. If you did put aside your novel briefly, the better to go trace a leak on your boat, I'm going to suggest that you have your priorities in the correct order. If you can't find the time to keep your writing desk from going under, where will you find the time to shop for a scuba suit and a waterproof typewriter?

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    1. Maybe that's the novel I need to write - how a writer copes when their sailboat starts to sink. They don their scuba suit and get out their waterproof typewriter and keep plugging away.

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  21. It sounds like you have a good plan. GL!

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  22. It is not the critic who counts, not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done better, the credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust, sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotions and spends himself in a worthy cause, who at best knows the triumph of high achievement and who at worse, if he fails at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls ho know neither victory nor defeat. Theodore Roosevelt. Hey you could easily get 50K describing all my failures, and yet everyday I wake up, drink coffee and enjoy life.

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    1. That's a great quote! I'm having coffee as I read it - nice way to wake up to the day. Thanks for sharing!

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  23. Kittens are way too much of a distraction right now. Life's too short not to play with them.

    This ship has already sailed (ha!) but try not to be too hard on yourself. NaNo isn't for everyone, and even people who win it regularly find it difficult.

    I think you'll find things will go much smoother now that you have time to think.

    Thanks for commenting on my blog this week. It was great to "meet" you.

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    1. That's true - kittens are very distracting! Maybe I'll just stick to chocolate to take my mind off of things instead :-)

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  24. Look at all you learned about yourself in just a month. I'd say that's a NaNo accomplishment. I've attempted NaNoWriMo 3 times, and my first time was flop because I realized (just like you) I am no panster. I wrote my first draft a few years later - I'm a slow learner. I'm now working on a 2nd draft of that novel and I'm starting to wonder if maybe NaNo just isn't for me. There is so much to fix, I'm basically writing a completely new novel. Maybe some projects are better served with a quick first drafts while others require more time. Anyway, it is all a really great learning experience.

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    1. Thanks for sharing your experience with doing NaNoWriMo. It's reassuring to know I'm not the only one that struggled :-)

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