Failure and Success

unnamedWell, it’s December. That means, as a Christian priest, that lots of stuff is going on. As someone who celebrates Christmas and has friends & family, it means I’m getting my head around this ‘presents’ thing. And as someone who just finished, without winning,  NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month, in which one writes in entirety the first draft of a novel in just those thirty days), I have another 18,000 words to write, which I have faithfully promised my co-writer to do in the next 7 days. So, it also means that all of my other projects I was going to be picking up right now, I’ll be picking up next Wednesday – not the end of the world, but also this isn’t the month during which I wanted to be behind in anything.

So, okay. I failed at NaNo. My starting goal was to write a novel of 30,000 words. Then my co-writer and I mutually shifted our tandem goals to 45,000. She, I’m thrilled to announce, finished early, because she’s full of win. I ended November with 27,030 words written – which admittedly is not so far from 30k, but really just past half way toward 45k. So it goes. I gave myself some time to whinge and then move on. Presently I’m reflecting about what I learned, and of what use was this lovely endeavor.

As Rachel, said co-writer has pointed out, NaNo’s entire point in our joint writing project – a thing much larger than NaNo – was to wring it for all the usefulness it had to offer us and then when that was done, leave it behind an empty and dry husk. (Perhaps not her exact words, but this is how the editing process works, you see.) Here’s what I wrung from my experience with NaNo:

Accountability is Awesome. Also, it Sucks.

Wrist WatchNaNoWriMo has many tools for accountability most of which I did not avail myself and felt no need to. But that widget I put on my webpage was full of win. You see, I go into my account at NaNo, update my word count and my co-writer does the same in her account, and the widget is automatically updated. It’s small thing, but it allowed me to feel like I really was making progress instead of just looking at the Pages document and seeing words and blank space, which is largely what I saw before. And by largely, I mean exactly.

Writing in the same month as my co-writer – she worked on book one, I worked on book two, many of our characters overlapped and there’s going to be a crazy wonderful EditFest in January  when we make things like Continuity occur – was really inspiring. We both can be prolific when the urge strikes us, and this month she wrote harder and faster than me. ::shrugs:: We shall see if this is simply how it is, or if it’s a one off. The part that was invaluable was knowing she was right there in the trenches with me, even 400 miles away, connecting with her often, discussing characters, plot, plot holes, craziness and life. This is what I live for.

The flip side is that life happens and there were some moments of personal craziness when there was no way in hell I could possibly write that day. Sometimes life gets like that. But what I noticed about myself just after those moments is that it was only the accountability that brought me back and kept me from conveniently forgetting what I had decided I wanted to do, and even then it sometimes took a few days. I still had the urge to hide under my bed after those moments, and accountability brought me out again. Sometimes kicking and screaming. A bit.

I  need to be Gandalf. Sort of.

Gandalf and MagnetoNaNoWriMo taught me that all of the amazing planning that Rachel and I had done for months ahead of time, and all the accountability in the world was nothing in the face of me having boundaries too flexible to be useful. So, clearly I need to be more like Gandalf.

Well, okay. Not really. But in that way where Gandalf has really great boundaries and even says to Balrogs that they may go this far and no further, that’s a quality I need in my writing life. You see, I’ve made hard choices over the past five years to rearrange my entire life to give writing the place of priority… and then I let other people set unhelpful boundaries when it comes to my writing, instead of jealously guarding my writing time, like some sort of curmudgeonly mage of yore. To hell with that, say I.

I’m claiming that bit of Great Boundaries that Gandalf was particularly good at. Come to think of it, so was Magneto…

I am not Hemingway. Not even slightly.

killer-whaleNaNoWriMo was a great crucible to bring all of my stuff – the greatness and the epic!fail together – toss it into the forge and see what is left at the end. You see, I’ve written copiously since I was fifteen, and in the last twenty years there have certainly been years of prolific wonderfulness. I’d put in my 10,000 hours about ten years ago, because when you love something and your metabolism can take it, who needs sleep? Or food, for that matter? But I learned that while mastery over the words was wonderful – mastery over my schedule is also useful. And to be certain, this is not the first time I’ve overhauled my schedule with great intentionality as to make something nonfunctional become functional.

As I was considering what worked and what didn’t in my process and specifically my schedule, a factoid about Hemingway crossed my mental path as I read December’s issue of WIRED. Everyday, first thing Hemingway did when he got up was write his 500 words. Using this method a writer will eventually have a rough draft. And Hemingway was not known for being a particularly high-functioning individual. I recall stories of him drinking away his advances, actually, and I’ve been in his favorite bar in Key West. And so, thought I, I can do at least what he did. I can write 500 words a day. But certainly not only 500 words, at least not most days. Thus through involved calculations and the tiniest bit of arithmancy, I came to the most convoluted plan I’ve created yet. And I gave it, with great hopefulness, to my co-writer, who has since called an emergency meeting, presumably to drub some common sense into my head over coffee.

With the pending reality check on the calendar, I seriously examined all of my conclusions. Accordingly, I have realized that I am not Hemingway. Also, if I choose to use them and guard them from my equivalent of Balrogs, I have 20 golden hours a week just to write. And those hours are the prime hours, not the squished in, stolen from time with my husband, cut down on sleep, have no life hours.

So what I really need to do is practice being Sare (without trying to be Hemingway, but with maybe a dash of Magneto/Gandalf), and see what Sare is really capable of when she turns the knob up to 11.

I am a distractible ferret. No, seriou–ooh, shiny!

colorfulFlowersNaNoWriMo also reinforced what I had previously suspected: I am a distractible ferret. I like to think it is the hazard of being multi-vocational and a veritable fountain of creative ideas, some of which might turn out to be useful to someone, somewhere. I have contracts, I serve on boards, I volunteer, I’m part of a think tank, there’s the church thing, and there’s all these plot bunnies who are just multiplying on my whiteboard at work…

All of that to say, my capacity to focus when I first start on a project is astounding. My capacity to focus when I’ve thought of twenty-eight other great ideas astounds no one. This is when it is very, very useful to have accountability in all its forms – co-writers, co-workers, wonderful, wonderful office co-conspirators, fans who periodically poke me for updates, a husband who gently asks for status updates and my Twitter feed who both remind me that there are world events occurring that are more important than what I write, even as I am also reminded that I’m over due on the latest chapter of DESS.


  1. I always enjoy reading these posts; however, I’m willing to give them up for a while if that makes it easier for you to catch up. Having chosen to give up many outside activities to focus on only two, I admire your efforts to maintain balance with lots (LOTS) of commitments. I can’t do that.
    Best thoughts and wishes.

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