What is a ‘Failure’ in Writing

I was talking with my daughter, also an accomplished though technically ‘unpublished’ author, and she reminded me of a truth I’d overlooked: writing and sticking at it is ‘success’.

November is when you write MORE

In 2014 I entered NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). It’s a website invention of Americans, but now world-wide, where writers set themselves the task of achieving at 50,000 words in the month of November. The ideal situation is that you clear your month of any distractions and write rapidly from the heart to get as many words as possible down on paper.

My writing distractions

Well, my November was far from empty of distractions:

  • I was away from home for two weeks working
  • I was trying to supervise rather stressful and ever extending earthquake repairs on two properties
  • I was sleeping rough in one room of one of the houses under repair
  • I was completing interior painting at night after the workmen left (I wasn’t supposed to be on site during the day)
  • In the two weeks I was at home I was catching up and trying to prepare our home so that others could rent it for six weeks
  • And (did I mention?) I was trying to write

Success in writing

I didn’t reach 50,000 words. I managed only 42,000 in that month – a failure, I assumed.

My daughter, bless her, pointed out that 42,000 words is a lot of writing and far from a failure. It is for many half a novel and far more words than many ever write. And I am continuing to develop that novel, which is another success.

Writers who worked other jobs while writing

It would be ideal to have endless days in November in which to write. However, that is not what many successful writers experienced. In New Zealand, for example, Margaret Mahy produced her internationally successful children’s books while working full time in a library and bringing up two daughters.

T.S. Eliot worked full time at a bank, according to biographers. 

Environmentalist  (The Wilderness Letters) Wallace Stegner, and author of novels Crossing to Safety  and The Spectator Bird, wrote four hours early in the morning, then went off to teach at prestigious universities. 

How fast should you write?

Author and blogger James Thayer suggests a less rigorous schedule for writing than NaNoWriMo:

  • “Initial plotting:  one or two weeks.
  • Research and further plotting:  four to six weeks.
  • Drafting outline:  two to three weeks.
  • Writing the novel:  one page (300 words) a day.   Finish the novel one year after starting the first manuscript word.  If you work full time, 300 words a day is a reasonable goal.
  • Editing the completed manuscript:  about one month.

“Not only will a schedule prompt you to steadily produce words, it will—when the undertaking at times seems overwhelming—offer a liberation date, “ suggests Thayer.

Avoiding NaNoWriMo Failure

Plot and Outline

Two of the things I did not do prior to starting my NaNoWriMo experience were:

  • Initial plotting and
  • Drafting an outline

I had no idea what to base my new novel on. I had another project on the mental boil but wasn’t ready to start on that. Then I picked up on an idea I’d started years before which was basically in note form.

After the first 3000 words I realised the concept would have to change dramatically so I started again and created a short biography of the characters – a large family, and an initial outline. By this stage five of the 30 days had gone.

Tip 1 – Don’t start NaNoWriMo before both those above tasks are complete

Researching the era

I had a clearly defined era that I wanted to set the novel in, but I discovered as I wrote there was so much I had forgotten. For instance:

  • What implements and appliances were around then?
  • How did people dress?
  • How did the ‘morality’ of different strata of society differ?

All of this information is pertinent to my new novel and I have had to stop writing to check if some plot twist could have happened.

Tip 2 – Think about and research the era in which your novel is set

Get started

This is the most important of all. Getting going was a major triumph in itself. I could have so easily decided that with all the distractions and lack of preparation and set-backs it was all too hard. But I started. and here I am over halfway through a novel I’m really pleased with.

It doesn’t matter that I only achieved 42,000 words in November – I started a second novel.

When you write those first words and the computer tells you you’ve written 492 words and your target is 90,000 the task may feel overwhelming.  But remember: “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” according to that famous quote by Chinese philosopher Laozi. 

Every 90,000 novel, every 150,000 novel started with just ONE word.

Tip 3 – Don’t let the possibility of failure stop you from starting to write – just start

Heather Sylvawood, emerging novelist and Amazon Author