Nanowrimo #Fail (I blame you, Larry Brooks.)

I will not be crossing the Nanowrimo finish line tomorrow.

I have failed – utterly – to get 50,000 words of my novel cranked out in 30 days.

I blame Larry Brooks.






You see, a year or so ago, fellow Live to Write – Write to Live blogger, Wendy, introduced me to Brooks’ work on the theory of story structure. As I dug into his content – rich blog posts, in-depth ebooks, and honest-to-goodness print books (joy!) – my interest blossomed from merely curious to fanatically infatuated. I unleashed my inner student with her armory of colored pens and highlighters and dove into Story Engineering with gusto and gratitude. I made notes, underlined everything, and drew diagrams.

I cannot recommend Brooks’ work enough.

Reading his explanation of what makes a story tick was like learning the secret behind a mind-blowing magic trick. Once I’d seen it, it made such sense. It was inspiring. It made me want to try my own hand at creating a little magic. Real magic.

As November approached, I got the crazy idea to give Nanowrimo another go (I’d “won” in 2009, but skipped out in 2010 and 2011.). Despite being super busy, I was invigorated by the thought of creating a strong outline based on what I’d learned from Brooks. This year, instead of blindly hacking out 50,000 words of crap, I would invest my time in creating a halfway decent first draft with a strong underlying structure – something with real possibilities. I wanted something I would actually want to polish instead of, like my 2009 “novel” (and I use the term ever so loosely), something I would bury in a never-visited archive folder deep in the labyrinth of my computer’s hard drive.

I was pumped. I was tingling. I was bursting with ideas.

And then, life happened.

My uncharacteristically open work schedule suddenly filled back up to its usual full capacity and all the October hours I’d gleefully allocated to story planning were sucked up by urgent client projects. No matter, I thought optimistically, I’ll just plan on-the-fly. It’ll still work.

But, it didn’t.

I couldn’t take the pressure of trying to plan my book out so quickly. I wanted time to let the idea germinate and develop. I wanted time to play with variations on the theme and a variety of possible story threads. When November 1st arrived and I was still without a plan, I found myself face-to-face with some major resistance. Though I did some work on character and location sketches, sample prologues, and a few opening scenes, I didn’t want to write.

I didn’t want to write.

It’s not that I couldn’t. I could have followed my 2009 playbook and just rambled away with no idea of where I was going (or why). I could have written random scenes and hoped that I might eventually someday stitch them together into a semblance of a story. I could have done a whole freeform thing and not cared one whit about the end result.

But I’d grown beyond that. I’d seen the truth behind the trick and I couldn’t unsee it.

“Play” writing has its merits – it can free your muse, tickle your fancy, turn expectations on their heads to reveal striking new plot insights and concept perspective. It can serve as a roundabout way to brainstorm a story. It can unearth important personal discoveries that contribute to the veracity and depth of your work.

What it won’t deliver (unless you are a massively gifted and highly experienced virtuoso) is a well-structured story that hits every mark in terms of concept, character, theme, story structure, scene execution, and writing voice  – Brooks’ “six core competencies” of the story craft.

I knew that without a plan (or the brain of, say, Stephen King), I wouldn’t be able to create the kind of story Brooks’ work had inspired me to write. I knew that even if I managed to get 50,000 words down most of them would never again appear on my screen, let alone be read by another human being. Though I hated to do it, I laid down my pen. It wasn’t an easy decision. I am not a quitter. But, in the end, I decided that my time would be better spent continuing to work on the bones of my story. Like a sorceress creating a creature from dust and light, I knew I had to start with the bones and build out from there. It was the only way.

So my Nanowrimo dreams for 2012 met a premature end.

And I’m okay with that.

In fact, I’d like to thank Mr. Brooks.

I may not have written 50,000 words in November, but because of what I’ve learned from him I know that the next 50,000 words I write will have a much higher chance of becoming part of a publishable manuscript.

I’m definitely okay with that.

What are your thoughts on plotting (designing your story based on a framework like Brooks’) vs. pantsing (relying entirely on your muse to drive the story as you write it)?  If you did Nanowrimo, did you have a plan going in, or just wing it? How’d that work out for you?

P.S. I offer my most sincere and heartfelt congratulations to everyone who successfully crosses the Nanowrimo finish line this year (especially to my fellow Live to Write – Write to Live bloggers – Wendy and (hopefully!) Deborah. Way to go, girls!).

Jamie Lee Wallace is a writer who also happens to be a marketer. She helps her Suddenly Marketing clients discover their voice, connect with their audience, and find their marketing groove. She is also a mom, a prolific blogger, and a student of voice and trapeze (not at the same time). Introduce yourself on facebook or twitter. She doesn’t bite … usually.

45 thoughts on “Nanowrimo #Fail (I blame you, Larry Brooks.)

  1. Terrific post, Jamie!! I so agree with the desire to take time to “let … ideas germinate and develop.” For just that reason, I didn’t write the story I’d planned on all year! I didn’t want to rush it and risk botching it!!

    The only reason i was able to pull off my NaNo success this year is that (1) I had a crazy story seed burning a hole in my brain (2) I spent the summer pouring over Brooks’ lessons. Having all that story craft so fresh in my mind enabled me to take my story seed and force it into bloom!!

    Thanks so much for sharing your NaNo 2012 journey! 🙂

    • “…force it to bloom” – that’s lovely, Ruth. I have this visual of your story bursting into blossom in your writer’s hot house.

      Thanks for coming by and for sharing and tweeting. 🙂
      And thank you for sharing your wonderful video about how to make a novel notebook. (For anyone who’d like to take a peek, you can see it here – so helpful!:

      See you on Twitter. Congrats on your win!

  2. I shall be getting up to speed with Brooks!
    I’ve always put NaNo (since my little sister introduced me several years ago) out of my head thinking it was impossible…but this year, with encouragement (see Ruth above! 🙂 ) and a fairly solid plan already mapped out earlier this year, I grabbed the opportunity.
    It was liberating to write like this, and I crossed the finish line yesterday, but what I love about this is that it isn’t finished…still got plenty of time to wrap this thing up, and put it away for a month and come back fresh, to rip it apart and rewrite!
    I couldn’t have pantsed it, it was too important to me, so the planning thing worked well!
    Whether I do it again, will depend on having that kernel and letting it mature into something I want to write, we’ll see, but I loved NaNo!

    • Huge congrats, Lisa! (Isn’t Ruth a wonderful cheerleader?!?) 🙂

      I will definitely be giving myself more time to map out my story next year. Turns out the handful of days between my decision to do Nanowrimo and “go time” was just not enough.

      People may think I’m crazy, but I actually can’t wait to get to the ripping apart and rewriting stage. I think that’s where a lot of the magic actually happens.

      But, first – plan and write.

      Again – congrats!

  3. On 29 October I had no intention of doing Nano.
    On 30 October I signed up with no idea, no plot, no expectation of finishing, no nothing.
    On 31 October I had an idea. A plot I kind of stuck to throughout November.
    On 28 November I crossed the finish line, but only the one that cares about word count. The story isn’t finished yet.
    Somehow the feeling of hitting a challenging word target isn’t quite as satisfying as actually finishing a draft. I really feel my story has legs. They just need quite a bit of shaving, tanning and general beautifying but they’ll get there some day.
    I haven’t read Brooks but basically I pantsed my way through the plot that popped into my head a month ago. I may develop it further. We’ll see how it goes.
    It was certainly a worthwhile experience and it helped me refrain from editing on the fly. Not convinced about sacrificing so much quality for quantity, though.

    • Congrats, Richard. Even if your story needs a hefty makeover, at least you have something to work with. I totally understand (obviously) your dilemma re: quantity vs. quality, but good for you for barreling through.

      I encourage you to check out Brooks’ work. I have a feeling you may find some guiding principles that make your work easier.

      Good luck & keep writing!

  4. Jamie,
    I love good old fashioned finger pointing ! You make me smile.
    And, it’s only December 1st when you say “uncle!”and decide it’s December 1st…maybe you’ve begun work on the sequel without knowing it 🙂
    Kassie aka “Mom”

  5. Jamie,

    What “failure”? Think of this- had you “won” this year, you would not have written this post and all the positive energy that has spun out from here to your readers, like me, would never have arisen.

    Follow your muse? Get a structure? Both? Neither? Don’t believe there can ever be a model for this strange and often painful activity called “writing.” What I do know, though, is that somehow you consistently create wonderful passages of text. So whatever you’re doing, it’s working. Just don’t get distracted by the illusion of failure- or of success.



    • Hello, Tom. Thanks for coming by. Your comments are always like a little eye of calm at the center of my personal hurricane.

      Your comment could spin off into a whole different post (and perhaps will) – the external (and internal) definitions of “success” and “failure” and the question of whether they truly matter, or is it the process and the journey that is the thing that transforms us. (I’m betting on the latter – the journey – being the alchemy and the former being merely side effects.)

      2013 will see me focusing with more intention and whimsy on my writing. I’m looking forward to it!

      Thanks again for stopping by.

  6. Nice post, Jamie! I crossed the NaNo finish line on Tuesday. My story is far from a masterpiece and more writing is needed before the dreaded edits begin, but if it weren’t for NaNo, I would never have this much to work with. I have Larry Brook’s, Story Engineering. I’m looking forward to digging into it at the start of 2013.

    • Congrats, Jill! That’s fabulous. And I’m glad to hear you’re a Brooks fan. I hope you enjoy Story Engineering. My copy is already dog eared and covered in highlighter …always signs of a must read book. Enjoy!

  7. I discovered Larry’s stuff and the snowflake system during my first nano in 2009 and like you, found the ideas really useful. I have a novel all planned out and begun, but it got put aside. And of course that is not the one I went for this year! I found it very hard at first because this year’s nano really needs a lot of planning and research, but I plugged away, writing various stuff which will get edited out. I am not a natural panster, I prefer the idea of planning, but I did discover what pantsers like about their method. Now nano is done and I have my 50k I am torn between pushing on and trying to finish a rough draft, then incorporate all those concepts during edits, or editing now. But I think the temptation to begin edits now should be resisted! I have copious notes about what needs changing. I just hope it won’t go the way of all the rest and simply languish.

    • No languishing allowed! 😉
      Congrats on your win and on having those 50K to play with. Now the real adventure starts!

      I have also been looking at the snowflake system and I think a mash-up of that with Larry’s work is going to be my go-to model. It’s so comforting to have a framework to start with, and so much fun to think of all the ways we can get creative within that framework!

  8. As I read this… I had to scroll up again, to make sure I was “following” you. I love your writing style… I could read you all day…
    Love this:
    But I’d grown beyond that. I’d seen the truth behind the trick and I couldn’t unsee it.
    Inspiring and all…
    I agree with you on everything… I have been posting my book, just the first frew chapters to see if the same people followed, and how many I would lose posting more…unfortunately, it is hard to generate true followers though I must say I got good feedback from a few… most clicked “LIKE” and moved on… and then I got ahead of myself… Chapter six was awful… Horribly redundant… I am in editing mode. I have 21 or more waiting to be edited. I am stuck on six… For me, just a word count would ruin the inspired part of the creative process. This idea has been brewing for the last thirty years… I have finally gotten it down in print… I can’t stop now… but like you, life happens and about two years ago, I finally sat down and wrote and wrote. I couldn’t stop. And then I got stuck and a few months ago, I got unstuck and was inspired to start editing the first couple dozen chapters… It is a crazy passion we have… this thing called writing…
    I seem to generate more interest with my poetry which I love but my goal is to finish my book… I wandered into Nano but wandered out because it looked as if it was aimed just for young writers…
    Even so, with all the points you have made here… I think a goal for a word count is a great motivator… like a deadline might be, I have had many of those as a writer… but I am not sure there is a trick to finishing that last word on that last page… maybe it’s just magic!
    Love your writing! I am a follower!!!

    • Hello, again, Diane! Nice to “see” you and thank you so much for such lovely compliments. I’m blushing! 😉

      It sounds to me like you already have a good sense of what’s working and what’s not in your writing – and that’s a huge step in the right direction. It also sounds like you have a great ability to persevere … which may be every great writer’s secret weapon.

      I think it’s wonderful that you write poetry as well. I wrote very bad poetry when I was a kid (I have notebooks full of things about unicorns and shooting stars and such), and sometimes wish I’d invested more time in learning more about the craft. Poetry is such a powerful medium – so condensed and ready to spring, so to speak. I often find that a poem (or song lyrics which are poems themselves) inspire story ideas for me.

      Novels, poetry – it’s all writing. Keep it up & good luck.
      And, thanks again – so much – for saying such nice things. You’ve made my morning. 🙂

  9. Brooks is next on my list. But after GMC, I’m feeling overwhelmed. I want to write, but the perfectionist is getting tripped up by the structure I was requiring it of it. I’m going to “pants it” for a while, so I have something to work with. Great post!

    • Morning, Lee!
      Thanks for this and for the share. 🙂

      You’ll have to tell me what you think of Brooks’ work once you’ve read it. We can compare notes.

      Meanwhile, have fun pantsing!

  10. This post hit home on so many levels. I too started Nano this year, my first year doing it. I also abruptly stopped after a couple days. One thing I’ve learned over the years is that my muse is boundless. I can come up with ideas forever. Endless ideas. Endless scenes, characters, conflicts. Tension, suspense, voice, humor. You name it. But what my muse really needs, and what I really struggle to provide it, is a good parent. “You’re telling this story today dear, not that one. One book at a time, honey.” For me, the challenge of writing is not plunking out content. I’m an a self-proclaimed expert at that. I need direction and boundaries. So I need to think about structure even if my ideas come at random, even if the details only show up after I’ve written a scene. That means I often need to stop writing and reorganize. And you know what? That’s really hard for me. I’m so right-brained. But it’s also fun. It took me years to become a content generating machine, (I think that’s what Nano is for.) it will also take me years to become a structure designing master-builder. Maybe they need to come up with a Nano event for that. Analyze twenty books in a month. Get those plotter muscles a workout. Then you go back to your story and you are so buff…

    • “Analyze twenty books in a month …”
      THAT is a brilliant idea! I love it. 🙂

      One of the things I like about Brooks’ work is his frequent use of real world examples to illustrate the elements (and effectiveness) of his story model. I learn best by example, so to have someone analyze a story and lay it out for me is incredibly valuable. Lots of “a-ha!” moments.

      I know what you mean, too, about the endless ideas. That’s a good thing. I was just reading a post today about Roald Dahl’s notebooks (in which he captured tiny details and ideas that later went on to appear in (or even inspire) various of his amazing stories) and his many false starts. You can read it here:

      I think that the muse is part of the magic – all those ideas – but the other half of the magic comes from knowing what to do with them – how to organize them into a cohesive story that enchants and inspires. You’re right – we need to balance the left and right brains … bring them into harmony. 🙂

      Good luck & keep writing!

  11. Well…I feel better…failing miserably myself it seems I’m in good company!
    There is always next year, no wait…there is always tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that and….

    SOMEDAY, we’ll get where we’re going! (She says, on a good day!)

    • Shall we have a losers’ party, Miss Laura? 😉

      But, seriously, as Tom said above – it’s not a question of winning or losing.

      And – definitely – let’s not think in terms of years, let’s think in terms of DAYS!!


      • Yes, I MUST think short term. When I think of where I want to be, the end point being book-published of course, and compare that to where I am, the Defeatish Demon starts to rise within and I have to knock that bitch back down into the depths of my dark side! 🙂
        I think that is the ONE drawback to Nano for writers that don’t finish, so it’s important not to attribute that failure to inability to write. Plenty of Nano finishers never publish at all and many “failures” have stupendous careers.
        I have to keep reminding myself there will always be something getting in the way, but stopping is not an option.

  12. Pingback: A Wannabe Writer or a Wannabe World Traveler?

  13. You’ve given me a lot to think of, and a book to pour over.
    I definitely went the pantsing route although I’m not anywhere close to the 50,000 mark. I now find myself wanting to dig into the research of the story. I need to discover my characters; their stories need to be dug out of my scattered thoughts.
    Still, I’m pleased to have made the attempt even though I technically crashed and burned.

  14. Glad to know I’m not the only one! 😉

    I agree 100%. I had the motivation, and even a plan, at the beginning of the month, and I was on track for about a week. Then life happened. And it kept happening. I knew from the start I’d never make 50,000. My goal was closer to 25,000. I won’t even make that.

    Sure, I’m disappointed. But I’ve spent that time on worthwhile pursuits (for the most part), and I know that if I had stressed myself out and sacrificed the other things in my life that needed attention this month, just to end up with nothing but 50,000 words that are just that–words–I’d be even more disappointed. I’ve been nursing this novel for a number of years now, and it’s been a stubborn but steady companion over that time. I know I won’t “get there” by forcing it; I’ve already learned that the hard way (yeah, there are “those” manuscripts tucked away that no eyes will probably ever see again). But I know that it’s still in me, that it still “loves” me enough to stick by me, and I have a renewed confidence in it that I didn’t have in October. So for me, it’s still a “win”–even if not by true NaNoWriMo standards.

    And thanks for the tip on Brooks. I’ll have to check out his work.

  15. This was my first year doing Nano. A friend mentioned it on Facebook on October 30th. I had heard about it and posted back that it would be fun.
    Of course with some support and encouragement I found myself signing up in October 31st with not even a story idea. Nope, not even a small one.
    I brainstormed with my Nano friends and came up with a small seed of an idea.
    I started writing on November 2nd and remained stubbornly behind as I pantsed my way through the entire 50k.
    I finished tonight.

    Along the way I did read a bit about plotting and even put together and outline.A better late than never outline, which saved me from wandering around in the wilderness.
    I think that there are some good parts to my novel.Not all of it will be edited away. And the fact that the story is still going on after 50k seems like a good sign to me. I plan to finish it and even have the ending outlined.I will then go and rewrite a couple of times.
    I will also pick up Mr Brooks book so i can plot more efficiently.

    But I think for me without the challenge of NaNo I wold have not written anything. I would still be in the “someday I will write a novel” camp.

    I entered into Nanowrimo in the spirit that is intended. It broke down the barrier of the blank page and showed me that I could write 5000 words in day if that was required and I had an idea of the scenes and plot direction.

    I loved every single minute of it. I like my story. I love some of my characters. It was my favorite book for November. I couldn’t wait to go home and write to see what happened next. I really can’t wait to finish and see where this journey takes me.

  16. Although i can’t say i failed at NaNo yet, i’m 6,250 words away from the 50,000 goal, i generally don’t write fast enough to complete the NaNo goal. (according to Scrivner for Windows i’m at 43,758 words)

    i’d not written much of anything since 2009, when i finished the first novel i’d written. i used October 2012 to plan out my NaNo novel using Mr. Brooks’ story engineering and Every Month is NaNo books (along with the 3 dimensions of character book) to get out what i thought was a very solid beat sheet with all of my major moments filled out. The first quarter of the novel tumbled out during my draft, but as i worked through the second quarter of the book i came into a number of situations where my planning wasn’t deep enough.

    instead of just pushing along, i stopped drafting and dug into my outline and characters in order to fix the problems i ran into. I’m now trying to get more words in a shorter time period than i’ve ever done (and i’ve done better than i reasonably expected i could).

    i may not “win” Nano this year as a result, but after reviewing some of the scenes that i’ve written last night, the 30 scenes i’ve gotten done (out of 54 scenes total) all feel solid to me and will just need one good editing pass in order to be what i want them to be. For that reason, Nano was a success for me even if i don’t hit the word count by midnight tonight. i’m writing again after a 3 year hiatus, my wife is thoroughly impressed with the advances i’ve made in my writing skills, and the passion for this story that had been beaten out of me when writing the first novel has returned with a vengeance. (during planning of this novel, i briefly outlined the whole character arc and realized that after this novel, i’ll only have 13 more plus rewriting the first novel i did in order to tell the whole saga. epic fantasy is fun like that, hehe).

    To those who were able to hit the word goal for Nano, you have my congratulations on a job well done. To those who may not have hit the word goal, success and failure are not necessarily a black and white, win or lose situation. i feel like i’ve won Nano this year, because i’ve gotten a significant amount of my novel drafted (about half of an estimated 90,000 words) and am reengaged in the writing process once more.

    Thanks for your time.

  17. You pretty much told my story. I had the same problem. I wrote about 8,000 words, laying down a few scenes I had been playing with in my mind. But once I got those down, I hit a wall. At first I thought, no problem, I’ll just outline my story. Didn’t happen…life did though. And I totally agree with you about not wanting to write down crap for the sake of hitting a word count. I’m sure I could, but it wouldn’t be as rewarding knowing I didn’t do my best on a story that would never be published.

    This was my first year with NaNoWriMo. I may try again next year. However, I’ll be more prepared next time to do my best work and not just aim for a number.

    Thanks for telling your story. It was nice to know someone else had a similar experience and outlook about failing the challenge.

  18. Nice post. Definitely home to me on a few levels. I too tried to Nano my way through a story I had experimentally plotted out via the snowflake method and also in a genre I’ve never written before but that appealed to me and seemed a “sellable” genre. For once I planned and wrote with the intention of having a story other people would be interested in.

    And I didn’t enjoy writing it. I gave up after a sizeable chunk and decided this lifestyle isn’t for me. I can’t write for the sake of hitting targets or deadlines. I need to feel I am creating something worthwhile at the time or I lose momentum.

    Whilst I also ‘failed’ Nano – and I love your fail banner by the way made me smile – I do feel it has helped me nonetheless. I still can’t decide between plotting or pantsing yet, I’ve had equal non-success with both. I need to find a happy medium I think. I may check out your Larry Brooks (I also have a slight addiction to how-to writing guides!)

    Hope you enjoy your next 50k words!

  19. I start out with the main conflict in mind and write to the climax. This year I got to 42,000 words and midnight caught up with me. But I’ve used Nano in the past to work on “chicklit” books and keep them short, engaging and topical. Writing it from start to finish in a limited time is so different from the years I’ve spent on my other projects. The compression of time gives me a sense of focus and continuity that I would otherwise get.

  20. Hey, this sounds like a variation on “less is more.” Maybe less writing at this stage will actually lead to a better novel when you do want to write. Good for you to have the courage to NOT do a task you planned to tackle…that takes courage too. ~ Sheila

  21. I feel like Nano, or any program that gets writers to begin writing (instead of planning to do it VERY SOON-my issue), has its valuable place. Beyond that, I don’t think participants should beat themselves up if they don’t hit that magic word count by November 30. I also hope writers here aren’t beating themselves up for writing ‘crap.’ Writing is like sculpting-there is a form and plot within the giant marble slab of initial inspiration, but we have to write bad sentences, construct nowhere plots, cut and revise the hell out of our work. Then, earth willing, our sweat and toil carves out a story we’re proud of. Now, to find my pen before I use its disappearance as an excuse to write ‘tomorrow.’

  22. I am a two time nanowrimo failure but I do love trying. I tend to be a fly by the seat of my pants writer but I know I need more structured and disciplined. I am going to get Larry Brooks’ book thank you!

  23. Pingback: My Favorite Writing Books « Arza Winters

  24. Boy I wish I’d seen this on October 29 last year! I have 50,000 words and (what I think) a really good start to a novel, but I’m not nearly finished writing the story, let alone editing it for the six things you describe. I’ll have to check out Larry Brooks.

  25. Pingback: Three Steps to Creating a Compelling Business Story | Spin Sucks

  26. Pingback: Friday Fun: Scary Stories – Fictional and Real Life | Live to Write - Write to Live

  27. Pingback: Weekend Edition – NaNoWriNOPE plus Good Reads and Writing Tips | Live to Write - Write to Live

  28. Pingback: Weekend Edition – To NaNoWriMo or Not, That Is the Question | Live to Write – Write to Live

  29. Pingback: Live to Write – Write to Live

  30. Pingback: Writer’s Weekend Edition – NaNoWriMo Week 1 – Embracing the Crazy | Live to Write – Write to Live

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s