Home » How I went from ZERO to over 50,000 words in only 15 days of work… and why your fear of success might not be unfounded

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How I went from ZERO to over 50,000 words in only 15 days of work… and why your fear of success might not be unfounded


As you NaNoWriMo-ers know, it’s November 15th and you are halfway through the 30-day novel writing challenge. Are you at 25,000 words?

Or are you lagging behind and feeling like a WORTHLESS SACK OF SMELLY, SQUISHY, STUPID POO who will NEVER LIVE UP TO ANYTHING and SHOULD JUST GIVE UP WRITING FOREVER?

That’s pretty much how I feel every time I sit down to write, except on Unicorn Days, when it all seems to satisfying and easy and, “Oh, look how pretty my words are, I must be talented and all that usual struggle is over.”

FYI: Unicorns aren’t real. (Disappointing, I know.) Which is why on every other day (aka, 364 days of the year), I want to throw the towel in and say, “Fuck it.”

If that’s how you’re feeling, this post is for you. It’s also for anyone struggling to write, period. The battle never ends, but there are ways to work with the natural and inevitable desire to give up entirely and bust out 25,000… 30,000… or even 50,000 words in 15 days. It might not be the most beautiful thing you’ve ever written, but tell me this…

On November 30th, how do you want to feel?

Like you just finished 50,000 words in a month? … Or like you just proved to yourself, once again, that you “can’t do it” or “aren’t good enough”?

Sometimes there is a cost to failure.

Ramit Sethi talks about the “psychological trauma” of starting and not finishing in his Finisher’s Formula course (which, as a chronic procrastinator and project starter-but-not-finisher, I go through every 6 to 12 months it’s good stuff). He says:

“There is a cost every time you start something and you don’t succeed. Most of us don’t realize this. We say things like, ‘oh, it couldn’t hurt to try,’ but actually it could hurt. Over time, every time you try something and fail, you’re basically adding another groove to your own body, to your way of thinking that says, ‘oh, I’m not the kind of person who follows through and succeeds … ‘”

(Emphasis mine.)

We hear a lot about how failure is a good thing and it is but if you’re struggling with the belief that you can’t do it and continue to self-sabotage by starting projects and goals you never finish…

That stuff adds up. It hurts. It’s a kind of self-harm, a reinforcement of low self-esteem and the belief that, “I’m not the kind of person who can do it.”

So while you absolutely can quit NaNoWriMo, and sometimes quitting is the right answer, how will you feel about yourself if you do?

You’re allowed to quit and feel guilty about quitting. There is no shame in that. But if you do decide you want another try at NaNoWriMo… read on.

This post was originally written on December 8, 2013, just a week after completing the 2013 NaNoWriMo challenge. It was my third attempt at NaNo and I succeeded.

So I want to share with you how a short story writer with a terrible track record wrote a novel.

0 => 50,000 in 15 Days

Writers Who Don’t Write

NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. Every November, over 300,000 people participate to write a 50,000 word novel (short novel, really) in 30 days. This year 2013 around 41,000 people hit or surpassed that word count.

I was one of them.

I tried this a couple of years ago. I hit about 20,000 words and petered out. I “tried” again for Camp NaNoWriMo, and I don’t even remember if I actually started or if I just signed up and never wrote anything.

I was one of those writers who thought about writing a lot more than I actually did it. My total fiction word count was embarrassingly small, my number of completed projects practically nil, and all of them… were fanfiction.

Ouch. (Unless you’re E.L. James.)

I knew I had to get over my fear of writing, or I would never be able to move forward.

Enter November.

F*Yeah I Wrote A Novel

I went into NaNoWriMo with two, specific goals:

  • Hit 50,000 words of fiction.
  • No editing while writing.

That’s it.

To be honest, I never expected to write a novel. In fact, I thought that was impossible for me at this stage (this is important — I’ll tell you why at the end).

I entered it as a NaNo Rebel. I was going to write short stories. I’ve always struggled writing anything over 8.000 words (which was, at the time, my longest finished piece).

So I took a vague idea from an incomplete story I wrote years ago and got started, expecting to start my first of several short stories.

And it kept going…

And going…

I was blown away every time I hit a new record. 8,000 words was left in the dust. Watching the words hit the page was surreal. Was I really writing this much?

Finally, at 38,000 words… I wrote The End.

I was excited… and disappointed. Excited that I had a 38,000 word novella, and disappointed that I hadn’t made it to a novel after getting that far. I resisted the idea of adding more, because I knew I’d have to do so much editing later, and I’d probably just delete it anyway, right?

Then James Altucher (who has become a huge influence on me as a writer) personally commented on my post about it. He told me not to be afraid to publish a 38,000 word novel on Amazon, because then I can start on the next… and the next…

The moral? Persistence. If I’ve learned anything about success, is it’s that persistence is key. I needed the reminder.

After seeing his encouragement, I told myself I was making dumb excuses, added two scenes, and hit 50,000 words.

Boom! Now I have a 50,509 word, 80 page (12 pt. font, T.N.R., single-spaced) novel.

But How Did I Do It?

These were the biggest factors in my success, and you may recognize a lot of them:

  • Specificity: I had two, specific goals. I knew how to get where I wanted to be and what it would look like when I succeeded. I didn’t have to worry about anything else.
  • A Deadline: Nothing like a looming date to motivate you.
  • Competition: NaNoWriMo’s site allows you to add “Writing Buddies”. Seeing my friends’ word counts shooting ahead of mine was a fun way to motivate myself.
  • Prioritizing the Project: I turned down socializing when I knew I had to buckle down and avoid getting too far behind. Yes, I said “no.”
  • Tracking Progress: Not just my word-count, but words-per-minute (wpm). Going from 7 wpm to 25 to 30 to 33 to 38… you get the idea. It became a race against myself. I now average 38-45 wpm. Mind you, I did this informally. I didn’t even write these down.
  • Envisioning Success: Any time I started to slip, I thought about how good it would feel when I hit 50,000 words that last day, how I could brag about it, how I could inspire my friends who also resist writing and know how I struggled, and how I could be impressed that I said I’d do something… and I DID it.
  • Accountability: To avoid editing or thinking too much, I used Write or Die, which “punishes” you when you stop writing for too long. By the end of the month, I didn’t use this much — I didn’t need it anymore.
  • Encouragement: If James hadn’t posted that, I might not have pushed myself to write those last 12,000 words, and I would still believe a novella was my limit. But if I can hit 50,000 words… what’s stopping me from 80,000? 100,000? 130,000? Nothing.

Choosing My Goals

So why did I choose “no editing while writing” as a goal?

Because I identified the biggest barrier to writing: perfectionism.

The “editing while writing” habit is tough to break. After years of writing A+ papers the night before they’re due, I was very good at churning out 1000-3000 nearly flawless words.

But real writing doesn’t work that way. Especially not longer pieces.

There’s a lot of reasons why it’s bad news, but I think the most crippling is that it sends a message that you’re not allowed to write crap. This leads writers to never finish pieces (spending all their time writing that perfect intro)… or to not write at all. They’re too afraid of writing poorly.

And it’s all bullshit, because MOST of what we write is crap. That’s why it’s called a “shitty first draft.”

So I labeled that an enemy to be crushed. The only thing as important as killing the habit of editing while writing was finishing — which was a symptom of the same issue.

This entire campaign was designed to destroy perfectionism when writing a first draft.

Bye-Bye Invisible Scripts

Here’s my crappy quality word count graph, so you can see how imperfect it is.

NaNoWriMo Word Count Image

(“The Dip” is a book by Seth Godin about when to quit. Highly recommend it.)

NaNoWriMo is a 30 day event, but I started 5 days late, and I only actually wrote on 15 of those 25 days.

15 days to a first draft of a novel. Not too shabby.

I crushed a lot of invisible scripts doing this:

  • I’m not a fast writer.
  • I can’t write novels.
  • I can’t write original characters.
  • Writing a novel would take 6 months or more.
  • Writing a novel is “hard” too hard to seem worth it.

My novel is a big pile of crap, but it’s finished crap that can be rewritten and edited.

And it wasn’t that hard. It was challenging, but not “hard” because I enjoyed it even when I didn’t. (You know you like something when you feel that way.)

Why Your Fear of Success is Not Unfounded

But this is the part that I’ve struggled with — the part that makes writing this post difficult.

What happens when you do the impossible?

Remember, I believed wholeheartedly that writing a novel was NOT possible for me. A year of working everyday? Maybe. But I knew I wouldn’t do that, so it was moot. It wouldn’t happen. It’s as good as impossible.

And then I did it in 15 days.

Even a week after finishing, saying that is surreal. It doesn’t matter that it’s a shitty first draft. That novel isn’t supposed to exist at ALL.

It was never supposed to exist.

Fact is, it blew my self-concept apart, and it left a gaping void behind. The day after I finished, I didn’t know what to do. What was I supposed to be doing? I didn’t know! I’d spent a whole month flying toward a goal like a runaway train…

Choo Choo Motherfucker Image

…and then I was left with… what?

What?

Nothing.

I didn’t understand at first, but then I realized… my entire life lacks purpose, motive, and direction. My life is made up of excuses and distractions (Facebook, I’m looking at you), because behind them is this: “I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing.”

For a few days, I felt the emptiness like a sentient weight that’s been behind me this whole time, and I had no idea.

It’s unnerving. It’s scary. It makes me ask what the hell I’ve been doing for the last five years, wasting my limited time alive on… nothing. Nothing!

A gigantic elephant in the room.

(Of course, I’ve done a LOT in 5 years. But it doesn’t change the feeling of having been on a path that won’t lead to fulfillment.)

So the joy of success (which, believe me, is awesome) is accompanied by an intense re-evaluation of my life and totally re-defining myself. It’s uncomfortable. It requires I ask a lot of questions. It’s a new kind of responsibility. It means I have to fight running from my truth:

That I’m far, far more capable than I ever give myself credit for.

Something about seeing this emptiness brought me clarity in other areas too. For the first time in my life, I’m being honest about what I want in my future — not cluttering it with other people’s values and expectations for me.

Maybe what I want will change, but that my ideal inspires me to want work hard, right now? That it makes me feel fulfilled thinking about it, instead of afraid I’m missing out on something?

That, also, seemed impossible before. It gives me hope.

So is it scary? Yes. But is it worth it?

I think you can guess.

Now, I want to hear from you.

What did you once think was impossible for you? How did you feel when you succeeded? How did it change things for you?

And if you’ve decided to continue NaNoWriMo… good luck, happy muses, and lots of self-care. Don’t be too hard on yourself.

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