Okay, I didn’t make it. It’s November 30, and my National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) novel, 7°, sits at a very rough 3683 words, 46,317 words short of my 50,000 word goal. That’s less than 10% done, which is just sad. I haven’t even looked at the file in three weeks.

If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, you can go back to here and see me full of piss and vinegar, ready to write a 50,000 word novel in a month alongside my mighty NaNoWriMo brothers and sisters.

Looking back on this near-total failure, I can run through a list of excuses, all of which might be equal parts valid and spurious. I promise not to bore you with the list, especially since very few of those items are appropriate for this venue or to the subject for writing SF and fantasy, or writing and publishing in general. I’m not interested in the excuses for not writing it, I’m more interested in the reason, or reasons I didn’t write it. Excuses are things you make up to hide or detract from the reason you did or didn’t do something. And this is a good opportunity to reflect on the idea of self-imposed deadlines, work ethic, productivity, and the creative process. Kind of a big subject, actually, but worth taking a pass at it.

I’ve admitted here at Fantasy Author’s Handbook to having some trouble keeping to self-imposed deadlines, and it was this difficulty I was hoping NaNoWriMo might help offset. That’s really the spirit of it, isn’t it? We all have the same deadline, same word count—let’s go! And it actually should have worked. I really meant what I said about being excited about my idea, and rough as they are, those 3683 words are a good start—I like what I have so far and have at least been thinking about it, occasionally writing it in my head. That’s a fine exercise, by the way, but only really effective if you eventually sit down and type out what you’ve formed in your head. That way your story will be accessible to the thousands of non-telepaths among the general reading community.

So it isn’t that I don’t like the book, that I “lost that lovin’ feelin’,” which has happened. A one-month deadline for a rough 50,000 words is tough, but not impossible, especially since I’m still sans “day job.” Thanksgiving isn’t too intrusive a holiday—really can’t blame anything on that.

What I had originally hoped to do was finish the urban fantasy novel I’ve already been working on too long now by Halloween then move directly to 7° in November, spend December rewriting, etc.—but then I didn’t finish the urban fantasy, so I started the NaNoWriMo book without the clear head you really need to have in order to plunge into that intense a writing experience. That sounds like a lame excuse, I know, but I have to defend it a little at least.

Any creative endeavor, especially one you care about and that you want to be good, deserves the lion’s share of your attention. I’ve only recently acquired the ability to read more than one book at a time (not simultaneously, mind you, but switching off . . . you know what I mean) so forgive me if I’m not quite at the write-two-novels-at-the-same-time stage. Had I applied myself to the urban fantasy and finished it in time I would have finished the NaNoWriMo book. Or would I?

If I had run through the rest of the urban fantasy, probably right up to October 31, would I be burned out? Unable to write effectively for at least a week? Maybe. That’s not unusual after finishing a book. That’s when you get to all that goofy stuff you’ve been putting off while you drag that draft across the finish line. It probably would have been smarter to finish the urban fantasy more like October 15.

But then I’d really hoped to finish it more like September 1, so if wishes were horses. . . .

And November is a tough month anyway, isn’t it? It is for me. Up here in the northerly latitudes around Seattle it’s night at 4:45 in the afternoon, and it’s been raining (or snowing, even) a lot. Even as I type this, at 2:30 in the afternoon on Monday the 29th, it’s basically twilight outside because the clouds are so thick. I have more energy, in general, in the summer. NaNoWriMo should be in July. The 4th of July holiday is no more intrusive than Thanksgiving, and it stays light later, is mostly sunny most of the time, even in Seattle, but then the kids are home, and we could go to the beach, and other excuses.

Still haven’t nailed down the reason among the excuses. Please tell me that it’s not because there’s no money at the end of it. I don’t want that to be true. I want to think I can still write for the joy of it—I’ve advised people over and over to write for anything but the money. That’s what I mean by “self-imposed” deadlines. There’s no one at the end of this month waving a check in my face, or threatening to rip one up. Maybe that’s why writing has been slipping down the to do list after stuff like, y’know, get a job, start a business, or in general just “monetize Phil.”

I started thinking maybe NaNoWriMo should offer $100 to the first person to finish 50,000 words with the caveat that that person has to send it to the next person who finishes, so it’s not real money you get to keep but a sort of virtual advance. But then everyone would just hold off finishing, trying to be the last one done on the assumption that the last person to finish gets to keep the money. That’s a terrible idea.

No, it’s better that we write a novel because we want to, for the pure love of the creative process.

And if we can do that, do we need fake deadlines, much less fake advances? Can’t we all just write our own books at our own pace, being happy with our own progress based on our own expectations of ourselves?

I can’t, but everybody else ought to. I just came out of fifteen deadline-intensive years, and I guess it’s going to take me more than five months to stop holding myself to unfair work ethic standards.

Anyway, the work ethic has moderated, now I have to start learning how to not feel guilty about it.


—Philip Athans


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
This entry was posted in Books, NaNoWriMo, Publishing Business, Science Fiction & Fantasy Novels, SF and Fantasy Authors, Writing, Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to NaNoWriMo: FAIL

  1. Zuzana says:

    Awe, Phil … so sorry! But you’re absolutely right — we all should just write when it’s right. Write … right!

    Anyway, I did finish NaNoWriMo yesterday with 50,212 words, and I’m exceedingly proud of myself (because it would have been SO easy to throw in the towel this month with everything on my plate), but I looked at it more like a kick in the pants for something I wanted to do anyway — and it worked that way for me! So hooray! 😀

    • Philip Athans says:

      Hurray–congratulations! My advice: Do your best to not even think about it for the rest of 2010 then spend the first half of 2011 revising. Then let me know when I can pre-order the published final!

  2. Adrian Kyte says:

    Setting yourself the task of writing a 50,000 word novel in a month sounds like an act of masochism, or that of someone with immense self-belief. To be able to write an average of 1,600 words a day of anything coherent surely takes the self-discipline of a Zen master. If it’s only about creativity then maybe any wild nonsense can make up the 50k, but would that be called a novel?

    I don’t think that focused creativity should be forced to fit in to something as prescribed as NaNoWriMo if the objective is quality. Okay, it’s an exercise – a competition, where only about 20 percent succeed; the writing equivalent of setting a time limit for a half-marathon. Well, if succeeding gives as much feeling of achievement as writing a full novel then maybe that’s not a bad thing, especially if it helps establish a useful framework for future writing.

    • Philip Athans says:

      Yeah, I think the best you can really hope for, as a writer, from NaNoWriMo is a 50,000-word ROUGH draft that can then be heavily revised over the next several months to eventually become a novel worth showing to others–that was my goal, anyway! At Wizards we were often forced to impose some extraordinarily daunting deadlines on our poor, beleaguered authors, and occasionally it did average out to 50k per month (in the form of a 90k+-word novel in two months) but that was actually pretty rare (maybe half a dozen times all in) and there was a very hands-on editor in the mix, too. Still, they were not generally considered our better quality releases. It is possible to take too long to finish a novel (if it gets to be years, something’s wrong), but a month is not enough time to really finish a quality book.

  3. If the book wasn’t interesting enough to hold your attention more than 4000 words, why would it hold anyone else’s attention that long?

    I suspect you were over-reliant on an outline of some sort, mental or physical, or had a clear destination in mind that wasn’t strong enough to maintain the momentum.

    You claim the idea is interesting. That is probably true. Many interesting ideas are out there. However, was this idea interesting enough? More interesting than the entire internet? Your kids? Other books?

    Be more interesting next time.

    • Philip Athans says:

      You’re mostly right. One of the ways in which I went wrong is that, against my own published advice, I started making up lots of fake words for things and oddball “fantasyesque” names for characters so I ended up with no emotional attachment for anyone or anything in the story beyond the concept. Idea goes back into hopper until it shows signs of life.

  4. Pingback: TAKING MY OWN ADVICE | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  5. Pingback: TIME TO EXERCISE | Fantasy Author's Handbook


  7. Pingback: NaNoWriMo: FAIL (AGAIN) | Fantasy Author's Handbook

  8. Pingback: VOTE FOR MY NaNoWriMo IDEA | Fantasy Author's Handbook

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 )

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