5 Reasons You Failed to Win National Novel Writing Month (and What to Do about It)

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National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) has come to a close for another year.

A fraction of the writers (around 14%) who participated reached their goal of writing 50,000 words in 30 days. The vast majority of writers (the other 86%) failed to achieve what they set out to do.

If you’re reading this, you probably ended up on the wrong side of that 14/86 split.

While I may not know you, I have worked with hundreds of writers just like you over the last several years, and I’m confident I can tell you exactly why you failed to reach the 50K mark. It was almost certainly a combination of the following five reasons.

1. You didn't have a plan

By “a plan”, I mean a specific writing schedule that identified when, where, and how many words you were going to write each day. This Writing Plan should also have identified where you were going to be recording your daily word count, and how you would get back on track for days when you fell behind your word count goals.

You should also have developed a Life Plan that identified mitigation strategies for all those life issues (work, family, chores, other responsibilities) that end up getting in the way of writing.

Did Thanksgiving and all the family, food, and relatives that go along with it distract you from your writing part-way through the month? Well, Thanksgiving happens every year, and you should have prepared for the holiday by working it into your Writing/Life Plans for November.

In the project management world, we call these plans a “critical path”. We use the word “critical” because when activities begin to stray from the planned path, it can result in total project failure. If you failed to reach the 50K mark, it means you probably didn’t plan adequately for what was to come.

2. You didn't do the (absolutely necessary) writer's craft grunt work before hand

Writing a novel involves a massive amount of work before the first page ever being written.

Long before you type the words “Chapter 1”, you need to have clearly identified what genre you’re going to be writing in, where it falls culturally in the genre cycle, and what its obligatory scenes, genre tropes, and key iconography entail.

You also need to have chosen a proven story structure to format your narrative around. I don’t care if it’s the Hero’s Journey, Freytag’s pyramid, the Elizabethan five act structure, the Hollywood three act structure, or the Brooks/Weiland four act novel structure. What I DO care about is that you chose one BEFORE you started writing.

In addition, you need to have done the character work necessary to ensure that on the first day of NaNo, you already knew who your protagonist was, what she wanted, and what she actually needed.  You should also have crafted a beat sheet identifying all the major plot points in your narrative, and maybe even expanded some of them out into longer paragraphs or partial scenes.

If you didn’t do this work before November 1, you were all but dooming yourself to failure before you even began. These activities are the mandatory grunt work of writer’s craft and they cannot be ignored.

3. You lacked personalized accountability and motivation

One of the great things about NaNoWriMo is the way it gathers together a community of writers who can support one another throughout the challenge. This support comes in the form of online forums as well as IRL writing events.

If you failed to reach your goals in November, you either didn’t reach out to your local and/or online community of writers, or the community you did reach out to didn’t provide you with the amount of accountability you needed to be successful.

While fellow writers are an essential component of your growth and progress as a writer, you can’t expect them to support you the way a writing coach, like myself, would. For example, I recorded 30 motivation videos for my clients participating in NaNo (one for each day), and we changed our bi-weekly group coaching sessions into weekly sessions for the entire month of November. How might those 30 videos and 5 coaching sessions have helped you stay on track?

The fact that you didn’t have someone personally invested in your success meant you didn’t have any real stakes or consequences for not completing what you said you wanted to achieved. We’re all great at telling ourselves excuses about why we didn’t do what we said we were going to do, but telling that excuse to your writing coach is a whole other thing.

4. You bottomed out in the Transition Curve

The steps in any major project can be chartered along a Transition Curve, also known as S Curve. One of the interesting things about NaNoWriMo is that it forces writers to experience the transition curve at the accelerated pace.

The transition curve looks like this:

You begin a project with uninformed optimism. You don’t know what you don’t know, and so you’re filled with enthusiasm, excitement, and the passion to embark on this new endeavor.

As you work on the project, you begin to absorb feedback via experience, advice, and new information coming into your circle of knowledge. You begin to realize there may be better ways to do things than the way you’ve been doing them. You also realize the project may not be as easy or as fun as you may have initially thought it was going to be. With this information in hand, you start down the slope of informed pessimism.

This slope leads downwards to an eventual crisis of meaning that looks something like this: “I don’t know if my even book has an inciting incident.” “What genre is this manuscript? “Can I really do this?” “Did I choose the wrong story?” “Am I good enough?” “Do I know enough?”  “Is it worth continuing?” “Should I start over?”

This crisis of meaning is a major transition point, and it’s the spot in the transition curve where most writers give up. Faced with the pressure of informed pessimism, they crash and burn.

The average number of words written by a NaNo participant is 12K words. That’s because by 12K words, most writers have hit that crisis of meaning stage and thrown in the towel.

But there’s an alternative to giving up.

Long distance runners know this. No matter how well trained, all runners eventually hit “The Wall” at some point. The Wall is that moment when a runner’s body tells them they can’t run any further.

What good runners know, and what smart writers learn, is that we all have the ability to push through The Wall.

On the other side of the wall, the other side of that crisis of meaning, you’re going discover the wisdom of experience, and with that wisdom, you’ll begin ramping up a new slope of informed optimism.

Ask any writer who was successful at writing 50K words last month, and they’ll tell you there wasn’t just one wall, but many walls they had to push through to find success.

Did you push through walls last month, or smack up against them?

5. Writing a novel is REALLY difficult

Statistics suggest 81% of people, when surveyed, say they want to write a book, but few people actually ever do it. This is because it’s understood, intuitively, that writing a book is a major challenge.

That said, the amount of heart, soul, energy, and mental complexity involved in writing a novel is still significantly underestimated by almost everyone.

Writing a book is much harder than most people think, and if you failed to reach your goals last month, you know this to be true.

Editor Shawn Coyne suggests learning to write well is a process that can be summed up with the following equation:

M (mechanics) + N (trial and error) = IF (inner feeling)

If you didn’t achieve your goals last month, if you don’t yet have that inner feeling of accomplishment, you’re probably lacking in both the M (i.e. education in writer’s craft) and the N (i.e. experience in writing a long form narratives).

The fact that you might be lacking in these two elements or that one of the five challenges I’ve covered in this article stood in your way last month is perfectly fine.

In fact, I’ve got some really good news for you…

I called this article “5 Reasons You Failed to Win NaNo,” but the truth is…

You didn't fail ANYTHING!

There is no winning or losing when it comes to art.

NaNoWriMo is a writing exercise. No more, no less. It’s no different from daily journaling or doing a character worksheet. It’s just a cognitive framework (i.e. an idea, not a real thing) designed to encourage writers to get words on the page by identifying goals by using terms like “winner” as motivation.

As fun and as motivating as that framework may be for some people, the reality is that writing isn’t a sport. There are no losers.

To write a novel is to engage oneself in the infinitely rewarding experience known as the creative process, and by engaging in that process, you have already won.

When art is created, everyone wins. Society benefits. The world gets better. I believe that to be true with all my heart.

Last month was a success because YOU TRIED. You did it. You put your hat in the ring and took the chance to try something crazy and different from what most people do with their time.

Regardless of how many words you ultimately got down, you created something. You partook in the creative process and the only way you can lose at the creative process is by giving up.

You only lose when you stop writing.

So here’s what to do next

Let’s revisit Shawn Coyne’s equation: M+N=IF.

What that equation means is you need to work on your mechanics (i.e. your writing’s craft) and then experiment through trial and error (i.e. write a lot) until you achieve an inner feeling (i.e. confidence). That’s the recipe for a long journey, but also a hugely rewarding one.

And I want to help you along that journey.

As your writing coach, I want to work with you one-on-one to set goals, establish plans, overcome obstacles, and stay on track. I want to help fill the gaps in your writing craft knowledge, and provide you with personalized support, advice, and motivation to keep on writing.

What happens during a coaching session

 My coaching sessions are personally tailored to suit your unique and specific needs.

We’ll work together to identify challenges holding you back, as well as identify resources and protocols to help you overcome roadblocks.

I’ll help you maintain focus and provide accountability to meet those word count goals.

I’ll share my publishing industry expertise to help you choose the publishing route that will work best for you and your book, be it independent publishing, e-publishing, or going with one of the big 5 New York publishers.

I’ll share exercises, tools, and prompts you can use to sharpen your writing skills and stimulate ideas.

I can help you at all stages in your publishing journey

Still formulating your novel’s concept? I’ll work with you on story development.

Need feedback on your first draft? I’ll provide actionable feedback for revisions.

Ready to seek a literary agent for representation? I’ll work with you to craft a query letter agents will love.

Your needs, goals, and preferred learning methods will always be the focus of our sessions.

What You Get

When you hire me as your writing coach, you’re going to get:

Weekly One-on-one Coaching Sessions – We’ll meet each and every week via video calls and address your needs, answer your questions, and make adjustments in your plans so that you can make continual and steady progress towards your writing goals.

Unlimited Email Access – Have an urgent question or need some quick feedback? No worries, you’ll have 24/7 email access to me.

Manuscript Appraisal and Critiques – At no extra cost, I’ll read your work-in-progress and provide specific and actionable advice to help polish your manuscript long before you approach an editor or literary agent.

Bi-Weekly Group Coaching Sessions – In addition to your weekly one-on-one sessions, you also get additional group coaching sessions every second week where you’ll learn alongside other writers.

Private Writers Group – You’ll also get access to my private Facebook group where you can interact with other dedicated authors, share information, get feedback, and support one another.

Access to The Novel Writer’s Blueprint and Smash Fear and Write like a Pro Online Courses – My coaching clients also get full access to both of my online courses, along with the full range of bonus material included along with them. ($400 value)

What clients are saying

“Kevin’s enthusiasm to get your story told is contagious. You cannot help but get inspired to keep on writing and all the way he is your guide, mentor and your friend. He makes the impossible seem possible and when you feel stuck he’ll make sure the block you’ve reached will be removed. I never thought getting my story down on paper would happen, but thanks to Kevin the first draft of my book is now near completion. Thank you Kevin.” – Oliver Guttorm, coaching client

“Kevin is committed to helping writers find themselves on the page. He is knowledgeable and professional with a great sense of humour and a warm personality. He is encouraging and permeates a confidence that is inspiring. Kevin has helped me to re-plan my novel and get it down on paper. He has taught me many great writing methods and tricks, as well as leading me to other helpful resources. He is a top notch writing coach who I will forever be grateful of.” Kathryn Harris

“I owe a lot of my new-found confidence and conviction to write what matters vs writing what’s popular to Kevin’s cutting edge methodology and person-centered approach to coaching. I encourage you to dive in and soak up everything he has to offer!  Thanks Kev!” – Andre Petrolo coaching client

“I was looking for someone to kick my butt into gear when I saw Kevin on twitter, and he did just that! I went from not writing at all to getting down over a thousand words a day! Kevin was great to work with because he is full of resources and knowledge, and he really believes in finding specific solutions that uniquely fit you and your life. Thank you, Kevin!” – Melanie, coaching client

“Kevin provided excellent insight on my middle-grade fantasy book, and was meticulously prepared each coaching session with helpful and actionable insights. His love and passion for writing spilled over into how he worked with me, and I could tell that he really wants to see me succeed. He helped me find gaps in my story structure, and think through many ways I could improve my narrative.” – Chris Shumate, coaching client

Are you ready to transform your writing in 2017?

My ideal coaching clients are:

  • passionate about writing and determined to write a novel
  • eager to learn and interested in improving their craft
  • patient enough to put in the time necessary to write a book
  • focused enough to stick with it for the long haul
  • willing to invest in their career as an author
  • ready to take action to achieve their goals

If that’s you, hit the button below to schedule a time for us to discuss your writing goals and how I can help you achieve them.


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grey backKevin T. Johns is an author, writing coach, and ghostwriter. He has helped hundreds of writers from around the world get ideas out of their heads, onto the page, and into readers' hands. Get your free copy of his short guide for authors below.


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