What I learned by not winning NaNoWriMo

I’m a big fan of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month–a challenge to authors to write 50,000 words in one month). It’s not for everyone, but I find it a great motivator. Congrats to everyone who participated, and especially to those who finished!

This is my third year doing NaNo, and my first year not winning. The manuscript I decided to write this year was for a middle grade project. I finished it last week, and I’m excited with how it turned out, but I was still about 13,000 words short (that’s the problem with doing MG for NaNo–they’re usually under 50,000 words).

At first I was determined to finish anyway. I pulled out another project and tried to force my way through it, but there were still too many gaps in my research, and I was hating every minute of it. Writing, which is usually my sanctuary, became torture. I continued getting more frustrated and discouraged, until I finally realized no one was making me do this. Not completing NaNo wasn’t going to ruin my life or my career or have any negative effect on me except what I was inflicting on myself.

I wrote a rough draft this month, just as I’d planned, and I also finished a final round of edits for my agent on one manuscript and a first round of edits for my editor on another. That’s not including the progress I made on my WWI novel (yeah, I counted those words as part of my 37,000). That’s a pretty busy month, and it doesn’t account for all the non-writing things I had going on. Why was I beating myself up over 13,000 words?

I think most writers are goal-oriented, which is a good thing in a career that requires a lot of self-motivation. But we can get bogged down in goals, especially if we lose sight of the reasons behind them, and even more especially if we have perfectionist tendencies. For me, at least, this was a good lesson in focusing on my own _real_ goals, not the goals someone else imposes on me, or arbitrary goals I set for myself.

Once I realized that, I was able to start enjoying writing again, though I didn’t give in to the temptation to turn my life upside down to try to hit 50,000 words. This year, I’ll wear my regular, “not a winner” NaNoWriMo t-shirt with pride. 🙂

Why a one-star review made me happy

In the social media age, reviews are critical to a book’s success–a digital form of word-of-mouth publicity, which is the best kind of advertising. While we authors would love it if everyone thought our books deserved five stars, there’s no book out there that connects with everyone, and when a book only has five-star reviews, readers tend to be skeptical (rightly so, as the fake review industry casts a tarnish over the reliability of reviews).

There’s a saying among authors that you know you’ve “made it” when you get your first one-star review–the idea being that your book is really getting out there, even into the hands of people who might not be your target audience. Some of this could be meant to soothe the sting, because, yes, it hurts when some says your baby is ugly. Most authors (myself included) try not to pay too much attention to reviews, since obsessing over them can make us crazier than usual. I do know I have a couple of one-star reviews, and while I don’t love them, I’m learning they don’t have to be devastating.

In one of my one-star reviews, the reviewer was upset by the ending of my book. She said enough for me to realize she didn’t quite understand what I intended (and if I understood it the way she did, it would make me mad too). The review actually made me happy. Why? Because she cared enough to give it one star. She evidently liked the book, but the ending made her mad–she was invested enough to really feel something and to say something about it. It’s a compliment in a way an “it was okay” two- or three-star review or rating isn’t, at least in this case (If she had said she read twenty pages and hated everything about it so much she couldn’t stand it, that would have been different). This is a chance for me to learn something from a stranger who read my book–a stranger who thought the concept was appealing enough to become a potential reader. I can see where her misunderstanding came from, and while I can’t correct it in this book (though I am working on a follow-up short story to answer some questions readers had about the ending), I can make sure I don’t make the same mistake again.

So, don’t forget to leave honest reviews of the books you read. And if you get a one-star review, indulge in your favorite comfort food and keep writing. You’re one step closer to connecting with your target audience.