Novel 0.1 — Why Can’t I Finish?

When I first found NaNoWriMo back in 2004, I thought it was an interesting idea. Getting started is the hardest part of most projects, so, for anyone who keeps thinking about writing a novel someday, make that someday the month of November.

NaNoWriMo is an exercise in collective human suffering. For thirty days of November, just sit down and write. Write at least 50,000 words to finish a first draft. Suffer along with countless other would-be novelists. Share your writers block woes, listen to the sorrows of others, and benefit from the encouragement of the group.

In 2004 I easily met the 50,000 word goal. “This is great,” I thought, but I never finished that novel. Nor did I finish one the next year, or the year after. In fact, every subsequent year, I failed to even come close to the 50,000 word goal.

Skip ahead to 2013. For the first time in almost a decade, I sat down during the month of November and wrote. By November 30th, I had a grand total of 50,138 words, putting me just past the goal. A winner again, right?

Finishing a Novel

My personal goal in 2014 is to finish a novel that I would be content to let my friends read. NaNo 2013 gave me a good start on that: 50,000+ words of a first draft, a complete outline of the plot, and countless notes and random ideas.

Based on nine years of history, my problem isn’t getting started; it’s with getting on with the next step. With many failed attempts under my belt, I thought I’d look at some of the problems I’ve had getting that novel finished.

I’ll get to writing in a few minutes…

Ok… sometimes my problem is getting started. There are other things in my life. Work. Family. Paying bills. Going to the store. Checking my email. Television. With 1,440 minutes in a day, it’s easy to keep putting writing off for “a few minutes”. Eventually those few minutes run out.

“I’ll catch up tomorrow.” But tomorrow comes and goes, and so does the next day, and the weekend. Thirty days goes by quickly. It’s easy to fall too far behind to catch up.

Does that matter? It shouldn’t… but NaNo is psychological. You could write any time of the year, but the point of NaNo is to get started at a time when you have the support of an entire community of your peers. If you don’t follow along with NaNo, it loses a lot of its power.

Finally ready to sit down and write. Ooh, a squirrel!

I get distracted easily. Sometimes I start to write, finish a line or two, and then note to self: finish this section

Let me just rewrite that…

Software developers often debug programs in a REPL: read-evaluate-print loop. The debugger reads the programmer’s input, evaluates it, and prints the result. This is a simple and interactive method of debugging software.

When I write, I often find myself in a WERL: write-evaluate-rewrite loop. I write a paragraph or two, evaluate what I wrote, and then rewrite it, only to loop right back to critique the rewritten text. This is an entirely unproductive method of writing.

NaNo is about quantity over quality — and that’s a good thing. You can write 50,000 words of complete crap, in November, turn it into fertilizer a few months later, and let a finished novel grow out of it.

My writing is stupid and I’m stupid.

Sometimes I repeat this over and over in my head, like a mantra. This is linked to the above problem: after a couple of attempts at rewriting a paragraph, I start thinking this. This thinking, in turn, makes me keep rewriting the text, hoping to make it less stupid.

To explore strange new worlds…

Worldbuilding is my favorite part of the process. I enjoy sci-fi, so I like to think about all sorts of questions about the world my characters live in. Then I like to fill in the blanks. This leads to more questions, and more blanks to fill in.

Sometimes this type of speculation is productive. J.R.R. Tolkien basically made an entire writing career out of this. Sometimes it’s just two nerds on the internet arguing about who would win in a fight between a Star Destroyer and a Galaxy-class starship.

Whenever I’m worldbuilding, sometimes I have to remind myself to stop building worlds and start writing a story.

Whew! Glad that’s over!

November 30th arrives. Whether I’ve written 50,000 words or 5,000, I rejoice in the end of another NaNo. Then I put the draft aside — it needs to rest, and so do I. The problem is that I never pick it up again.

Fortunately, I’m not the only one. That’s why there’s also NaNoEdMo — a counterpart to NaNoWriMo. It consists of 50 hours of editing in the month of March (presumably after a three month break from the first draft of November).

I’ve never participated in NaNoEdMo, but it’s worth a try.


So, I have 50,000 words written. I have copious notes about the plot and what’s missing. I have a plan to start editing (including significant rewriting) in March. But I want to make sure that 2014 is the year I finally finish this.

What else would encourage me to finish? I know! Why don’t I blog about it? And I just did. Expect me to ramble some more about this in the next few months.


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