Writing: On Why “Losing” Is Sometimes “Winning”

The past few months have seen two weird little “losses” in my writing life. (It’s why I haven’t been active around here.) This is kind of my first NaNo related post for this year, but it’s more of a reflection on past experiences than anything else.

First, I didn’t win Camp NaNoWriMo this summer. I realized that I was functioning at about 20% of my potential due to various roadblocks in my personal life. So I lowered my word count goal to 20,000 down from 50,000. Then I sat at my keyboard. Banged my head against it. Repeatedly. My characters Aubrey and Gemma made it to the beginning of their journey, got in the car… and then, nothing.

I finished with 5,000 words.

And then, I didn’t get into Pitch Wars.

But I wanted to write about the idea of ‘losing’ or ‘failing,’ now that I’ve had months to reflect and ponder and really think about it. And I wanted to encourage everyone who tried Camp NaNoWriMo, or anyone who stumbles upon this post after a November loss, or anyone who is afraid to take the NaNo plunge out of fear, and I want to tell you why “losing” NaNoWriMo, or any other writing-related contest or endeavour, does not make YOU a loser.

Back in July, I started the month with nothing. A blank page. No outline. (I won’t make that mistake again.) I filled in my character charts 15 minutes before midnight on July 1st. I felt ready, I guess. I loved that blank page. I was ready to take it on. I was ready to run with it.

But then, things started going downhill.

July became a very taxing month for my social anxiety and my mental health as a whole. I always like to classify my mental health as being either lower-case social anxiety or upper-case Social Anxiety. Lower-case being manageable, and non-intrusive, while upper-case caused a bit more of a problem.

In July my social anxiety became SOCIAL ANXIETY.

Suddenly, the words weren’t flowing because my brain had no room to fit any new words in. Aubrey wasn’t communicating. I considered switching my point of view character to Gemma, but she wouldn’t talk either. I was stressed out beyond belief, trying to force this story. And then I stopped and asked myself, why am I trying to force a story that just isn’t working right now?

As writers, we want to believe that we always have magic at our fingertips. Vast worlds live inside our heads, and it often is frustrating that they refuse to come out onto the page in the same complexity that they “should.” In some cases, we try to force stories out just so we can validate ourselves as writers, as authors.

It’s that panic that if we aren’t writing right now, then are we really writers?

(We are.)

So I did something scary. I took a break. I put the project away and accepted the likelihood of a loss. I played through Pokemon Alpha Sapphire (again). I downloaded Pokemon GO and went for long walks down by the bay in my town. I practiced hand lettering and watercolours. I worked on ideas for this blog. I fixed up my novel for Pitch Wars. I added bits and pieces to Aubrey and Gemma’s story, a few hundred words here, a thousand words there. I jumped around, wrote a couple scenes out of order. And there I was, end of the month, with next to nothing.

I didn’t win. I didn’t get the perks or bragging rights. I broke my Camp winning streak. (Of one year. Not as impressive as it sounds.)

But I also didn’t lose. Because where there was a blank page, there is now a story  trying to lift off the ground. Where there was emptiness in my mind, there are now two more characters whose story will come along when it’s ready to. And, I learned the most important thing: that taking breaks is good.

Because, at the end of the day, I did write in July. I prepared for Pitch Wars, which, as I said, came as another loss for me. But when I think of the people I interacted with and got to know through quietly creeping their tweets, and the improvements my manuscript took as a result of preparing, it doesn’t feel like a loss at all. As writers, every time we take a step, send a query, write a word, enter a contest, create a character, we’re ALWAYS winning the battle against our own fear and insecurity. Whether we are chosen for opportunities or attract interest or not, we’re creating worlds in our heads. That’s admirable on its own.

Here are the things that I won out of NaNoWriMo this summer:

  1. Courage. I took two massive leaps this July. First, I applied to be a Municipal Liaison for NaNoWriMo in November. Something I may not have done unless I’d thrown myself back into the NaNo sphere this July. And that was a win, as I was selected to be one of five for my region. The other massive leap was Pitch Wars: something I wouldn’t have focused on if Aubrey and Gemma had cooperated. While Pitch Wars ultimately was also a loss for me, I’m still happy I took the plunge and had that experience. When one door closes, another one flies open, if you have the curiosity and courage to go through that new door.
  2. Time to think. I didn’t proceed with my original project idea, Reluctance, because there was a huge plot hole that I didn’t get filled before July began. There was one facet of the world-building that didn’t exist and I couldn’t move forward without it. I have now filled the hole, and Reluctance is officially my NaNoWriMo 2016 project AND my next Big Project That Might Actually Get Somewhere. Yay!
  3. An understanding of my own limits. Sometimes, mental health (in my case) or physical health, work, family, or any personal issue at all causes the worst writer’s blocks. Sometimes you have to take care of yourself before you can take care of your characters or your stories. I’m handling my anxiety a lot better now (although it is still a journey), and knowing that I was still able to work on my Pitch Wars prep reminded me that sometimes I can’t handle too many projects at once, but even slow and steady wins the race in the long run.
  4. Another story idea to grow in my brain. Plain and simple, this project wasn’t ready yet. That’s okay: I have 5,000 more words than I did before. It’ll come around in time if it’s meant to happen.
  5. A confirmation that I’m a planner. “Pantsing” didn’t work for me. At all. Now I know! And I’ll improve from there. Learning how you write is the most important thing. Books on the craft and advice articles will help certain people and give you the tools to figure out your own way up Manuscript Mountain (to reference my favourite NaNo pep talk, from Veronica Roth). They are not the only answer. Trial and error is truly the only way to understand how you operate as a writer in your own right.

Good luck in advance to everyone participating in NaNoWriMo this year, and remember: taking the plunge to tell your story makes you a winner in the best possible way. I wish you  piles of beautiful, beautiful words and enchanting characters and motivation and for your tea/coffee/other noveling beverage to be as sweet/bitter/salty? as you prefer.

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