Reasons or excuses? 5 things I learned while writing #NaNoWriMo and an easy way to tell the difference

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Are your reasons for not getting around to writing that book real reasons or are they excuses? Here are five things I learned about reasons and excuses after writing 35,000 words of my novel. (And a quick way to tell the difference!)

It’s November 20 and there are just 10 days to go in #NaNoWriMo. My word count is 35,000 and this is the most I’ve ever written for a story in my life.

When you break through barriers that have held you back from achieving a goal, it can be a strange experience. All of a sudden, those reasons in your head, which seemed like insurmountable barriers, become excuses, not reasons.

So, right now it feels a little like I’ve reached K2 and am about to launch my final assault on the summit. That’s a mixture of elation at having got further than I’ve ever got before, trepidation that my final goal is in sight, and amazement that I’ve got this close and could actually achieve my goal.

As I reflect on this new landscape a few things have become obvious, and I hope, by jotting these revelations down, they serve as reminders to me, and perhaps encouragement for you, that it’s sometimes very hard in our lives to spot the difference between a reason for not doing something and an excuse.

Five things I have learned are excuses and not real reasons (and one that’s a reason and not an excuse!):

  1. I can’t get up early to write: I am a night owl. I have been a night owl since infancy (or so I’m told). If I want to get up before 7.30am on a weekend I need to set my alarm and I will do it reluctantly. I love staying up late and watching TV, or reading. At 11pm I feel mentally as fresh as a daisy. However, I decided in October that if I was going to have a real shot at winning #NaNoWriMo then I’d need to do my writing in the mornings, before my day really started. It seemed the logical thing to do – create two hours of productive time in the morning that didn’t exist before. The alternative was to try to write in the evenings when I got home from work, but that seemed fraught with risk. I often get home late, say, 9pm or so, I will sometimes have a work function – dinner or drinks, which means I don’t get home until midnight. And also, my job is exhausting and often when I get home, there is a reason I just collapse on the couch – I’m mentally spent. I expected the 5am starts to be hellish, a struggle that would leave me exhausted all day. But that hasn’t happened. Since starting my day at 5am I’ve found myself tired by 9pm and rather than fight it, I simply go to bed – and fall asleep almost instantly! So, it turns out I CAN get up early to write.
  2. I’m not creative enough: One of the hurdles stopping me completing this goal the last time I attempted to write 50,000 words in a month, was that I came upon a plot hole that I was unable to resolve. I was determined to keep one particularly far-fetched plot development that made it impossible to resolve the “common sense” issues that it created. Unable to move beyond that particular problem, I downed tools and walked away from the problem. In the ensuing years, I believed the issue to be a lack of creativity or imagination on my part. However, forcing yourself to write 35,000 words really means coming up with new things to write every day and unless you’re happy writing the same things 20 different ways, you need to come up with some new plot twist, character development or story arc. So you do. You just do. And that has been surprising.
  3. I can’t plot a novel: There are two types of writers in the world – the plotters and the pantsers. The plotters map out every twist and turn, every beat, every character arc before they begin writing. The pantsers start with a blank page and it all comes pouring out of them. I’ve tried being a pantser. It didn’t work out so good. The project didn’t get past the first 10,000 words because I couldn’t resolve a plot problem. I got stuck on one bit and couldn’t get past it. So the project died. But this time around, I got Scrivener and it has helped me become a plotter. I’ve found it relatively easy to set out the major events in my story, to rearrange them and hang them all together in a reasonably coherent order. Sure, there are plenty of successful novelists who are pantsers, so being unable to plot a novel isn’t really a reason to not write a novel. But it was for me. Not having an end point to write towards prevented me from continuing with the project.
  4. I can’t stick at something long enough: I’m old enough to have some self-awareness around my flaws and attributes. As a senior manager in the workplace, from time to time go through personality analysis and I’ve been told often enough that I believe it, that I’m a big picture person who is good at starting projects, hopeless at finishing them. Good on headlines, bad on tiny detail. Generally speaking I have found this to be true throughout my life. So maintaining my writing discipline for an entire month (although, I have not reached that target yet!) has surprised me. I am up most mornings and I write almost every day. I make sure I write more than is necessary whenever I can in order to give myself some breathing room on those days I can’t push out the minimum required word length.
  5. My writing is terrible: I’ll be honest. So far I have collected 35,000 very ordinary words. This is not me being self-deprecating. What I have seems to be a lot of cliches, tired expressions and hackneyed phrases. Lots of boring plot! However, I choose to cling to the maxim: You can’t edit a blank page. My next challenge is to polish those words and find the elegant form that I hope is hidden in there. Fingers crossed!
  6. My hands and feet have fallen off and the typewriter designed to type by tapping with my nose has not yet arrived: OK, this is probably a good reason why you can’t *yet* write your book. How can you tell the difference between an excuse and a reason? Perform this simple test:
    • Do you have access to your mind? If yes, then proceed to next question. If no, then it’s a reason.
    • Do you have access to writing implement – paper, pen, laptop, phone, tablet, desktop? If yes, then proceed to next question. If no, then it’s a reason.
    • Do you have language skills? Imagination? Ever read a book, or heard a fairytale, watched TV? If yes, then you have all the requisite skills to create a story! If no, you’re done.
    • Do you have an hour a week to spare? If yes, then congratulations – you have time to write a book!

The key thing I have learned throughout this 35,000 word experiment is how rewarding the process is. Even without being published or anyone else reading a single word that I’ve written, it is still incredibly satisfying to write a story. Incredibly satisfying.

But the thing is, you won’t know, until you give it a go.

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