Draft Zero, Life, Writing

On NaNoWriMo and Failure, Or: How I’m Learning to Embrace My New Writing Process

It is November 28th. There are three days remaining in November, which means three days remaining in National Novel Writing Month, that time of year when thousands – hundreds of thousands – of writers try to plunk down 50,000 words in the span of a single month.

In years past, I have diligently hit the daily goal of 1,667 words and reached 50,000 with little to no problem. Maybe I missed a day or two here and there, but I always made it up.

Those years, unfortunately, appear to be firmly in the past. In 2016, I wrote 22k for NaNoWriMo. In 2017 I was finishing edits on book 2, so I didn’t bother. And this year I’m on track to hit 20k on a new story. Not even half the official goal.

Perhaps those years will come around again. Perhaps in another time.

But that time is not now, and if there is one thing I’ve learned from this past year, I can mourn my past and What I Used to Be Able to Do and try and fail and try again to meet those old standards, but after all that effort I’ll still be no closer to my goal. All that does is leave me feeling defeated. Less than. Worthless.

My life has changed quite a bit since my first NaNoWriMo in 2001 and my writing has, too. Things changed most drastically in 2016, with the birth of our daughter, but the fallout from that has been gradual. I clung for a long time to the idea that Things Would Return to Normal and I just had to keep trying to reach the goals I’d had before, keep trying to do things as I always had. If I just kept doing the same exact thing, eventually it would succeed, yes?

…hmm, isn’t there some quippy adage about doing the same thing over & over again and expecting different results?

This period was prolonged by the fact that I was working in a world I’d already built, with (relatively) established characters, mythology, history, plot, etc etc et cetera. So it was easier to keep reaching, to de-prioritize my own health, to get up early and stay up late and have very little time to read or really do anything outside of housework – because at least I was still hitting my word count each day.

And I was! Until I wasn’t.

This summer was the first time I hadn’t met my own personal deadlines in a very long time. And I kept not meeting them. But I pushed on regardless.

I turned in Book 3 and then… well, I didn’t so much as crash as fall apart. At first it was a deliberate & planned falling. I read instead of writing and it was amazing, don’t get me wrong. But a consciously quiet month off turned into a not so consciously quiet two months off turned into three.

Not for want to trying. When November rolled around, I decided I’d participate in NaNoWriMo. That would be the kick in the butt to finally get back to writing like I used to. As I did over the summer, I set my daily writing goals and I tried to hit them. But when I didn’t, and I fell further and further behind, I just felt like a failure. I was plagued with doubt. What had happened? What had changed? Why did it feel like I had no time anymore?

As I cut another morning writing session short because my daughter had just woken up, crying, and needed me, I finally realized

My life had changed.

So shouldn’t how I write change as well?

I am not the person I was five, three, even two years ago. I am not in the same situation, I don’t have the same amount of time or energy or brainpower. The background processing I used to do throughout the day on my characters and plots is simply gone, taken over instead with the innate ability to know exactly where my daughter is and what she’s doing at any given second of the day. It has simply become impossible for me to write as quickly as I used to. All that processing has to happen in front of the laptop now, in the spare minutes I can find and gather in the morning.

And while I might mourn the last of that past self – so much time! how did I never realize how much time I had? – I wouldn’t trade where I am now for the world. But that means accepting I am the person I am now, and that no amount of wishing or planning or goal setting or staring covetously at other people’s free time will change that.

Perhaps it’s about time I meet myself where I am, now.

In 2016 I wrote 22k words for NaNoWriMo: a failure. I went on to write another 20k words in December and another 16k words in January and finished the first draft of a book that comes out in less than four months.

This year, I will probably hit 20,000 words. I can’t write 1,667 words a day anymore, but I can write 500. I can write 1000.

So I will keep writing, 500-1000 words a day, throughout December. And I will keep writing, 500-1000 words a day, throughout January. And I will finish a first draft. It won’t matter in a year that it took me three months instead of one month to write that draft. The time will pass. The only thing that will matter is that I wrote a book.

I wouldn’t call that failure.

Chronicles of Ghadid Trilogy, The Perfect Assassin (Book 1), Writing

April Snow Showers Bring May… Final Drafts?

Evidence of said April snow.

Well, one can hope!

I’ve been down on myself a lot during this particular writing process. I feel like my first draft was wildly different from my draft zero, which of course was the most awful awful that ever awfuled. And my first draft still has a lot of problems. How could I have been so far off? How could I need so much rewriting, and now, so much editing? I thought I’d come so far as a writer, and yet –

Despondent, I picked through the old drafts folder for the Impossible Contract. I rediscovered its draft zero and idly skimmed through it – and was quickly surprised by what I found. My fond memories of the process, where everything went smoothly from the very beginning, complete with candy and unicorns, were 100% incorrect. No, it hadn’t gone smoothly. No, I hadn’t known what I was doing from page one. No, it hadn’t been a neater process than the one I’m going through now. I’d still needed to rewrite and rethink my draft zero going into my first draft and my first draft going into my final draft.

If anything, that draft zero was more of a mess than this one. For instance, Amastan, a side character in TIC who is the main character in Book One originally didn’t even exist. And yet, that draft zero still became a book that I’m proud of.

And I’ve been bemoaning the fact that I’m struggling a bit with this ending, but how did the draft zero of TIC end? “Rocks fall, everybody dies.” Not even kidding.

So okay. I’m willing to admit that the despondency is just a part of the process. That my draft zeros are always a mess – and that’s okay. It’s to be expected, even.

Just remind me of this when I’m neck-deep in Book Three, mmkay?


And now we have the current progress on Book One, working title Redacted, the story of a historian turned assassin turned detective who’s more than just a little tired of this shit. Now with more! angry spirits, angry drum chiefs, and angry cups of tea. J/k on the cups of tea. Of course tea can’t feel anger. Everybody knows tea only feels contempt.

Chapters: 8 chapters out of 30 edited

Current word count: 19,500 out of 100,000

Scenes Changed: 5

Cups of Tea, consumed by characters: 1

Cups of Tea, consumed by Author: 12

Bees?: None. Most pollination is done by flies in this world.

Work In Progress, Writing

The Writing Process Blog Tour

My awesome writing buddy Lora recently tagged me in the writing process tour. We met a few years ago in this here desert and I never let her go. Lora writes YA novels and literary short stories and is currently working on a sci-fi YA adventure. She just finished her latest draft and I am ridiculously excited for her.

The questions!


What am I currently working on?

A young assassin is forced into an uneasy alliance with a fastidious necromancer when an ancient, malevolent power rises from the sand wastes and threatens to usurp Death itself.

I’ve had the main characters in my mind ever since last October, but no plot to speak of. Three weeks ago I went for a run and returned home with not only a plot, but a culture, a world, and a whole lotta hijinks. I’ve labeled it adventure fantasy in my head, to remind myself that first and foremost this story is supposed to be fun, but we’ll see how it actually ends up; I have a tendency to make things dark. So far it has camels, lesbian romance, a city in the sky, sand demons, and vast amounts of undead.


How does my work differ from others of its genre?

The story is a confluence of a bunch of things I’ve been wanting to write for some time now, all of which are themes/relationships/settings I would like to, but don’t often, see in high fantasy.

One of which is a non-hetero romance that fits into the story just like a hetero one might, with all the traditional trappings and clichés. Most (all) of the stories I’ve read that include a non-hetero relationship/romance tend to fall into two categories: the relationship happens entirely off-screen or it’s so terribly star-crossed and angsty and painful/wonderful that it wraps the story around itself, instead of the other way around. These stories have their places, of course, and I don’t fault anyone for writing/liking them (I have written my fair share…), but I’m just in a place where I want to write it as normal as I feel it.

The other is having a distinctly non-medieval European setting and culture. My first high fantasy, although less medieval and more ancient Rome, still relied heavily on that typically verdant, quaint, peasanty and white default, complete with a Roman-like pantheon and myths. Granted, I set out with the intention to use my Classics degree while writing it, but this time I wanted to stretch myself and see how far I could get from that typical setting. Now I have vast stretches of open desert, sand demons and wind gods, Monsoon festivals, and city-state politics. I’ve been reading about and borrowing heavily from the cultures living within the Sahara and learning so much about sand dunes.


Why do I write what I write?

Because the one time I tried to write something other than fantasy, it still turned into fantasy.  While I enjoy reading almost everything under the sun, but what I really enjoy writing always has fantastical elements.

Otherwise, I write what I want to read, and what I hope others want to read.


How does my Writing Process work?

Character first. Always. An interesting character hits me, sometimes coupled with an equally interesting scene or concept. That will stay with me for a while until the vague promise of a plot beckons. Then I start the first draft or – as I prefer to call it – draft zero. This is my planning and plotting process, where I simply go through and write the whole thing as quickly as possible. I’ve since realized that my draft zero is basically a really long, fleshy outline and discovery process. I try to fly through this part and it usually takes 2-3 months, writing a specified amount every day, rain or shine. When it’s finished, I know everything about my characters and plot. Or, close enough to everything.

Then I let the draft sit for a month or two while I work on something else. After it’s fermented properly, I’ll read it through, making notes as I go. If I’m going to, I usually write an actual outline at this point. Then I completely rewrite it. A lot of the key plot elements often remain, but everything else is up for revision. I typically end up tacking on an additional 20% in words. This round typically takes 3-5 months and I don’t write every day.

Depending on how I feel after I’ve rewritten it, I may beta the story at this point. That means finding a handful of friends, online and off, who are willing to read it through and point at my weaknesses. If I don’t feel like it’s strong enough, I’ll go back through it again from the beginning, taking the time to map out what I feel is wrong and repositioning plot elements as needed.

Either way, after sending it to friends or combing through it again, I let it rest again. Work on something else. When the betas get back, I go at it again. Revise. Rest. Resend.

At some point I will (hopefully) feel like I have done all that I can and the story is complete. If I still like it and feel confident that it’s any good, I’ll write my query and synopsis and begin researching agents. If I don’t, I’ll table it, maybe revisit it in a few years when I’m a stronger writer.


MJ Belko writes children’s books and has (somewhat) recently returned to writing after too many years away. She likes her children’s stories to contain talking animals and rhyme, preferably together. She has a few of them up on her blog for reading if you’re interested. I don’t know her too well, but I’m hoping to know more soon.