This post was reblogged from the South Jersey Writers’ Group blog.
It’s the end of November, and I’m feeling like I do every November. Worn out, run down, a little (or a lot) overwhelmed and a just a tetch grouchy, probably due to too much caffeine and staying up too late to write.
Every November is like this, though, since I started doing NaNoWriMo. If you’re not familiar, National Novel Writing Month is held every November. The goal is to write 50,000 words in the month of November. This averages to 1667 words a day, which, depending on the kind of mood I’m in, takes anywhere from an hour & a half to an entire weekend. It’s an intense exercise in setting and meeting goals, and a fantastic excuse to not clean your kitchen for the sake of “being a writer.”
I’ve been putting myself through this every November since 2005, with slowly increasing success. I didn’t win for the first four years; I fell short of the 50,000 word minimum for four years in a row. This was probably due to the same writers’ block that had stopped me from ever really writing anything, aka “perfectionism.” So in 2009 I gave myself an ultimatum: write 50,000 words this year, or never do this again.
But I couldn’t help it, the wackiness is addicting. The write-anything-just-get-the-words-out mentality. The complete strangers (and sometimes friends) you write with who throw out a character name or the right turn of phrase when you need one. I was finally able to break through the hangup of “I’m too good of a writer to write a story with bad grammar” (pun intended) and just emptied my brain on paper.
I can’t imagine a non-noveling November. So with the ultimatum, I won in 2009, and I’ve won every year since. And I’m 12,000 words behind, but I’ll win again. (Thanks to having a no-travel Thanksgiving and Black Friday off!)
Of course, the “winning” is arbitrary. What do you win? You win a cheesy certificate that you can type your name in, and it’s signed by the NaNoWriMo people. I did win 50% off Scrivener, so that was nice, but when non-noveling friends ask me what the payoff is, I inevitably feel a little silly. It’s just the accomplishment. It’s a deadline, a reason to put your life on hold and prioritize your big, scary, pie-in-the-sky dreams for awhile. And it’s the one time all year where you don’t have to worry about grammar and punctuation and spelling and even things like quotation marks and capital letters. Freedom to write, freedom to scribble and scrawl whatever I can think of to continue moving the story forward in whatever way I can.
Finally, after eight years of taking on this crazy challenge, I’ve figured out that November, for me, is writing the backstory and developing the characters. The plot doesn’t have to progress, it almost doesn’t matter what happens. If you get stuck, just end the scene and start a new one. All the issues that held me back when I tried to write, such as “transitions” and finding the perfect character or place name, suddenly didn’t matter, in the face of such an intense deadline. And with grit and determination, lots of coffee, and some fabulous writing buddy encouragement, I’ve managed to win every year since 2009.
So four years of winning means I have four, er, collections of words, loosely gathered under one umbrella of an idea, usually about the same characters from start to end. (And at least three of them end with, “and then the zombie apocalypse happened. The end.”) But it doesn’t matter what those words say, really. What matters is that I made the commitment and achieved the end result. I wrote every day (or almost). I developed a story idea that I never would have taken the time to write otherwise. Or rather, I took some action on a story idea I would have thought about for years, but everything else would have gotten in the way of actually writing it. The bottom line though, as Papa Hemingway allegedly declared, “The first draft of anything is s—.” So why not just do it in a month and get it over with?
After NaNoWriMo 2012, four years of so-called victory, I finally joined a critique group, and committed to editing one of my stories, providing a chapter a month to other writers. That was hard too, but it’s just another side effect of being a writer. If you want to be published, someone is going to have to read your story eventually, and they’ll probably tear it all apart. So why not start with some friendly reviews? (More on that in a future blog post.)
At any rate, in the past year, I’ve realized that editing is really what I like to do. 50,000 words of world-building and character development is not publishable, sure, but it’s a great start to a novel. It has occurred to me that the NaNoWriMo draft–or, as Chuck Wendig calls it, “Draft Zero“–is a lot like making the clay that an artist will sculpt with. The NaNoWriMo words are just a starting point. They’re a little rough, not very pretty. They might be falling apart a little, maybe need a little more kneading so they hold together better. But eventually, I’ll mold them into a story that somewhat resembles my original concept, although hopefully better, more developed, and even more fun. (Note: Chuck Wendig is very funny, and very useful, but he uses very naughty language.)
I still have those four unfinished NaNo novels (well, three of them at least, one is MIA, to the point that I actually forgot what it was about). They still have promise, and I’d love to revise them eventually too. But for now, I’d better get back to this year’s project, still 12,000 words short of a victory. But even if I do fall short with only four days to go, my Thanksgiving will consist of noveling instead of football, extra coffee, and giving thanks for chasing big dreams and reaching impossible goals.