Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Do You NaNoWriMo?

In just a few short weeks, writers from all over the world will be coming together for National Novel Writing Month, the 50k30day fiction frenzy that is NaNoWriMo. I shall, as I have for almost a decade now, be among them.

Once upon a time, I was a one-day novelist. As in “one day I’d love to write a novel, but. . .” I used to toy with the idea of writing a novel. Some days I would get so caught up by a story idea I had in my head that I would actually sit down at the computer and write a few pages. It felt wonderful and brilliant and I always left those random writing sessions energized and eager for more.

And then the next day I would sit down and open the beautiful pages I’d written and. . .  rip them to shreds. I’d edit them and tweak them and rewrite them, agonizing over them for day after day after day, unable to let it go because they just weren’t quite perfect yet. And after a few weeks or so of going over the same two pages over and over again, I’d get bored and frustrated. I’d delete the whole damn thing and go back to my day job, “cured” once again of the delusion that I could write novels.

And one time after one of these bouts of not-quite noveling, which happened to occur in mid-October of that year, I was feeling so frustrated and angsty that I decided to vent my feelings about the whole sad state of affairs onto the internet. And a friend of mine, upon seeing the post, commented something along the lines of, “Hey, have you heard about this thing called NaNoWriMo? I did it last year and it was great. It’s starting again in a few weeks. I think you’d like it.”

So I checked it out and I dithered about it for a week or so and then finally decided to give it a try. And so began the first draft of what became book one of the epic trilogy of doom.

I did not “win” that year. I only managed to get about 35,000 words, and, even through the sugar/caffeine/creation high, I could tell most of them would have to go. There’s only so much sitting in a carriage surrounded by fog that one can put ones characters through and I’d gone well past that particular limit.

But something quite remarkable did happen during that otherwise fairly average November that makes me think of it still as one of my biggest wins ever. Several somethings, actually.

First, it became a part of my routine to write every day, to make it a priority rather than an afterthought, which was something I’d not been in the habit of doing since I was writing that first novel way back in middle school. They say it takes 21 days to make a habit, and NaNoWriMo gave me an extra 9 just to really make it sink in.

Second, I got past page two of the novel and learned how to stop doubting the words to death. How to just get them out onto the page to be revised later. Because, as we all know, you can revise just about anything except a blank page.

And third, probably most importantly, I remembered that writing was fun and realized that it was what I wanted to be doing for the rest of my life.

I’d considered writing as a career before, but I’d always let fear and self-doubt convince me that it was something I just couldn’t do. Writing was for other people, better people, people who were way more creative than me. But I’d let a few of my friends read along as I was working that November (a practice I don’t actually advise, but I was young and full of stupid back then) and most of them told me there was a lot of good in there and encouraged me to stick with it.

Ah, external validation. Something I’m pretty sure most, if not all, writers crave on about the same level as oxygen or caffeine or sex.

I’ve kept at it every year, through lots of ups and downs in my career. Even when my oldest daughter was a newborn, I tried to fiddle with a story during November. This year will be my eighth go. I love the rush, I love the spirit, and I love the people I’ve met along the way. I learn something new about my process every single time and I always come to the end of the month with a renewed excitement about writing.

If you’re thinking about trying NaNoWriMo out yourself, here are some of the things I’ve learned over the years.

1) Join your local region and go to some write-ins and events. Writing is very lonely sometimes and writing 50,000 words in a month is a challenge. You can get caught up in it pretty easily. It’s nice to have people who understand what you’re going through because they’re going through it too. Even if you just hang out in a corner with your laptop and pretend to ignore everyone else there, you can still get a little bit of comfort out of the knowing you’re surrounded by people who love words just as much as you do.

Also, I always get more writing done in an hour at a write-in than I ever do at home. There’s a great kind of communal creative energy at a write-in that I’ve never found anywhere else. And it’s unlikely you’ll ever have another opportunity to be in a social setting where it’s totally acceptable to sit quietly typing for 20 minutes and suddenly blurt out something like, “Does anyone know how long it would take to set a body on fire with one of those crème brulee torch thingies?”

2) Use NaNoWriMo to network, either through the forums on their site or through the write-ins or whatever. I met some of my closest friends and every single one of my critique partners through NaNoWriMo. There are people involved in this program from every level of writing. Big-name bestselling authors participate. Steady midlisters. Writers who have just broken into publishing and writers who are still hoping to get there someday. Folks with no publishing ambitions at all. People who have never written a word of fiction before in their lives. Find other wrimos who like writing the way you like it and connect.

3) The writing is the important part. Don’t sweat the winning and losing. I’ve only “won” NaNoWriMo twice. I’m hoping this year makes three, but I’m not going to be crushed if it doesn’t work out. As much as I love NaNoWriMo and all the hard work the folks over at the Office of Letters and Light put into it, it’s important to remember that this is a “fake” contest and the big grand prize at the end is a certificate you print out and fill in yourself. The goal and the deadline are just there to give you a direction and a kick in the pants. There’s no million dollars of prize money or the eternal approval of your parents on the line here. It’s not worth shredding your self-esteem, or losing your job, or making yourself sick, or some other damn fool thing over.

Also, going along with this, don’t cheat. Seriously. It may sound silly now, but every year we get to the fourth week of the month and I hear people talking about how they copied and pasted their work emails or their math homework into their writing file so they could boost their word counts. I spoke to a guy once who literally typed every word into his document twice for the last ten days because he was so worried about failing to hit that glorious 50k. I really just don't get the point of cheating, especially at something that is mostly about giving you an internal sense of accomplishment.

NaNoWriMo is supposed to be fun and helpful. Don’t ruin the experience for yourself by making the word count more than it is. REMEMBER: The writing is the important part.

4) Don’t be afraid to try new things and learn about your process. I learn new things about what works for my writing and what doesn’t every single year. Are you a plotter or a pantser? Don’t know? Now’s a good time to find out. Have a character floating around in your mind but you’re not quite sure what to do with her? Plunk her down in your novel and let her run around a bit. She might not fit there, but you’ll find out a lot about her that you can use later. Do you write better in the morning or a night or in the middle of the afternoon? At your desk or in the coffee shop down the street or barefoot on the back porch? Test them all out next month and see what you come up with. (Except for that last one if you happen to live in a colder climate. November can be raw and not really good for bare feet.) Follow plot bunnies, chase little snippets of ideas, give yourself the freedom to step outside your comfort zone and get completely immersed in the creative side of the process. The pace will keep you going and even if things get totally wonked up, it won’t matter as long as you keep moving forward.

5) Leverage the internet WISELY. There are sites that can help you tremendously when you’re writing. I’m a big fan of Dr.Wicked’s Write or Die when I need to churn out a large chunk of text in a small chunk of time. Social media can help too. @NaNoWriMo does a lot with word sprints and such on Twitter during November and #1k1hr has at least a few people checking in and challenging one another pretty much 24/7. (I actually try to do #1k1hr a couple times a week all year long, not just during November.)

But there’s also a lot of temptation there. Who hasn’t lost a whole Saturday afternoon clicking their way through Wikipedia? Or Google Earth? You just went on there to find out what that creepy run down hotel you saw while driving through the Catskills was called and the next thing you know you’re checking out the location of every laundromat in upstate New York.

Make a note, do a quick check, set a timer if you have to, but don’t get bogged down in this kind of thing. It sounds like productive research time in your head, but 99.9% of the time it’s just another means of procrastination. Words read in cyberspace don’t end up in your word count. If you find yourself falling down the research rabbit hole, just put the mouse down and back away from the internet.

I have more, but this post is getting long enough to be its own NaNoWriMo project. I’ll probably come back to this topic a few times over the next two months though, so I’m going to give it a rest for now. Go forth and sign up if you haven’t already. And if you have, feel free to add me as a writing buddy. I had to create a new profile this year and so I have the saddest little buddy list ever at the moment.

So how about it? Are you in?

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