Sometime last year, as my friend Denys was going through his second February Album Writing Month, I decided that I was going to participate in some creative insanity of my own. Come November, I vowed, I was tossing myself into National Novel Writing Month.
And I didn’t think about it again until October.
I had no ideas ready to write, and the ideas I had were either too complicated for something like NaNoWriMo or not the kind of thing I wanted to sacrifice on the alter of Many Words In A Month. At least, not on my first go round. For a couple of weeks, the NaNo vow teetered on the edge of Broken Before It Could Begin.
Then, about halfway through October, I was listening to This American Life on my ride into work. David Sedaris was talking about being unpopular in high school and about looking up to the popular kids who wanted nothing to do with him. At the end of the story, he said that the end of Segregation caused the flight of many of his school’s most popular kids to flee to private schools, leaving the few remaining top dogs to live like deposed monarchy in their own school.
The image of that grabbed me. I had my hook. NaNo was on.
For those who have never looked into NaNoWriMo, it’s pretty simple. The goal is to write 50,000 words during the month of November. You can do any outlining or pre-planning work your heart desires before November, provided none of the words you put down on paper actually go into the novel. I could write an in-character journal to prepare, but I couldn’t use anything from that journal in the novel itself. The whole thing breaks down to writing about 1,667 words a day.
That’s 69 words an hour, 1.2 words a minute or .02 words a second for one month straight. The goal is pretty simply, actually. The trick is that it’s a marathon, not a sprint, even if it looks like a sprint at first glance. You think, “Whoa, 50k words in 30 days! I need to step on it!” That’ll kill you in the first week. You need to find a pace that you can hit, know when to slow down on the days when life is washing over you and how much you can speed up to make up lost time. You aren’t putting the pedal to the metal, you’re making sure you neither exhaust yourself halfway through nor allow yourself to fall so far behind that there’s no catching up.
As you write, NaNo provides you with all the help it can. For me, the biggest help was the little word update box at the top of the screen where you could enter your total word count and see it reflected on a bar graph on your profile. There was also a cool chart that showed your progress through the month, showing a slowly raising series of bars as your word count went up day by day. That same chart was a real motivator when I got behind; seeing the chart stay flat for half a week had something like the effect of looking at my401k balance.
There’s also the community, both on the forum and in your area. In the forums, those looking for help can find people willing to offer plot suggestions or throw out writing challenges like “In your next chapter, include a dumptruck running over a Mini Cooper.” Anything to keep things moving. Also, every region has Municipal Liaisons who organize write-ins and events for everyone. They’ve gone through it before and are there to help out.
I didn’t use much beyond the little word update box, because I’m a lone wolf type, out on the empty road with nothing but a laptop and a Moleskine. But it was nice to know the stuff was there to help, and the one write-in I went to was fun despite being one of two people who showed up.
Because I came up with my idea a whole two weeks before NaNo started, I only had one goal going into the month: Hit 50k. It was as hard and fast a goal as I’ve set for myself in a while. I was getting to that number no matter how much I came to hate my novel.
And man did I come to hate it. I spend a lot of time thinking over stories before breaking out the laptop. I journal character and plot ideas, pace around my room with music blaring and have cut trailers to the potential movie adaptation in my head. This goes on for months. Years, sometimes. I shake out all of the crap. Smooth out the rough bits. When I get down to writing, I don’t want to be trying to figure out who my characters are. If I need to change directions, I want the core of the story so woven into my thoughts that I can rely on my instincts.
I had nothing close to this for NaNo. My novel, Memorial Day, was barely more than a couple of plot ideas and character backgrounds. I went into the first chapter without an attachment to my main character, and spent the rest of the novel struggling ineffectively to find her voice. I was never sure what I wanted the novel to feel like, never certain what the pacing should be or how to properly hurt my characters.
Yet, every day, I had a goal to reach. Every second I needed to be writing .02 words, or catching up on all the .02 words I hadn’t written in the hours before. I spent hours at my laptop, watching The West Wing out of the corner of my eye as I agonized over whether I had anything interesting to say for the next 1,000 words. In most stories, if a chapter wasn’t working I’d delete it and restart. In NaNo, the last thing you want to do is to move backwards, so no matter how bad the last 1,000 words were, you had to get the next 1,000 words out.
Near the middle of the month, I began flirting with insane, silly things to do to my novel to keep it going. I could introduce a trio of alien swordsmen who would…I don’t even know. Attack the school? Raise an army of zombies? Say “There can be only one!” a lot? I wanted my novel to remain consistent, even when crazy ideas would have made things easier, so I’d search for something just a bit less batty to get through.
That time I got through by writing my first sex scene, in case you’re wondering.
By mid month I had upped my goal to 2,000 words a day, hoping to finish with a few days to spare. As it always is, the ending of the novel was easier than the beginning, but not by much. 2,000 words a day is a lot if you’re working full time, especially when you’re writing something you no longer understand. Somehow, I crawled across the finish line on Black Friday, two days before the end of the month.
It was miserable at times, but it was never a waste. I wrote more in that month than I have in the past 2 years. Even 50,000 words of garbage is 50,000 words written. It’s a lesson many aspiring writers never learn. Written crap is worth more than imagined greatness. That’s the lesson of NaNoWriMo, and it’s a lesson you can’t learn by talking about it. You just have to go through it. Feel the difference between looking at a completed manuscript and thinking about this neat idea that you have that you might write one day and you’ll know what I mean.
So Memorial Day is garbage. No big deal. I’ll throw it in a shoebox for a couple months and look at it again. If it’s worth editing, I’ll take it on. If not, I still wrote more in a month than I have in 2 years.
There’s a second catch. Once you’re done with the marathon, you can’t kick back and relax. It’s no good learning that you can write a lot and write it consistently if you don’t keep doing it. It’s like pre-season training camp. It’s hard – harder, in some ways, than playing the actual games – but you come out in better shape than you’ve been in months. Being in shape doesn’t do you good unless you keep running.
Learn you can run and keep running. That’s what I got out of NaNoWriMo. I needed the reminder. If you need it, too, join up with me next year. I think I’ll be back.
Now everyone wave at Memorial Day while I bury the damn thing alive.