Okay, NaNoWriMo folks, are you almost there? Are you sweating it the last few hours, sprinting toward the 50,000-word finish line? I’ll come right out and say I’m not. I cannot imagine sitting down one day to start writing a book and, thirty days later, finishing a 50,000-word novel. But that is just what NaNoWriMo (or National Novel Writing Month) authors do every November.
I’m more like an InNoWriDe (Independent Novel Writing Decade) person. I have started more novels than I care to remember. I’ve “finished” three, but I don’t know if I’ll ever feel like they’re complete unless and until I publish them. And even then, there are very well-known authors who revise and republish books years after publication.
The first draft of the first novel I ever finished took nine months. I didn’t have a deadline in particular, although I did have a daily goal. Every night, I wrote longhand, one side of a college-ruled sheet of paper. (Yes, I love writing longhand. Not for everything, of course. Takes longer, but there is something visceral and satisfying about it.) Sometimes I wrote much more, but sometimes it was a slog. I wrote lousy exposition that I knew wouldn’t make it to the next revision because it simply got me to the next plot point.
More recently, I joined a short-term writing group, and we called ourselves the Spartan 300. Our goal: to write 300 words per day, six days a week. I know that 300 words don’t sound like a lot, but when you’re so busy that you think you don’t have the time to write at all, it’s a good place to start.
Compare that to the daily 1,667 words a NaNoWriMo writer must get on paper to create a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. I feel like a wimp. I would love to write in such quantities–well, let me rephrase and say write something good in such quantities. But even if I ironed out my schedule and had a plan, one part that would drive me nuts is waiting until November first. What if I had a great idea in August and then had to wait three months to start writing? Notes, outlines, and research are all allowed, but no prose, no narrative. (Check out all the guidelines at nanowrimo.org.)
But then the opposite problem can also happen. What if your idea factory is empty on day one? Or what if, around 40,000 words, you hit writer’s block? Do you take the day off and pray for inspiration? Write “watermelon” 1600 times? (Somehow, I don’t think that counts.) What usually happens when I start a novel is I write like crazy for weeks or even months, but then I lose the thread. I look around and think, Someone really needs to finish writing this novel so I can know what happens next.
Encouraged by NaNoWriMo, I decided that I would make myself do some form of career-oriented writing every day. Journaling is a necessity, but it doesn’t count toward my quota. I have to blog or edit or write new material for one of my on-going works of fiction. I figured if I could type 1600 words of new blogs daily, I could have a year’s raw material available at the end of a month. But the perfectionist in me couldn’t leave well enough alone, so while I’ve written plenty, it’s been a lot of re-writing. And on top of that, why, oh why, did I resolve to do this in November? There are a million things going on, from my elder son’s birthday and a busier work schedule to Thanksgiving break and holiday shopping–plus all the usual distractions. I suppose there will never be a time, when I can look at a calendar and find a month when I can block off a couple hours for writing every day. I would have to quit my job, quit volunteering, quit being a mother, something. Yet NaNoWriMo is for anyone, not just people with big blanks in their schedules. This is what amazes me. Stay-at-home moms, corporate job dads, students, retirees–people of all walks of life and experience levels sign up, and my proverbial hat’s off to them.
I imagine, after a month of concentrated writing, you have mixed feelings at the end. Remember how it feels to finish reading a riveting book? Life outside the story goes on, even though it hurts to put away something in which you’ve invested a lot of time and emotion. You’re glad you finally know how it ends, can’t stop thinking about it, and feel a bit empty because you’re supposed to move on. (Sometimes I fail miserably and jump right back in to my favorite fictional world du jour.) The same thing goes for writing. When I finished the first draft of that first novel, I was proud of myself for making it all the way through, a bit sad that I was done with the initial outpouring of creativity, but excited because the story wasn’t over. (Those other two novels I’ve finished? Books two and three of the series. The fourth is still a work-in-progress.)
The goal of NaNoWriMo is output, not a polished gem of a book. So you write your 50,000-word (or more) novel. You cross the finish line, maybe limping or tripping over hanging prepositions, but you make it. What comes next? Do you look at it, see that (like me) you had to write a lot of crap in the process of telling your story, and throw it in a drawer where no one will ever see it? Do you show it to everyone you know, proud of your achievement? Do you say, “Yay for me. Now onto the next challenge”?
The best reaction I’ve heard was from my friend Ruthanne, who had a very valid reason to give up (a nasty virus that has persisted throughout most of the month), yet she finished–and early, too. About her NaNoWriMo experience, Ruthanne said, “I had a lot of fun and I learned a lot about myself in the process. Now I know I can do it and I know what’s easy for me and what’s hard. I wrote!! I didn’t just dream about writing: I wrote.” I hope those of you who took on the challenge, whether you achieved the word count goal or not, feel Ruthanne’s triumph–and continue to feel it. Don’t stop now! You’ve proven you can do it, so keep it up throughout the year (although you can ease off on the word count). And if I hear enough other raving reviews, maybe when the stars align, I will sign up for NaNoWriMo, too.