On conquering NaNoWriMo

29 November 2009
11:15 pm

nanowrimoNaNoWriMo has been an event that has intrigued me for a few years now. I've often thought of doing it but never actually committed the "thinking" into "doing," despite seeing it crop up every year in my friends' status updates on various social networking services. I admit to a certain level of elitism preventing me from getting involved, as well: NaNoWriMo has always seemed like an interesting idea, but in practice I always come off feeling that it's the sort of deal bored housewives do to make themselves seem more interesting– "I'm a novelist," etc. No, dear, you watch Oprah.

At any rate, sometime in October I decided to actually do it. I have been working on a science fiction novel for a few years now, routinely hitting writer's block so often that it never progresses anywhere. Part of this is my own damned fault; I'm obsessive compulsive to a relentless degree and I have an awful tendency to get a chapter written, then go back and work and rework that chapter into infinity to try and get it "perfect." I've been laboring under a delusion for so long that if I just get it done right the first time, there'll be no need for a second draft. While I know that this isn't how the writing (or publishing) process actually works, I've never been able to detach myself from the hang-up.

So NaNoWriMo is supposed to help with that: write a 50k-word novel in thirty days, doing nothing but writing the words and ignoring any attempts at editing. My OCD was railing in fear at the thought of it, but I thought that it would be a good exercise. At the very least if I could demonstrate to my consciousnesses that it can be done, I felt that it would be something I could apply to the "main" novel. While I had no intention to do my main story this month, at first I did intend to write something that could tangentially be included in the same universe as the main novel– very quickly, however, I scrapped that plan and in my only act of editing for the entire month of November, started over from scratch with a "fresh" story.

Early into this I was contemplating what I was doing and what the point of it was. I lost all interest in the actual story itself very quickly, and writing my daily word goal of 1666 words was more like going to the gym than anything I looked forward to doing. It was something I had to do or I felt bad about myself, not something I wanted to do or enjoyed doing. By 25k words, already well beyond anything I'd written concurrently in any one setting, I had decided that I wanted to shutter it entirely. I felt that my reasons for this were justified: unlike the vast majority of people who drop out of NaNoWriMo, I wasn't deciding to quit because I had gotten overwhelmed and was drowning in the reality of what I'd need to write to make up the difference– in actuality I had knocked out a very consistent 2k words every day, well ahead of where I had to be for a while. I just wasn't enjoying the story, and I'd already demonstrated to myself that there was something legitimate to the lesson NaNoWriMo was trying to teach; yes, I can actually get some writing done if I just write and stop worrying about going back and editing over and over. I was more interested in applying that lesson to a plot I actually cared about than the cliched, crappy spread of words before me. I credit Adam with guilt-tripping me into continuing; even though I felt as if I had stopped at 25k words I wouldn't have "lost," he kept pushing me to keep going anyway.

In the end, a day earlier than I had to have it finished, I completed my first 50k word NaNoWriMo novel. The official word count is 50,009, but Scrivener pegged it at 50,153. The discrepancy seems to be the NaNoWriMo checker counting hyphenated-words as one instead of two. Only one-in-five people actually hit the 50k goal in time, so at the very least I'm proud of myself for sticking with it this long.

I have also taken away some other things from this experience:

* My earlier opinion about people who participate in NaNoWriMo was unjustified. This was hands-down one of the most difficult things I've ever done before; the pace was grueling and even a focused attempt at hitting the daily word goal was still an hour or two of time out of my day– if I was lucky enough to have some inspiration working for me. Combined with all of the other writing I do and just the other general crap that I have to take care of in a day, it's not at all surprising that for many people real life overwhelms the event entirely.

* I completed my self-goal, to show myself that I can write a congruent story from start to finish. This was the big deal for me, because it's not something I've ever managed in the past. I have so many boxes full of great starts that petered off into nothingness, so for me to finally finish something was a level of awesomeness I don't have words for.

* The internet is extremely distracting; halfway through I decided to start taking my laptop to Starbucks and commandeer a table and power outlet for a few hours every day. I've become a fixture at the one nearest our apartment, with a couple employees working there going so far as to reserve a table for me by a power socket, checking in with me every time I come in to find out what the word count is at. Even taking my laptop to the couch wasn't sufficient– it's far too easy to turn the WiFi modem on and tell myself I'm just going to peek at websites for a bit– then hours later I've only written three words and am frustrated with myself. At least sitting in a coffee shop there were more hoops to get online, and this proved to be the necessary limitation that kept me from browsing the internet when I was supposed to be typing.

* While I'm not really happy with the story and don't consider this to be my best writing (and have really no interest in doing anything with this story now that it's totally finished) I am proud of myself for completing it. When I got to the last word of the story and typed the very satisfying "The End," it was an emotional experience I really didn't expect to be hit with. It was powerful enough that tears welled up in my eyes as I stared at my laptop LCD and hit save.

* Despite my happiness with completing this, I don't see myself doing this again next year. It was honestly exhausting, both mentally and physically. I give accolades to the people who not only participate in this year after year but also win; it's extremely impressive to a degree I underestimated before I started doing it myself. I look forward to applying this to my own story though; however, it will be at a much more relaxing daily word goal.

So without further ado, here is the story itself:

Within the Domain of Shadows, by Joshua Meadows. (Copyright caveat, while this is freely provided to anyone who wants to read it, it is still very much copyright 2009 Joshua Meadows and may not be used for any other purposes whatsoever without my express permission. Read it, tell me what you think, but it's my property.)

I haven't gone back to read any of this at all since starting it; there's no additional spell-checking other than what Scrivener flashed at me as I wrote, and I haven't made any attempt to edit anything at all. I again repeat my previous caveat that I don't feel that this was very good, but in the end that's not what the point of NaNoWriMo actually is. It certainly wasn't for me; I didn't start the month of November setting out to create an amazing science fiction novel, but to prove to myself that I could start off writing a crap one. Baby steps are what NaNoWriMo is all about, from just a couple hundred words at a time into a two-hundred page story. That was the accomplishment I had put before myself, and it was immensely satisfying to achieve it.

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