Most of you reading this may not be aware that November is National Novel Writing Month, affectionately called NaNoWriMo. Freelance writer Chris Baty started the project in July 1999 and since the launch it has grown to 323,039 participants this year. Without me, only 323,038 would have been involved–a certain disappointment.
The challenge looks like this: Write a novel of at least 50,000 words. A common question when the uninitiated ask about this is, “How long is 50,000 words?” For reference, Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, and Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. are all novels of that length. It’s not War and Peace, but it’s enough to put on a bookshelf and read the title on the side binding.
I started writing on November 1st, and maintained a gradually slowing pace through the first 20 days of the month, at which point my progress turned to stone as I glanced back at the glory days of my first few inspired pages of writing.
By the end of the month, I had 20,268 words toward a novel.
“Holy crap, you wrote over 20,000 words?”
“Uh, yeah, it was supposed to be 50,000.”
“But 20,000! That’s really quite an accomplishment for someone who has never written a novel before.”
“Uh, yeah, it was supposed to be 50,000. I think you are missing the point.”
“Hm. Sounds like you are, actually.”
The fictional person in that conversation is right. I’ve had an idea for a novel in my head for the last five years and in that amount of time I have spent exactly three hours writing that novel. Three out of 26,297 possible hours were spent working on turning the idea into a story. My word count was at about 896 and stayed there for five years. That’s what leads me to the first big win of NaNoWriMo:
I started writing. I talk a lot about ideas I want to implement “soon,” “one day,” or “eventually.” My explorations are usually limited to that initial stage, BEFORE a pen hits the paper. And I can spend loads of time in that stage. It’s so unencumbered by accountability and risk! I love it!
However, NaNoWriMo got in my face and said, “I dare you to write. Enough chatter. Make something and risk looking stupid. You have 30 days. GO!”
So I did. I wrote a novel!
CORRECTION: I wrote part of a story, or part of what might turn into a story, or about 10 different stories that should feel more connected. My “novel” is disjointed, slow to develop, and without direction, but I’ve taken it out of incubation and it now has real, live words!
A second big win is more of a thing learned: if I want to get down to writing a first draft, I have to quiet my inner editor. Then, after he won’t shut up, I have to retrieve a blunt object and club him into submission. It’s not pretty, but he’s a persistent booger. When laying out the story, I found it best to stay with the flow of writing and imagining, instead of nitpicking commas and adjectives. The result was what Anne Lamott calls the “shitty first draft.” In my case, I’d call it a shitty rough draft of a first draft. But it’s also something to work with, compared to what I had before November one, twenty thirteen.
The other big win is the moderately-effective confidence boost I’ve gained. In the middle of my emotional valley of discouragement after not finishing, a twig of confidence sprung up from the cracks. It may be small, but it’s given me the charge I needed to get started during focused writing times. Some of what I wrote was actually, um, dare I say it… decent. I looked back at some of those passages as a signpost, pointing to the possibility of success.
I’m calling January NaFiYoNoMo (National Finish Your Novel Month) so I will revisit my novel in the next few weeks and see if I can make sense of anything. I didn’t get the “winner” badge from NaNoWriMo because I was short of the 50,000-word goal, but participating in NaNoWriMo was a great decision and I hope to do it again next year.