If you’re like me, you’re asking, WTF is NaNoWriMo?
I was seeing this cryptic agglomeration on all sorts of writer-related messages coming to me in October, and finally curiosity got the best of me and I looked it up. NaNoWriMo translates to National Novel Writing Month. Oh. Got it. Pardon my ignorance. Here, you can look it up, too: //nanowrimo.org
The idea is to write a novel of at least 50,000 words in the 30 days of November, from the first day of November until midnight on the 30th day of the month. That’s an average of 1,667 words a day. Almost exactly the length of this posting. Not an impossible rate, but not a complete walk, either. It’s a world-wide event, not just national, and thousands of writers all over the globe participate, including the 57 signed-up here in the county in North-Central Florida where I live.
I’m no stranger to deadlines or cranking out a certain amount of words to order – someone else’s order or, more commonly in recent years, my own order. I’ve also written (depending on how you count them) two or three novels. None in a month, though I did write one of about 81,000 words in three months while housesitting in Honduras. As a poem I wrote when still in my 20s says, “I write best in borrowed rooms,” though there were no borrowed rooms involved in writing the NaNoWriMo novel.
You can read some chapters from that novel I wrote in Honduras on this blog.
I asked a writer friend and former editor of mine if she knew anything about NaNoWriMo. She had heard about it and said it seemed to be associated with turning out bad novels. Well, the word she used was stronger than that.
“I was going to do it, but couldn’t make the commitment,” she wrote me. “I do know that there is a lot of trash produced by this program.”
Not a great recommendation, but when I thought about it, the truth is there is a lot of trash produced by writers and would-be writers all the time, so why wouldn’t there be a lot turned out in NaNoWriMo? It didn’t mean I had to turn out trash, too. Of course, if I did, at least I’d have company.
Anyway, I got around to checking out NaNoWriMo three nights before Nov. 1 and decided to sign up. I’m not huge on group events, but doing that, to me, meant I was making a commitment. Then, immediately, the problem became, what novel would I write? I mean, to write a novel it should actually be about something, and that something should at least be worth writing, and reading, too, right? I came up with a list of five possibilities. I scratched a couple off the list almost right away and then agonized (to dramatize the process) over the other three. There was one I was leaning toward, but I have to tell you it was approaching midnight on Oct. 31 and I still hadn’t decided. Finally I made a command decision, picked that one I was leaning toward, and it was game on.
I got off to a slow start, just 900 words the first day. I resolved to write something every day, and I did on Day 2, too: 10 words. You read that right – 10 words. But I wrote something, as sparse as it was, and put it on my word-count tracker on the NaNoWriMo site, something I also did every day during the month. The third day I made up for lost time, some of it, anyway: 3,118 words. One thing I was finding was that it was hard to maintain a consistent word count with everything going on in my life at the same time, plus Thanksgiving which landed during the month, and associated out-of-town travel. There was a 3,985-word day, but there was a 63-word day, too. On Nov. 9 I was a writing animal, turning out a 2,024-word posting for my non-fiction blog and then another 1,945 words on my novel. Just shy of 4,000 words, not counting all the words in all the messages I sent that day.
So why all this talk of word counts? It’s what gets to the heart of NaNoWriMo. Looking at that word count every day keeps you moving forward. At one point I described it as like a gun being held to one’s head. The objective isn’t quantity over quality, though at times it felt that way, but rather to stifle the writer’s urge to edit and re-write in the first draft. To turn off the internal editor. That’s one of those things that interferes with getting the story out and serves to stymie many writers. Phrased another way, one can’t let the perfect get in the way of the good enough. Later, there will be time to edit and re-write. The months of January and February are set aside for that. Meanwhile, I had to keep reminding myself, get it out. Get it out. Keep going. Get it out.
One of my non-writer friends criticized the process, saying it killed imagination. My response was that not writing at all kills imagination. Writing is the act of creating. No words, imagination or not, nothing turns up on the page, no creation. I found reminding myself that I was telling a story helped me stay on track. But parts of the story came to me at different times. Without a deadline I would have been tempted to fret over that and procrastinate over the parts that didn’t come to me. Instead, I started writing chapters as they came to me with the plan to put them in order at the end. That’s what I did, and kept writing, though in the end the chapters were almost in the right order.
There is this social component to NaNoWriMo where there are local get-togethers and writing sprints and writing buddies and all that. I don’t know. To me there are few things more private and anti-social than writing. I had no interest in any of those social things, and if anything I can’t help but think that they would slow someone down rather than urge them on. Maybe there are people those things help, but I’m not one of them. And as for critiques, at this point I don’t need to hear why my novel is or isn’t good, bad, or indifferent. There will be time for that later.
So now here’s the buried lead, to use a journalism term: Why did I participate in NaNoWriMo? Because it got me writing again. That’s it. That was the reason. If you look at this blog, you’ll see it’s been months – five months and 14 days, to be exact – since I last posted anything on it. To say my writing was stalled would be an understatement. I’ve posted some things on my other blog, but they are non-fiction and analysis, not the fiction that I want to be writing. Or say I do. Who knows how long I might have gone on like that. Not writing becomes a habit, just as writing does. I’ve had years of writer’s drought, and I certainly don’t want more of those. So NaNoWriMo was the excuse I needed – the kick in the ass is closer to it – to get me writing again. And it worked.
The other thing, a byproduct of the process, is that it got me to write the novel I long wanted to write on a certain story line, but probably never would have were it not for NaNoWriMo. I’m especially happy about that.
There were times during the month I felt I was writing drivel. And sometimes I probably was. But without the luxury of going back and reading what I’d written and fretting over it, I really didn’t know. In the last two days I needed to put the chapters in order, and I felt compelled to go through them all and fill plot holes and look for inconsistencies. I figured, correctly as it turned out, that even though it was a kind of re-write it would give me the words I needed to meet the 50,000-word objective. It did that, and then some, but what surprised me was how well the novel read, how well it told the story. It’s a helluva lot better than I thought it was, and I can’t say for sure, but I think it exceeds by a decent margin the “trash” bar. In fact, I think it would make a pretty good movie, too.
I’m too close to it right now, so I can’t say much more than that at this point. I need to get some distance from it, and that’s why December is a cooling-off month. Then it’s down to the hard work of editing and re-writing and re-writing some more. I tend to be of the “I have spoken” school, so re-writing comes hard to me. But I think this novel can use lots of it. It also might be a bit short by publication standards for its category, so I may need to add to it. That remains to be seen.
As it turned out, I passed the 50,000-word bar about 2:30 in the morning of the 30th. I finally wrapped things up that afternoon, well before the midnight deadline. Total official word count: 51,362 words. Given my OCD and tendency to over-achieve, I needed to get past that 50,000-word minimum by a healthy margin and also to compensate for some words I had written prior to Nov. 1, which is in keeping with the NaNoWriMo rules. Of course, a few writers write multiple times the minimum. Most, by my calculation, never reach it, not even close — those 57 participants in this county averaged just 16,946 words for the month. But I wasn’t in this to compete with anyone but myself. Well, mostly not.
In case you are wondering, no, I won’t let you see the novel at this point or tell you specifically what it is about. But you can get a hint here.