What I Learned From NaNoWriMo

Photo credit: Doree Weller

Photo credit: Doree Weller

I joined NaNoWriMo about 4 years ago, and I’ve never “won.”

For those of you who don’t know it, NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month, and it challenges writers to complete a novel in the month of November.  It calls a novel 50,000 words, which is 1,667 words a day.

In the past four years, my commitment has varied, but I’ve tried to do it, and each time I’ve failed.

This year, I went into it determined to just get words on paper.  I wasn’t going to worry about whether or not they were good, but just go for quantity.  Some writers encourage this practice because just writing can be a key to creativity, and they say that it can override the self-consciousness that holds some writers back.

In past years, I haven’t been able to finish because I struggled over what to write.

You see, I have a problem with middles.  I do beginnings great, and endings well, but the middle gets me stuck.  I’m not the only writer with that problem.  I remember back when I attended a writer’s conference, they called it “Muddle in the Middle.”

I had written 15,000 words of this novel, and it wasn’t working.  I knew it was bad, and I didn’t like where the plot was going, but I decided to go with it, because the idea was just to get 50,000 words on paper in November.  It didn’t feel right to me, but I wanted to try it.

Then I went to a meeting of my writer’s group.  Another group member, who did not know I was doing NaNoWriMo mentioned that he was going to start submitting his finished novel to agents in December, because in reading agents’ blogs, they were inundated with garbage novels after NaNoWriMo.  The other group member made some disparaging comments about NaNoWriMo.

I heard other things that night that made me doubt myself.  Other group members had criticisms that hurt me personally.  Usually, I can take criticism without taking it personally (it took a LOT of practice, believe me), but on this particular night, I couldn’t separate it from myself.

I was sad that following week, and did a lot of soul searching.  I stopped working on my NaNoWriMo novel.  I even thought about giving up writing completely; it all felt kind of pointless.

But when I got over feeling sorry for myself, I started to look at some things with myself and my writing.

I’ve known for a long time that I’m not disciplined or organized in any aspect of my life, and I’ve used the excuse that “I’m creative” to get out of considering to do things differently.

I read a bunch of writer’s blogs and information from various sources.  I took notes on what I read and really thought about it.  I realized that I haven’t treated this process as if I’m serious about it.  I’ve done some of the work, but not enough.

NaNoWriMo is great for people struggling with self-doubt, who need to get practice getting words on paper.  I’ve read that you need 10,000 hours of practice to “master” anything.  NaNoWriMo can be helpful at getting some of those hours.

I’ve written 3 novels completely.  The first one wasn’t good.  The second was better.  The third will be publishable once it’s edited heavily.  I have seven unfinished novels.  When I counted them up and really thought about that number, I realized that there’s something wrong with my process.  I like the ideas of each of those novels, so why haven’t I finished them?  What happens is that I get an idea and get excited about it, then put words on paper without any clear idea of how I’m going to get from A to Z.  It’s less exciting when I need to get down to figuring out how the dots connect, so I move on to a different project.

One of my favorite quotes is:

“Amateurs wait for inspiration.  The rest of us just get up and go to work.”  -Chuck Close

I’ve been quoting that for years, but I’m not sure I ever really thought about what it meant.  Once I did that soul searching, I realized that my lack of discipline is a serious problem.  I saw myself waking up one day 10 years from now and looking at my dozens of unfinished novels, wondering why I’m no further along in my writing career than I was when I was 8 years old.

Something had to change.

As I said, I started reading, because that’s what writers do when stuck; they read.  And I journaled.  And talked to a friend.  Doing those three things helped me realize that I’ve been a lazy writer.  Because I’m good at it, I didn’t feel like I had to do any work on it.  And if I started novels and didn’t finish them, I just hadn’t found the right idea, right?

Wrong.

My major problem is that I don’t map out stories before I start.  I get an idea and I start them with no clear idea of where I’m going.  I like to let the characters lead, but letting the characters lead doesn’t mean that I don’t have to know what the path looks like and the destination.  Knowing the path doesn’t mean they can’t take the scenic route or choose the fork in the road; it just means that I have to have an idea of the direction they’re going in.

The question I had to ask myself was, “Why do I write?”  First and foremost, I write for myself.  I write because I love it, because I have stories to tell, and I want to tell them.  I want to know what happens next.  But I also would like to be published, mostly because I want to share my stories.  If I live until 100 and never get anything published, I’ll be disappointed, but I’ll probably still write.  I don’t know if I could stop if I tried.  🙂

I’ve always been a fan of Query Shark, as the query letter is my nemesis.  One of the things she says is that every word must be the right word.  Dean Koontz says something similar.  His writing process is to polish every page and examine every word until he moves on in the story.  I’ve been reading those two pieces of information for years, and I don’t think I ever really understood them.  As a writer, it is my responsibility to make sure the work says what I want it to say.

That disappointing week was difficult for me, but I’m proud of myself, that I was able to really look at what hurt me and learn from it.  When my first novel is finally being published, I know that I’m going to look back on that week and realize that was a turning point for me, and my taking a hard look at myself will be what makes it possible.

I didn’t “win” NaNoWriMo, but I won something much more valuable.

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