Wednesday, December 4, 2013

My First Successful NaNoWriMo Experience

I was trying to figure out earlier this week when I first heard of NaNoWriMo. I distinctly remember trying to write a book in high school or college that was simply a disaster in every conceivable way. It was a fantasy book that involved a bunch of mutated hybrid children who could see an army marching toward their desert village and didn't know what to do - real compelling stuff. I thought it was a NaNo project, but NaNoWrimo, or National Novel Writing Month, was launched locally in San Francisco in 1999, and didn't really reach national prominence until 2002 or so.

If you haven't heard of it yet, NaNoWriMo is a self-directed project to write a short novel, or short novel equivalent, over the course of the month of November. The idea is that a standard short novel is around 50000 words (which, while short for a novel, is actually around the length of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, and just a hair under the current young adult standard), and that, by writing just under 1700 words a day, the goal is achievable. The project is about quantity over quality to start - the belief that the major roadblock to getting a novel completed is the feeling that a full-length novel is unattainable and that, too often, writers get bogged down in rewrites and minutiae too early in the process. So, instead of trying to make a final draft the first time through, blast through the blocks and just knock out as many words as you can. Worry about the plot and characters and details and continuity later.

This year was the fourth time I tried to make NaNoWriMo work for me. For as much as I read, I was not someone who was very successful at long-form fiction on my own. This year, though, something changed for me, and it actually worked out.

To get to where I am now on this, I have to look back. My stupid high school/college book was just that - an incredibly dumb attempt I simply wasn't ready for, and when you're trying to get through college and you're commuting an hour each way daily plus working 30+ hours a week, it's just not really something that works out. When I graduated in 2003, though, I had gotten somewhat interested in religious mysticism and such, and inadvertently read Daniel Handler's Watch Your Mouth, which has a Jewish golem myth subplot involved. All of those things came together in my brain to write an unfortunate embarrassment of an attempt at a full-length science fiction book involving robots named after characters in Elvis Costello songs in Cambridge, MA. That partial manuscript is probably still floating around on the internet somewhere, but it's It's a good idea for a short story that I may use somewhere that isn't just an autobiographical main character with his robot friend, but by the time I stopped writing it, going back to it was a cringeworthy affair and put me off on writing for a while.

In 2008, I decided to try yet again. I literally had 300 words done before I gave up. That's all I remember from it, although at the time I was still considering trying to do a nonfiction biography I have also back-burnered, so at least I could rationalize having an excuse.

In 2011, I got another idea that I thought was actually really great, a Lovecraftian young adult combination of sorts. I started the first 1000 words on November first, did a Google search for some sort of Lovecraftian location and tripped up on a series being published by Random House that was essentially exactly what I wanted to do.

Needless to say, I felt like I was out of ideas and, worse, lacking any sort of real ability. Looking at my more recent attempt, I still didn't think I had much of any skill in the area and, frankly, with the number of books I read, I've seen books published that were pretty bad and didn't think I had to add to an already gluttonous market. I spoke with an author/publisher colleague a little before my last attempt, and he was very much of the "those who want to write should write, even if it's bad" and even referred me to some writing camps, which I thought was great, but then life got in the way, and that's how it goes.

This brings us to this year. I wasn't even considering diving in on NaNoWriMo. My life is really complicated with a new baby and some other adult responsibilities, and there's definitely some value to saying "you've wanted to do this since you were a teenager, and maybe it's time to accept that it's not going to happen." With that said, though, I felt like I got a really good, truly unique idea for a young adult novel literally during Halloween night(if there's any book that covers this ground, I haven't found it), and decided I was going to give it a shot.

First, about the modern NaNoWriMo. Their official website actually provides a lot of cool tools to use:

It's important to remember when you look at this that the project is about hitting very standard goals. The novel shouldn't be good yet, it should just be completed, or at least brought up to 50000 words. So right away, you can log your daily word count and it charts you on a visible graph. You can see there were a few days I didn't log due to travel, but overall, I was able to check my overall pace against the goal and push things forward. 50000 words is 1667 words a day, and I put this post together on Day 30 before I did any writing for myself, so you can see that my averages were down a bit, but my pace eventually got me to about 1728 words a day. On the nights I was away, I brought a keyboard with me and was actually banging out close to 3000 words a night.

This was incredible to me. Earlier this year, I read Stephen King's On Writing, where he noted that even getting 300 words a day on a page means you're writing more than a standard full length novel per year. The idea behind NaNoWriMo is to get you to put a lot of words out before you burn yourself out, but when it was put that way for me, 300 words is a reddit comment. I can pull that off. Heck, this entry so far is well over 1100 words. The idea that, if I really hunkered down and put some time in, that I could do 3000 words in maybe 2 hours? I was shocked.

The goals and the graphs, however, really bring the whole experience together. Coming back home and entering my updated count, and then seeing the "Words Per Day to Finish On Time" slowly keep dropping into finally three figures earlier this week was an amazing feeling. It's sort of the gameification of writing in a sense, but the idea that I no longer had to doubt that I could pull it off? Really liberating from a creation/arts standpoint. Even better, I felt like it came easy to me. Once I got into a groove, I felt like this wasn't so much a challenge as a goal. 2000 words in a night? No problem! When you can shift your mindset from something you have to do to just part of the routine, it's an incredible feeling. I bet I can picture a lot of the more successful creative-types nodding as they read this.

It wasn't all fun and games, though. If you've never tried to create a story from whole cloth before, it can sometimes be pretty mentally exhausting. As someone who reads a lot, my energy to read absolutely plummeted. I never thought I'd be so happy to completely veg out in front of a television at the end of the night, but it felt oddly rewarding. Also, keeping the story more or less a secret meant that I lost out on some idea-bouncing, but hopefully, as I rewrite and get beta readers and such, I'll gain some of that.

The project itself has gained root in local communities. I live in an area that's got a number of colleges, so we have some local events and such that I haven't attended, but I may want to consider in the future. I've tweeted about my progress a few times and gotten some responses privately from people discussing writing and encouragement, so the community aspect of the site is really solid. If you're the type of writer who needs that sort of encouragement, you'll be hard-pressed to find a better opportunity. I had a friend who also did a similar project over the summer who I've been helping with on ideas and editing and such, and seeing a close friend finish something absolutely gives you an "I can do that, too" motivation.

So what's next? For me, I've probably got about 5000-7000 more words before it's truly complete. Then it's rewrites and beta readers and editing and who knows. Would I like to market this? It's possible. A month ago, I didn't even have a book I could consider marketing, never mind completing. Today, I have that. Here at Fruitless Pursuits, we have people who make games for a living, who do awesome photography. If this is my creation, great! I'm not expecting big anything from this - I've seen first hand, personally and professionally, how ridiculously difficult publishing is in the modern era. But the fact that I'm one of the few who can actually say "hey, I wrote a full-length young adult novel?" I don't mind that feather in my cap.

As for you, if you're reading this as someone who is an aspiring writer, I hope I'm evidence that you can do it. You might need that month of real devotion and goal setting to really fully properly figure out that you can accomplish it. I know that my next one (and yes, I'm already thinking about the next story) will probably be something I bang out 500 words at a time instead of trying to do it all in one month. That might be a better route for you. 300 words a day is nearly 110000 words in a year, that's a 500 page book. If you have an idea, I'm sure you can do it.

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