Oct 22, 2014

Writer's Block: 8 Things I Learned During National Novel Writing Month

Gypsy Rose Lee writing her book, The G-String Murders (1941)
I'm the grand dame of drafts. Of starting, stopping, and somewhat finishing. You should see all the unpublished posts I have in the post drafts of this blog. You should see all the drafts that are stuffed on my computer documents and jump drives. To the gills. One of these days those drafts will be finalized, but for now they are the start of something, which is, to me, the most exciting part of the writing gamut.

November is National Novel Writing Month and it is all about the first draft. It's the start of some molecule of a story that could end up being the greatest thing ever put down on paper (or not, but flow with me..). They really should call it National First Draft Month because that's what it truly is, but I think the military might get peeved about that title.

So what exactly is National Novel Writing Month?

National Novel Writing Month (or NaNo for short) is where for 30 days people attempt to write 50,000 words on a novel, a short story, a book of poetry, a screenplay, etc., and go batshit crazy during the process.

Yep. That's what it is. Batshit craziness. There is no other glamorous way to put it.

This is how we look:

Like Diane Keaton freaking out in a spinning room. All of us.

The 'writing torture movement' was started in 1999 by this guy named Chris Baty who bravely voiced that everyone and their mama could write a novel in 30 days. It's very infomercial-esque, I mean, you can just picture the headset on his head and the bloated testimonies from over-smiling satisfied customers. I guess I'm one of exuberant satisfied customers, because writing on one project almost non-stop for 30 days worked for me --- but I'm not going to lie --- I had my doubts about it at first.

50,000 words in a month? Who's counting?, I scoffed. And I know how to write everyday --- I'm a freelancer and a blogger by day, screw this remedial bull.

Yet, in 2012, I decided to be a minnow among many and take the plunge. Mainly out of curiosity, and also to see if my arrogance could be tested. It was. I got my ass handed to me, but not really. I actually didn't 'lose' anything. NaNo isn't a competition against others, it's where you compete with yourself, and you win no matter what the outcome. It's also where you learn, and I learned plenty in those 30 days....

I learned to write quick

When I did NaNo for the second time last year, I came prepared. In my arsenal I had a skeletal outline, character list, and some fleshed out idea of what I was going to write. Still I needed to tell myself the story. That's what the first draft really is, it's you telling yourself the story from beginning to end. The first draft is your personal blueprint to use for later on when you start revising. Still you only have 30 days to draft this blueprint up, and time is a sneaky little pest --- it will tap you on the shoulder and laugh in your face. You have to write with a fury, like your rump is on fire.

I sometimes think about the 1990 film, Misery, based off of Stephen King's novel that tells the story of a bestselling author named Paul Sheldon (played by James Caan) who is held captive by his deranged fan Annie Wilkes (played by Kathy Bates), and how Wilkes forces Sheldon to write a revision for a book he wrote that she detests. In thinking about it, I apply myself to Sheldon's nightmarish ordeal --- I must get the story out with the quickness, because well, time is of the essence, and there is an Annie Wilkes who will be mighty upset if I don't finish in time. Yes, I torture myself sometimes, but it helps, and honestly if I think like this I often find myself going over my 50,000 word count and that's always awesome.

I learned to write bad

Anne Lamott didn't lie. Neither did Ernest Hemingway. First drafts are shit. Big stinkin' shit. Nobody in the history of the literary world has published a first draft, because nobody gets a story perfect the first time they sit down to write it. Yet, I fall victim to editing-while-writing A-L-L the time. Call it my bad perfectionist habit, but I love love love editing while writing, and that is probably why I don't finish things, and if I do finish them, it's at a snail's pace. It's why am I the grand dame of drafts, remember?

NaNo helped to ease me out of these pesky editing habits and enabled me to get the words out, squeezing out every last one of them, and throw them on the page, perfect or not. I also learned to stop taking pauses in my writing whenever I got stumped on what to name a character, or decided to look up how to spell a word, or thought to research some sort of information I wasn't sure about. What I learned to do is that whenever I get stuck I put brackets like this [ ] and maybe write a little note (or a string of nonsensical words like our Parks and Rec friend, Ron Swanson), and just keep the fingers moving. The first draft is for me to get messy and let myself be drunk and crazy with my story.

I learned to write with some consistency

I usually don't like looking at my word count because it always makes me nervous and skews my concentration, yet I got a rude awakening during NaNo because you kinda become obsessed with checking it because of that damn 50,000 word goal. Once you sign up for NaNo you get to see your daily efforts through pretty little charts, and there are days you'll look at that chart and want to kick chairs and throw things out of the window because that chart will tell on you. Still these charts aren't there to make you feel like a failure, they are there to help you see if you're making the most of your writing time.

I'm not great at math so I don't get technical about my word count, but if you want to write 50,000 words, you gotta at least write about 1,660 words a day. That's about a page and a half a day, and really that's not bad at all. Plus if you keep consistently writing like this for 30 days, you'll pick up this habit long after NaNo is finished. Trust me, it'll be one of those rare good habits that you don't ever need to break!

I learned to handle distractions

This generation of writers are kinda screwed in a way because we have too many outside distractions that aid in keeping us from putting fingers to the keys, pen to paper. Writers back in the day didn't have half as many distractions. They didn't have social media. They didn't have Netflix. Heck, they didn't even have the Internet which I feel was created as a propaganda tool to screw with procrastinators like myself. Still, on the flip, those distractions are what can empower you to write.

Other authors have been in the distraction clutches and have succeed as there are plenty of NaNo success stories to speak of. There are also apps like WriteRoom that stop distraction in its tracks. Still NaNo teaches you to click those distractions off manually. It forms personal discipline --- the essential aqua to the writing craft --- and with discipline comes accomplishment. When I reached my 50,000 word mark last year, and had actually finished the first draft to a story that had been egging me for years, I felt amazing, and it wasn't just because of the writing, but because I had brushed off all those distractions to get it done.

I know, I know, not all of the distractions we have aren't intentional, life manages to get in the way and all of us don't have time to hole ourselves up in our rooms with snacks and bottles of wine. Even I have a blogging and freelance schedule to abide by in November. Still I make sure to manage my time during NaNo wisely, mapping out the best days for me to write, or timing myself for days when I'm needed elsewhere.

I learned to ignore some of the rules

For such a freewriting aesthetic, NaNo has a lot of rules. You're not supposed to write non-fiction. You're supposed to start with a new idea. Blah blah blah. Pfft. Ugh. Look lying about your word count is one thing, you're cheating yourself that way, but if you find yourself with an "unconventional" project or if you start writing a novel and it turns into a screenplay that then turns into a graphic experimental novel, then that is a-okay. The beauty is that you can do whatever during these 30 days because only you're the one seeing and cultivating it. Have a second draft that needs some more work --- do it. If you want to write a book of short stories --- do it. Want to get your Julia Child's on and compile a cookbook --- do it. Bottom line, write on whatever the crap you want.

I learned to join forces with other writers

You really can begin a first draft any day of the year, but participating during "NaNo November" opens you up to a community of writers who are also freaking out and struggling too. Whether you're scrolling feverishly on Tumblr writing blogs or you joined up for NaNo via their website, you'll find writers who will not only help you out in coping, but also help you gain confidence in getting back to work and finishing. NaNo has a HUGE forum community that you have immediate access to once you join, and it's a great resource to use whether you want to bounce ideas off of someone or just chat when you need a break from your project.

I'm usually not keen on telling people my writing ideas and such so freely, but sometimes saying just a little in a round-about fashion can help out a lot, especially when you get stuck and fast writing is not an option. I have gone on the Plot Doctoring and Character Cafe boards to ask if the crap I'm writing is making some iota of sense, and usually I've been met with helpful and nice advice that I always store for later in the revising process. Also, sometimes if you help somebody with their writing woes, you could be helping yourself in the process. I do warn that the forums can be distracting as well. I usually save my forum crawls for the weekend where I have much more flexible time to write and slide in for a chit-chat or inquiry.

I learned that November is the one of the best times to start a new project

...maybe even the greatest time of all. I mean, what am I doing in November that is soooo important? Nothing. It's cold and gloomy outside (well, not here in South Texas, but I can imagine...), and I usually want to avoid my family for the holidays...so, yeah it's the perfect time to begin that first draft to a new project or fledgling work-in-progress.

I learned to have fun writing (again) 

NaNo, in a sense, made me fall in love with the adventure that is writing again. Sometimes I forget that when I've got a full workload and nagging self-doubt to combat with, but NaNo brings it all back. It brings back all the fun of seeing the twists and turns my story can take while in draft mode, how great it is to build a world of characters and settings, and how fun it is just play around with words, ideas, and be surprised of the outcome that splashes on the page. I've had many surprises spring up in my works in just the two years I've done NaNo and those surprises are the true reward in my opinion, because it let's me know I'm onto something pretty damn good. Sure I get stuck while writing and not everything I write is publishable, but it's still fun, and it's better than sitting around and moping over stupid shit. Writers write for a lot of different reason, but I think a majority of us write because we truly enjoy it. NaNo is an month-long access for fool-proof fun with words and like I said, I'm the queen of drafts...the beginning is always fun.

There are people who think NaNo is stupid and a waste of time, but NaNo isn't about writing crap and forgetting about it when December rolls around. It also isn't about getting rich or heckling publishers with your 50,000 drivel. It's about having fun and indulging in the fun of writing. If you have a passion to write and want to tell a story that you feel isn't out there, then that's really all you need to effectively start. If you don't start you don't know what you could begin. So get on out there and write your ass off in November...and beyond!

Shameless plug: My writing board on Pinterest is pretty damn good, so if you find yourself wanting advice or need a little inspiration, head over there and pin away!

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