I had a wonderful conversation with my lovely publisher Margery yesterday and wanted to share a bit of it with you in this week’s post. She asked what I was currently writing and whether I’m participating in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). I felt a bit ashamed to say I wasn’t because, after all, the event almost bears a religious tone in the fiction-writing world. I feel a bit like Mr. Scrooge! But, thankfully, she didn’t murmur or gasp or hang up on me when I confessed my NaNoWriMo aversion. In fact, she empathized.
Now, before I continue, I wish to say that I think NaNoWriMo is fantastic for myriad reasons. The greatest reason, in my opinion, is its marvelous community aspect by which thousands of writers around the world take part in achieving something remarkable, namely the creation of a novel. The accountability offered by the organization itself, as well as social media, encourages writers to carve out time every single day, come hell or high water (or historic, nerve-wracking elections…) to write. People who love to write but have been too afraid or deterred by self-doubt to try their hand at fiction are joined by countless others just like them and explore unchartered waters within themselves and fearlessly discover new depths of their creativity.
I could go on and about the benefits of NaNo, but that’s not what this post is about. It’s about why I’m not participating, and why I don’t think it’s for everyone.
I began writing my first novel in eighth grade. I have no idea where I heard it, but I somehow learned that a respectable daily word count for aspiring authors to shoot for was 1,000. Soon after that, I remember sitting down at my computer one night and plodding away at my novel, the numbers 1-0-0-0 flashing like neon lights in my impressionable mind.
When I could hardly hold my eyes open a second longer, I checked my word count. Believe me, it was nowhere close to 1,000. I was demoralized. It may sound ridiculous to say that, but it’s true. I didn’t have to be a math wizard to calculate how long it would take me to finish a 50,000-word manuscript. It would have taken me almost a year, which is like a decade to a 14 year old.
In the movie version of that story, I would have saved up all my allowance money for a plane ticket to Anne Lamott’s house where I’d stay for the summer and she’d teach me everything she knows about writing and I’d become the youngest Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Julia Stiles would play me in my biopic (was anyone else obsessed with Julia Stiles back in the day??).
But as we all know, real life ain’t like the movies. I didn’t save my allowance money for a ticket to Anne Lamott’s house, much less for money on buying writing books that would have encouraged me to keep at it (like Anne Lamott’s invaluable Bird by Bird). Instead, I stopped writing the novel and stuck to short stories and poems, things that didn’t take so long and about which I knew no rules. The joy of writing my novel had been drained by a stupid word-count goal I was too inexperienced to reach.
A few years after I graduated college, I dusted off a screenplay I’d written and sat down to adapt it into a novel. I was ten years older than I had been when I first gave up, and told myself I wouldn’t stop, no matter what. I was more experienced in the intricacies of plot structure now. I had outlined, I had prepared, I had earned a degree, read beaucoups of craft books… I was as ready as I’d ever be. However, I still knew that the novel-writing process would take time and that I’d be tempted to throw my laptop against the wall and give up yet again.
Unaware of NaNoWriMo, I began writing the novel in October of 2013. I was half amused and half horrified to see that my daily word count was averaging the number I’d reached all those years before. But I kept going. Nine months and many hours of frustration later, I was done. I’d written a 55-thousand-word novel that I am still incredibly proud of. (Coincidence that nine months is also the length of human gestation? I think not!)
My publisher Margery, who is also into fitness like I am, compared learning to write a novel to starting out in the gym. You can’t just jump onto the treadmill or track and expect to run five miles without stopping to jog or walk a few times. You can’t just head over to the dumbbell rack, pull out a pair of 50s, and press them over your head. And you can’t just sit down at your computer and bust out a quality novel in a month (key word: quality) if you haven’t logged sufficient training time.
Writing is magic, but it isn’t effortless.
Writing is rewarding, but it isn’t without its frustrations.
We have to be patient with ourselves and our craft and realize that, as with all good things in life, solid storytelling takes time, and learning to write quickly doesn’t happen overnight.
Had I participated in NaNoWriMo in 2013, I am fairly certain, knowing myself, that I would’ve been discouraged by my inability to keep up with the recommendation of writing 1,000+ words a day. It’s only been in the last year that I’ve been able to average that number on a regular basis.
Just like runners and weightlifters at the gym, everyone has their own pace. While some writers may find it easy to sit down and churn out six pages in an hour, others (*raises hand*) are happy with two. (This doesn’t make us stupid, by the way. If you’re like me, you enjoy crafting as near-perfect scenes and sentences in draft one as possible [aka, we’re perfectionists!] to keep revision time to a minimum.)
So, if you’re into NaNoWriMo, that’s awesome! Keep at it and enjoy the journey! But if you’re not, I want you to know it’s okay.
It’s okay not to write 4+ pages a day and to have days where the words don’t come at all and you pick up a book or watch cat videos instead.
It’s okay to spend a day researching so that you can write more visually and authoritatively during your writing session tomorrow.
It’s okay to take nine months to write a novel.
Just don’t quit, and don’t let anyone tell you there’s only one way to accomplish it. (Even me!)