I always wondered what would happen if I gave myself a heavy project with an iron-clad deadline. I similarly wondered if I’d actually keep up with a blog if I started it. I’ve recently tested both factors! The NaNoWriMo project, at month’s end, was 30,000 words.
NaNoWriMo, as an experience, was rewarding in all kinds of ways. None of these were the rewards I thought I would gain. Not only did I not write a novel, I also did not even write anything particularly useful or worthy of refinement. I did not achieve the length defined for the contest, and I did not overcome my hesitation to write “imperfectly”.
Here are some things that the project did teach me, and why I think it’s a useful exercise even to those who do not complete the contest’s terms.
Lesson 1: I wrote more in one month than I have in my life.
I acquired the practice of moving quickly through the writing, especially in scenes for which I did not yet have strong feelings. It’s in my nature to write ridiculously slowly, wording and rewording each sentence like an object of meditation until it reached nirvana. I realized that I LOVE writing slowly, during those scenes for which I’m most excited, and I should not deny myself that languorous pace for the “good parts”. The parts I fall asleep visualizing over and over.
However, there’s a lot of content to be written between the good parts. I typically torture myself trying to find a way to invest the same passion in these scenes. The truth is, if I’m not feeling passionate yet, then for me, the scene isn’t ready to be written. But my process still demands content, a temporary fix to transition between the ‘brilliant’ bits until I figure out just how to tie it together. I have never, until this project, learned how to accept a more efficient and half-baked approach to these transitional parts of the plot. By putting something down and not worrying whether it’s perfect, I was able to stay productive and avoid any of the stall-outs I typically experience. This is an extremely important new skill for me, to be able to write at two different paces and understand which works for me when.
Lesson 2: I made writing part of my life.
I did not stick to my lofty schedule as I hoped. I did not write consistent amounts each day. Hell, I didn’t even finish the project. I did take 6 days off work in a month. I did schedule time for myself to be a writer. I even scheduled a retreat in another setting for a weekend. I acknowledged that writing was part of my identity and a heavy priority, not just to myself but to my boss and family. I essentially stood up and said to my loved ones, “I’m a writer”. Not “I write sometimes” or “I’m dabbling”. I said in clear terms, “I’m writing a novel this month.” It got people’s attention. Completing the novel was never the point. For a month, I told the world “I am a writer” and the world acknowledged this. How cool is that?
Lesson 3: I figured out the quantity versus quality thing
Everything is about balance. From a lifetime of following the philosophy that there’s no point in putting it down if it’s not perfect, I took on a contest that bases success exclusively on volume. I expected this to contradict my values, and it did. I let myself enjoy the experiment. I engaged in regional “word battle” nights where I competed with other writers to see who could spew the most words onto a page in a 15 minute segment. I gave it a shot, wondering if anything would be worth keeping when the dust settled.
Most of it wasn’t. In a heightened state, I spent a month creating sixty pages of mediocre fantasy, and I expect the only 5 pages I would truly want to keep in my next draft are the first five that I wrote “my” way, before the contest started. However, this was a great way to explore characters, see if the idea had potential, see if I really wanted to invest the time and emotion into rewriting each scene I’d created.
I put in a lot of hours in my characters’ heads, and decided that this plot won’t do them justice. I need to make changes. I need a whole different setting. I need more character focus and a lot more reader engagement.
In short, I am still a writer. I have a novel to start. And my NaNoWriMo project is the most useful pile of shit I’ve ever written.
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For those interested, here is an excerpt that I’m likely to keep as I re-envision my second draft:
It rained. Fingers of candlelight choked the room, and not even his anger could keep out the smell of damp. The velvet armchair opposed him from the far wall and dared him to resist. He didn’t. He limped across the room, his smooth gait marred at the point of each step, and dropped into the rich, bruised fabric. Long fingers danced and shuddered as they unlidded a jeweled flask on the bookstool to his right.
His skull pitched angrily, scratching at him from inside in case he’d forgotten it. He twitched, and the flask spilled its contents across the table. Pride and rage were all that stopped him from whimpering as the precious metal fell wasted to the carpet. That said, he was not above foregoing the crystal tink dish and resting his now-shaking hand directly into the beading liquid.
Silver veins threaded along his skin, burning blue with power as they mixed with his lifeblood. He tolerated the spots in his vision. Even the humiliating heat between his legs was worthwhile as the ragged flesh of his torn ribs and mangled leg knitted back into something whole. He raised an arm and inspected the new skin along his flank, which gleamed a healthy silver-grey through his ruined clothes.
Wretched asses, the lot of them. His brain spun nauseously with the new misery he knew he’d soon pay for his relief. A flick of his hand latched the door on the other side of the room. They could break through if they chose, in the state he was in, but there was little that could make his situation worse at the moment. He eased himself down to the silk-embroidered carpetry, to save himself the trouble of falling to it. One by one, his nerves collapsed, the blue light behind his eyes budding into agony. He ground his forehead against the floor and snarled, all of him shuddering against himself.
He did not scream. It cost him more than he would admit. When the spasms wore themselves out, he breathed deep of the damp room and finally let his fury ebb into a slow clarity as quiet and devastating as the rain outside.
A soft knock came at his outer door, but not even the kid was welcome in his chambers this night. He was not ready to be needed. He was not ready to think.
He was empty. He was a ghost in this place, sifted apart and poured together again until his real bits had all threaded loose and gone lost. The worried knocking, the futile probing at his mindlock on the door, were a distant and pointless parade of nonsense. There were a mere handful, at most, in all of Scrivan who could undo what he’d done to that door. Did it matter? Wasn’t it possible that nothing mattered?
A tug of despair clawed at his stomach. Didn’t things have to matter? He was at the edge of something dark, he knew. Something his mind would not return from if he dove through it. How very small it all was. In the scheme of things, why not cross that line? Fuck matter. Angry and hopeless and past being willing to care, he suddenly felt ready to see the boy. Why not? If he had the stamina to think nonsense like this, he could damn well pry himself off the floor. His mind stretched out and touched the lock, wanting anything else but what was. Needing and hating, searching and blocking. Any place, anything else.
“Uncle!” the boy gasped as he tumbled abruptly through the unlocked door. He sprawled over the carpet and grabbed a bookcase, upsetting a tall stack of well-eared volumes. “I’m sorry, gods! I’ll put them all just as they were!” he squeaked in terror, throwing his hands up in anticipation of a strike.
None came. The boy slowly dropped his soft hands and scanned the empty room, the overturned flask, the claw-ripped carpet. “Uncle?”