I have to be honest, I was always on the fence with National Novel Writing Month, otherwise known as NaNoWriMo. Having worked as an editor and writer before the event became mainstream, I thought it odd that people needed one dedicated month to write a book. I thought, you either want to write a novel or you don’t. Why do you need an artificial deadline of 30 days? Then a writer friend did it and it sounded intriguing. It’s a way to avoid procrastination. Get what you’ve been thinking about done. Join a team, just do it, like a sporting event. You put yourself through a workout of creating a 50,000-word story to see if you can. So during 2014, I dove in.
I finished that book or “won” as the NaNoWriMo community puts it. A couple of years later, I did it again and “won.” Since then, I’ve edited both of these novels and they are finished. One even placed in a first novel prize contest. But I have to confess, both times the experience left me cold, in fact, a little depressed. While I made brief writerly friends during the process and the community was incredibly supportive, I ended up feeling empty. Here’s what I learned about why the event isn’t for me.
1. You Write Fast and Carelessly
I’m a writer. I love language. I love words. I love to revel in words, whether when reading them or writing them. I love living inside what they help me imagine. But because I had the pressure of writing a novel in 30 days, I often wrote weak sentences and lousy logical situations I wasn’t proud of. That didn’t propel me to go on. In fact, it made me cringe the entire time. I wasn’t able to revel in the imagination of words for a long enough, leisurely time. I felt bad about myself.
2. Afterward, I Had to Edit More Than I Otherwise Would Have
Because I wrote as fast as lightning, I wrote more than what Anne Lamott calls that “shitty first draft,” I wrote a “garbage draft.” I have since written two novellas and while those drafts took two or three months to write, they were cleaner and more finished. They had more care and thought in them earlier on. Because of that, they required fewer passes and less cutting and rewriting.
3. I Wasn’t Driven by Inspiration
During NaNoWriMo, I was driven by a deadline and though that may have led to some condensed creativity, it didn’t lead to those unique ideas, poetic turns of phrases, clever plot twists, snappy dialogue, and all else that brings layered texture to a great story. The language was mostly mechanical and the events were on the page. The characters weren’t especially alive or multidimensional, the setting wasn’t rich with meaning, the plot not fully fleshed out. Had I more time to think about it all, I would have written with more focused intention and joy.
4. Ideas Have No Time to Ferment
One thing I’ve learned about writing is beautiful writing takes time. We edit and create while driving in a car or showering or weeding the yard just as much as when the laptop’s open, but because you’re throwing words on paper during NaNoWriMo, there’s no in-between time to literally daydream about the story. You have way fewer, if any, of those “a-ha” moments where you realize how one action point fits into the whole plot or why a character should say something or even what the final sentence of the book should be.
5. It Encourages the Myth that “Everyone Has One Good Novel in Them”
Anyone who’s experienced at writing knows it’s incredibly difficult. It takes time to outline a great story and write it, which, of course, is usually more than 50,000 words. It takes long blocks of deep quiet concentration. It takes tenacity to revise over and over and over again, even when you’re sick of the story. It takes stamina to send your work out to the world and bounce back from constant rejection. For probably every 10 submissions I send out, I get one accepted. Writing is agonizing, solitary, psychologically-challenging work.
But NaNoWriMo’s main message makes it sound easy. Organizers say “the world needs your story” so why not take this opportunity to start sharing it with the world? Well, yes, but there’s a mountain of revision that comes after that month of the first draft, which is not often talked about. Agents have said they get flooded in December and January with half-baked NaNoWriMo novels that aren’t anywhere close to being ready. There’s this idea that once you finish the draft, the story will magically come together and people will magically want it. Experienced writers know this is not the case.
If You Want to Do It, Go for It, But Don’t Worry if You Don’t
I hate to sound like such a scrooge, but these are my true feelings. NaNoWriMo has become the “participation award” of the modern literary era. And some folks I know simply write the novels for that participation, for the fun, in which case, the event has fulfilled its purpose. Also, some novels have been published by traditional means to acclaim, which also means success. I just hope people go into the challenge with realistic expectations.
Moreso though, I hope people who feel guilty about not doing it know that you don’t have to join an entire country during one particular month of the year (which very inconveniently includes Thanksgiving and its associated travel/rest days by the way) to write a novel. It you have a story to write, know that you can write it any time of the year, at any writing rate, whenever you want. If it matters, you will anyway. And if it’s not the most pressing thing in your life, well, that’s okay too.
The other day I was researching famous American inventors and came across this quote about failure from Thomas Edison. It struck me as perfect for a writer. We often submit our work for publication only to be rejected again and again. In other words, we fail all of the time. If we’re experienced, we get better at not taking the sting of rejection so personally. In fact, we can use the failures to change and better our writing. We can submit different drafts, different pieces. Edison apparently had mastered this practice as he looked at his failures not as failures but as “10,000 ways that won’t work.” What a brilliant perspective. It instantly removes the personal and keeps the focus on the work. A lesson any creative person can use.
I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.
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This last week I’ve been hammering out how I can bring my literary offerings to the forefront of my website. So I’ve been studying other author sites. Some I like, some I don’t. I won’t mention which ones are barely useful or clunky but they are sadly by some writers I love. A few strong highlights are Neil Gaiman’s whose site is as alluring, mysterious and witty as he is; Gary Shteyngart’s, which is wacky and ironic; Paula McClain’s is full of dreamy Parisian history. The website I recommend checking out the most, whether you’re a writer or reader, is Chuck Wendig’s. It’s entertaining, snarky, and engaging, just like him.
Chuck Wendig Stuff For Readers
Chuck Wendig, for those who don’t know, wrote the Miriam Black series. It’s a trilogy of books about a woman who can foresee people’s deaths. They are hip, dark stories that are utterly magnetic. You want to follow this woman around, a lot. He also wrote the latest Star Wars movie tie-in books and the post-apocalyptic Heartland series. Plus, a whole bunch of other stuff. He even offers free short stories. The man is a novel-writing robot.
Chuck Wendig Stuff for Writers
Anyway, in addition to having a suite of products for readers, Chuck also writes a blog. This is sometimes aimed at aspiring writers. It’s incredibly useful. In fact, my Might and Main Monday post was distantly inspired by his Macro Monday posts: a piece about what’s on his mind while inspiring people for the week. One of my all-time favorite posts of his is called “25 Reasons Why I Stopped Reading Your Book,” a how-to write piece masked by a critic’s viewpoint.
So, as I lurk on author sites and take notes, I prepare to streamline my own site. Keep an eye out for changes. I’ll be making clearer what I offer readers and even releasing a book. Hopefully, I can inspire a few writers too.
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It’s Friday, August 31st, the last day of August and arguably the last month of summer. My kids are already back in school and intermittent rain has returned to Seattle. It feels like fall. Nooo! Still, fall is always a good time for me. Large chunks of writing time return and the weather gives me little reason to yearn to garden. So with that, I’ve set up a couple of author goals for myself this fall that I thought I’d share.
Goal #1: Grow my Readership
I’ve been blogging for years but it was only last spring that I realized I had to focus solely on my fiction work. Previously, I had been too shy about it. So I created a website dedicated to my fiction and have put my nonfiction (gardening) website on the back burner. Thus, if I intend on releasing a novel soon, which I do, I should focus on the people who want to read it and those who might want to read it.
I’ve been researching and gathering feedback about blogging daily. Some writers have done it to great success and some have done it to mediocre results. I’m going to keep my outlook positive and begin blogging every day for the month of September. I may lose some subscribers but I may gain others. It will be a giant experiment. BUT, I do have good things coming up. I’ll be writing about books, plants, writing, inspiration, France, Poland, and anything else I see that’s interesting. I’ll also feature an interview with Deborah Lawrenson, author of 300 Days of Sun and Death in Provence. She very well may be the nicest, wittiest established author I’ve ever encountered.
Goal #2: Create my Business Plan
If you’re a writer and are working to get your books into the world, you know that blogging and social media are a big part of that. But what specifically should you write on a blog? How often? Where? Should you only write on your own blog or on Medium or focus on more established magazines? Should you spend your hours editing your latest manuscript or query an earlier one? What about making online friends? The job of writing and marketing is daunting. Oftentimes I feel overwhelmed. I’m unsure where to focus my efforts.
To straighten out my brain, I hired an author coach. I researched a handful of coaches and “writing experts.” You may even know who some are. They are high-profile, often visible on Twitter, etc. But few viewed this endeavor of novel writing and publishing as a business. They focus on, for good reason, manuscripts, social media, or general marketing. The author coach I’ve chosen focuses on the larger questions, which are rooted in business models.
Businesses create mission statements all the time. They’re part of the business’s initial plans. Founders brainstorm about why they’re doing what they’re doing. Then, they write a declarative sentence about it. In turn, that steers them toward all of the objectives and tasks that fall under that statement. It makes a lot of sense. This approach narrows things down, eliminates wasted time. You only work on the objectives that will get you to your goals, which all lead back to why you’re doing what you do. It’s really all standard business stuff. But we authors often dismiss that aspect of it.
So I will be sorting out the why and how of it all. It’s exciting. I hope to have a detailed plan that I’ll then unleash my efforts on. I’ll let you know how things go. I won’t name my coach yet since the experience might not be as great or effective as I thought, but based on the research I did beforehand, I have a feeling it’s going to be centering and productive.
Overall, if I can accomplish blogging for 30 days and carve out my author mission, I will be thrilled. Stay tuned to see.
Let’s talk: Do you have any goals for fall, 2018? Are you a writer or creator? Let me know in the comments below!
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Procrastination is the devil. It’s insidious, it creeps up on you when you hadn’t planned on it, it tricks you into behaving as a worse version of yourself. It thrives on your weaknesses. I’ve been thinking about procrastination lately because I’ve been doing it. Putting off revising my novel for days until I panicked late in the week and hopped on the work I’d previously given myself to do. This happened these last two weeks. I spun my wheels in place. I worried. I suffered from low-grade anxiety. My novel wasn’t good enough, I told myself, it needed too much work, etc. (despite my husband beta reading it and having good things to say) and so I kinda ignored it.
In my defense, I did have some excuses. One of my three kids was at home, I had to drive the other two to two different day camps, then later pick them up. When I was at home for a few short hours, I struggled to focus on deep work while my at-home child practiced loud animated songs on the saxophone and piano. I’m grateful that she’s interested in music and able to work independently, but I couldn’t concentrate that well. Really though, I could have hopped onto my focus train better. I could have. It wasn’t my kids’ fault, it was mine.
A few weeks ago, I read a great article on procrastination by Tim Herrera in the New York Times. He talked about why we often don’t do the large complex task we’re supposed to and will often substitute a smaller, more meaningless task in its place. If you have a chance, check out the article, “Why Your Brain Tricks You Into Doing Less Important Tasks.” I’ve found myself chatting about it with various people. Those people have seemed to get a lot out of it too. So for today’s quote I’ll leave you with this idea.
“…people may choose to perform urgent tasks with short completion windows, instead of important tasks with larger outcomes, because important tasks are more difficult and further away from goal completion, urgent tasks involve more immediate and certain payoffs…” In other words, researchers say, our brains trick us.
Once I realized my brain is wired to work against me, I cut myself some slack for procrastination. I forgave myself for it. Once you’re able to forgive, you’re then able to move on. And so, I wish you a productive week, whether it includes some forgivable procrastination or not.
For more inspiration, check out my other posts.