As some of you may already know, I'm stoked beyond words right now because one of my favorite things is about to happen: NaNoWriMo.
Before I say more about it, let me ask you this. Have you ever, even a little bit, said to yourself 'You know, I'd really love to write a book someday."? (Same question applies if you can answer 'yes' to 'screenplay', 'short story', 'memoir', etc.). Have you ever read a book and been really annoyed by it and thought 'I could write a better book than that, dammit!"?
If you have this dream lingering in the back of your mind, poking its little head out now and then, NaNoWriMo is the way to make it happen.
NaNoWriMo stands for 'National Novel Writing Month', and it happens every November. In a few days' time, around half a million people will gather together at the NaNoWriMo site (www.nanowrimo.org), and will endeavor to write a novel (50,000 words) in 30 days. A vast quantity of them have never written a novel before. And, btw, all the resources and tools and signing up, it's all free.
What's that you say? You think this is all crazy talk?? No sir. Well, maybe. But only in the most awesome, amazing, life-changing way.
Yep, I said it. Life-changing. Because it changed my life.
I'd always thought about writing a novel, ever since I was a little girl. I came close a couple of times, but always talked myself out of such silliness. Then, in 2010 I began one, inspired by my genealogical research. I wrote here and there, agonized over each paragraph trying to make it perfect, and got frustrated by how little progress I was making. I've been a writer of one sort or another all my life, and in my professional life have written journal articles, book chapters, and even a research-based non-fiction book. But this novel thing...well...it was different. And it was hard.
Then, in October 2012, a friend of mine mentioned something she called 'NaNo', and explained it to me. I figured, why not? It will kick me in the tushie, get me to really put a spotlight on pulling this novel together once and for all. Give me a reason to prioritize it. And worse come to worst, I just won't make the full word count, but I'll be farther along, and that can't be a bad thing.
So I sat down to write a little each night, once my daily obligations were done. I had a more-than-full-time job with a monster commute, and all the other typical daily responsibilities to go along with it. But I carved out a little time, and I really enjoyed seeing my word count go up--so much so that I started pushing aside my TV shows to write more.
That first year, I didn't 'win'--I didn't reach the 50,000 word goal. I came in just under 25,000 words.
And yet, my life was changed.
For a very simple reason: It gave me permission to turn off my 'internal editor' and just let myself write. I didn't even realize that's what was happening until later.
See, when I would sit down to write before NaNoWriMo, I'd get all caught up in my head. The sentence I was writing had to be perfect. The paragraph I was writing had to be perfect. This word here? The one I can't get quite right? I have to sit here and obsess over it I find the perfect word. This plot point here that could go one of two ways? What if I pick the wrong choice and it ruins everything? No, no, I just have to sit here not writing until I figure it out. Then I put it down on paper.
So my brain would seize up and I'd sit in front of the computer writing nothing and loathing myself and desperately wanting to cram Twix bars down my throat.
But when you're faced with writing 50,000 words in 30 days (1,667 words per day), ain't nobody got time for any of that. If you can't find the right word, you put down one that's close enough and then type the next word. If the sentence isn't perfect, that's okay, you'll make it perfect later. If that whole scene you wrote where the monkey turns into an eel has to be rewritten because you need it to be an alligator, and it probably should have started off as a lion anyway, you know what? Just start writing it as an alligator from here, and go back and adjust it later. No biggie. Just get the words down.
And when you do that--when you turn off that editor and just give yourself permission to let the words pour out of you--Guess what? They DO.
I know what you're thinking. "Sure, the words pour out of you, but what you're left with must be a steaming pile of dung." Or, to quote a dear friend of mine when I told her I was going to do this: "I can't imagine any novel you'd write in a month would be worth reading."
Absolutely, positively, 100% correct.
The first draft that you write by the end of your 30 days will most likely be crap. But here's secret #1: every first draft anybody ever writes, whether it takes them 30 days or 30 years, is crap. This is not me talking; I'm paraphrasing Ernest Hemingway, who said that 'The first draft of anything is shit.'. Look it up if you don't believe me.
There is something incredibly freeing about not stressing over the fact that your first draft will probably be crap. In my case, it allowed me to stop sabotaging myself by expecting something great to come out of my fingers, and just allowed me to write, and get that first draft down on paper.
Because here's secret #2: You can't revise a draft that isn't written.
So why not get your first draft out there in the best, most efficient way possible? In a tried-and-true time-honored tradition, surrounded by a support group of half a million people?
Because here's secret #3: When you free yourself to write with 'literary abandon', amazing things come out of your brain. Ideas will seem to come from nowhere. Plot points you were worried about when you started will resolve themselves. Your characters will do things and become things you didn't anticipate, and they will be better than you thought they could be. There were whole characters I didn't know would exist, and whole sections of my book I had no idea what to do with when I sat down at the beginning of that NaNoWriMo. I understand why writers and artists talk about 'their muse'; it's the strangest thing to have your brain spit out things without consulting you first. It truly feels like you're channeling someone else.
And why? Because writing this way optimizes the associative way that our brain works. That might not be a quote from Hemingway, but there's a Ph.D from the best psychology program in the country backing up that claim for you.
As I say, I didn't 'win' NaNoWriMo my first year. But the next year, 2013, I did. And it was an amazing feeling.
I had a little more work to do to finish (my first draft came in at 123,000 words), but I finished that quickly. Then, I put it aside; I had read Stephen King's On Writing, and in it he advises writers to put aside their first draft for at least six weeks before starting to revise--but to keep writing daily on another project in the meantime. I figured, Stephen King is clearly doing something right, so doing what he does is worth a shot. So I began working on an idea I had for another novel; I approached it the same way I had approached NaNoWriMo: I gave myself a daily goal of 1,667 words.
Six weeks later, I had a completed first draft of my second novel. It had been a fairly vague idea when I started it--about a serial killer who finds his victims online--but it was a fully plotted book by the time I was done.
I now know, without a shadow of a doubt, that I can write a novel. I never have to doubt that again. Is it a novel someone will want to read? We'll see. But I now have a starting point to build from.
I can hear you saying "That's all well and good, Michelle, but it won't work for me." Okay, let's talk about that. Because I call shenanigans.
Here are the excuses I've heard from friends (they talk more about each on the NaNoWriMo site):
(1) I don't have time.
This is just not true. Sorry. It takes about 7-10 hours per week to finish the 50,000. Wake yourself up an hour early or go to bed an hour late, or (gasp!) cut out one hour of TV or Facebook per day, and you're just about there. Yes, I love NCIS as much as you do, and my life would not be as rich without those cute Lolcats my friends share on their FB pages. But you aren't giving them up forever. You can catch up on your shows in December, and there will never stop being new Lolcats. Seriously now. You can do this.
(2) I don't have anything to write about.
First of all, yes you do. If I can come up with a novel out of 'Hey, there are some crazy people that hang out in World of Warcraft. Odds are one of them somewhere has to be a serial killer...Hey! That would make a cool book!', you can come up with one, too. Flip through the newspaper and check out the crazy crap you find there. Take a look at a shelf of books at the library, and pick one of them to change in some way, to make better. Take that really weird dream you had last night where you were a fighter pilot in an alternate galaxy with hyperspace aardvarks trying to eat your brain, and run with it.
Second of all, lot of people start NaNo with absolutely no idea in mind at all. They just start free-writing, and something comes. And they build on it. And build on that. They are no different or better than you. I promise.
(3) I don't want to write a novel. I'm more of a non-fiction/short story/screenplay person.
There is a whole group of 'rebels' who use NaNoWriMo to write things other than novels, including all of the above and more (even dissertations). So decide you're going to write 5 short stories. Or that how-to book you've always wanted to write. Go for it!
(4) I don't think I can manage the 50,000 words...I might be able to come up with 2-3 hours per week, but that's all.
That's okay! Set your own goal. Make it 25,000 words, or even 10,000 words. There are no blue meanies who will come out and spank you if you don't reach the 50,000 words (and if you like that sort of thing, I'm sure you can make your own arrangements to set that up as a motivating reward). Nobody cares. Everyone will cheer you for accomplishing however much you accomplish, because here's secret #4: even if you only write 5,000 words, that's 5,000 more than you had before you started. And that's awesome!!!
But I'm willing to bet that once you start, you'll write a lot more than you think you will. It's invigorating. It's freeing. And it's fun.
So, come out and join me for NaNoWriMo next month. Add me as your buddy--drop me a line at email@example.com, and we can exchange avatars. This is my third year, and this year I'll be starting a fun little novel called 'Accidental Divination'. I'll be posting my progress here, and need you all to hold me accountable!!
Here is a link to their FAQ page, which will answer all of your questions--but feel free to ask me anything you want, too, and I'll help you where I can.
What it boils down to is this: what do you have to lose? Nothing. But you stand to gain a lot. Belief in yourself. Your very own novel. Bragging rights. One thing crossed off your bucket list.
And if you're like me, it might even change your life.
(P.S.: Secret #5 is that it really should be 'International Novel Writing Month' because people from all over the world do it in all sorts of different languages. So if you aren't in the US and you don't write in English, that still won't stop you!)