Last month I wrote my first novel. In a fit of madness, I decided to use NaNoWriMo as the “perfect” way to ensure I didn’t give up halfway through.
Adding to the challenges was the fact that November included two back-to-back long weekend trips and a long weekend holiday. The timing could not have been worse.
How did it turn out? Pretty well, surprisingly, but not how you might think.
Yes, I now have a complete first draft of a fantasy novel. I didn’t have that 34 days ago. I can also honestly make the claim, “I wrote a novel.” I couldn’t claim that 34 days ago. And I can say that I did it in 29 days. That’s something I never thought I’d be able to say.
And make no mistake, the draft is what you would expect from an amateur’s first attempt. It’s crap, it’s utterly unusable in its current form, and it ended up taking so many twists and turns, I’m not even sure the ending has anything resembling a logical connection with the beginning. The real hard, dirty work – editing, polishing, wordsmithing – spreads out before me.
But the draft was, in many ways, just the by-product of something else. The process of writing the novel was a huge learning experience for me. The lessons I take with me are the real treasures from my NaNoWriMo experiment. Below are a few.
[Disclaimer: The observations below are unique to me and are not meant as anything resembling guidelines, advice, or suggestions for how to go about courting your own muse. Each writer’s path is unique and must, in the end, be walked alone.]
1) When pressed, I actually had what it took to write a novel. Success in this case is measured by completing at least a 50,000 word novel in 30 days. The simple act of completion and closure during NaNoWriMo was a surprising confidence booster.
2) For me, writing during NaNoWriMo is a labor of labor. Love doesn’t much enter into the equation. Mostly due to time constraints, the process was a genuine struggle. Certainly, there were fleeting moments of what might be called bliss (say, when a new idea popped out of nowhere that worked really well at taking the story in a new, more exciting direction), but the whole thing felt more like a cross between nailing Jello to the wall and trying to hammer a lump of mud into something functional, if not attractive. My walls are now permanently stained green, and I believe I tossed my hammer through a window somewhere around 35,000 words.
3) I read a lot of “how to” books and articles before attempting to write the novel. I thought they were going to be more helpful than they were. Looking back on it, I think their value is more downstream rather than up-front. In other words, I understand a lot more about planning and plotting now that I’ve slogged through a novel than I did before. When I revisit those how to resources, they will take on a new, deeper meaning.
4) Writing was both easier and harder than I thought. I tripped over the smallest of challenges and easily vaulted the largest of hurdles. Where NaNoWriMo really helped was in preventing me from stewing over problems. Big or small, hard or easy, I had to keep writing if I was going to win.
5) Despite all the dire warnings to never get bogged down during the first draft, I still found myself correcting spelling, grammar, and even going back to previous passages to retroactively bring in a new idea or better integrate earlier work with later developments in the narrative. I’m no where near skilled enough to say whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing for me, but it definitely made the NaNoWriMo challenge a lot harder.
6) I completely underestimated the frequency with which new ideas would emerge from my writing. This was both boone and burden, as it greatly extended the scope of the plot. I ended up with a lot of “extra” material to work with, but every new idea meant more words. This was not a problem in general, since the more you have to work with, the better chance you have of constructing a more imaginative, engaging story. But this becomes a serious problem when you’re under a 30-day deadline. It forces you to walk away from certain storylines simply because you don’t have time to explore them.
7) I did not make use of the NaNoWriMo website or write-ins. I did not have time to hit the forums, extend my writing buddy network, play much in the #nanowrimo twitter stream, or meet my local NaNoWriMo writers. This was disappointing, since I feel that all of that can be a part of and can deepen the NaNoWriMo experience. But at the end of the day, I was forced to admit thatI needed every spare minute to write, and none of these activities were adding to my word count.
And most importantly, what I learned from NaNoWriMo is that (at least for now) I am definitely not a writer. I’m someone who writes. It’s a good distinction for keeping one’s ego in check.
Did I enjoy the NaNoWriMo challenge? Will I take the challenge next year? Do I think it was a helpful tool for writing? Yes, hopefully, and a qualified yes. As someone once said about NaNoWriMo, it’s a great way to write a novel in 30 days, but it’s not a good way to write (even Chris Baty doesn’t suggest its use as a permanent state of writing).
I’m already looking forward to next year’s competition, and if I’m ready to write another novel before November 2010, there’s a good chance I’ll self-challenge myself to a 30-day window. But I certainly would not want to earn my living by writing under these conditions.
UPDATE: One of my fellow NaNo buddies, Drew Lackovic, kindly forwarded his suggestions on how to tackle revisions. Drew is a man of many talents, including writing and teaching. His thoughts are definitely worth a read in general but especially applicable for anyone suffering from a NaNo hangover…