It was with a bit of reluctance I decided to join National Novel Writing Month in 2013. For those of you unfamiliar with NaNoWriMo, it's a month-long challenge to produce 50,000 words on a new piece of writing. (Chris Eboch ran an excellent post on NaNo earlier this week.) I'd tried NaNo in 2009 and failed miserably. I never, ever was going to do it again. But that fall things came together in such a way that joining in made sense:
- My verse novel, Blue Birds, was off with my editor
- I was at the point with my research for a new novel that I was itching to get started
- I read this blog post by Darcy Pattison
- My critique partner, Valerie Geary, promised me peanut butter cookies if I made it through
I didn't sign up officially. Instead I created a contest of one I called Fake-o NaNo*, where I aimed to write 1500 words a day six days a week. I missed one day, had a good number of sessions I didn't hit 1500 (and a couple I wrote more), and felt finished with the draft a few days before Thanksgiving -- the exact day Blue Birds "flew" back to me in a big padded envelope.
Here are five things I learned from the experience:
- Slow and steady is my typical writing mantra. But sometimes fast and furious is just as important. Typically, I write verse novels and picture books. It's a sloooow process, especially when I'm initially drafting. But this novel was in prose, something I hadn't tried for seven or eight years. Throwing words on a page was a very liberating, non-committal way to reintroduce myself to this form. With my first NaNo attempt, I got stuck during the first week and decided to stop. This time around was no different. I faced the same impossible rut one week in. But I kept moving, mainly by sticking to the next lesson I learned.
- Sometimes you just have to write about the writing. While I'd kept a journal for this book since the previous spring, I still had a lot of exploring to do. Many days I found myself writing about what was working in the story and what wasn't. Things I'd have to look further into, characters I needed to add, relationships I needed to develop. Really, the draft became a running commentary, an in-the-moment chance to reflect on my ideas (or lack of them).
- Practice holds the fear at bay. The creative process is a scary thing for me, and beginning (and finishing) a first draft is my biggest challenge. By holding myself to a daily goal, I was able to break through some of that fear by simply showing up and doing the work.
- Embrace the mess. The "draft" I finished with was most definitely the messiest, worst thing I've ever written. But it was such a great experiment in getting words down, feeling out characters, and sometimes learning exactly what I didn't want to write about (by first doing just that). Knowing I could toss it all took me in some directions I might never have discovered if my approach had been more careful.
- Did I mention the cookies? Committing out loud to a friend kept me honest. And the cookies were a great pay off!
In February this NaNo novel hits the shelves as Jasper and the Riddle of Riley's Mine. As I think back to that draft I created three Novembers ago, the finished book holds little in common with it. But it was the starting place my story -- and my character -- desperately needed. Without that month of steady work, Jasper wouldn't be the boy he's become. I'm sure of that.
What are your plans for National Novel Writing month?
* I hadn't heard of the so much fancier "Faux NaNo" at the time, which I don't think is an official thing, just another name for a make-your-own version of NaNoWriMo.