Nano Retrospective

Last one for the year, I promise.

I started doing National Novel Writing Month in 2005, during my Senior year in college.  I’d learned it existed the year before and thought I’d give it a shot for the following reasons:

  • I liked writing stories
  • I liked novels
  • I had delusions of grandeur
  • I was operating under the assumption that I would be writing great, novel-length, works of literature in the distant, nebulous future.

I was not prepared to write a great, novel-length work of literature at that point in my life, because I had classes to take a Busch Light to drink.  My plan consisted entirely of the main character’s name, a vague concept of a parody of The Matrix, and a weird joke about ice cream cones that I thought was really funny, even if I’d never been able to get anyone to agree with me on that point.  I’d written a (terrible) story that was around 50,000 words before, but that had taken about three years of on-again, off-again effort.  I didn’t think I had much of a chance.  Writing a story of that length–actually finding a way to get from the beginning, all the way to the end–seemed like an impossible task to wrap my head around.

I wasn’t worried about the story I was writing.  I, who worry about literally everything (earlier today I was unable to make my contribution to the office Holiday Party fund for hours because I was too worried about not having correct change) wasn’t afraid of writing something dumb, because I knew it was going to be dumb.  I wasn’t afraid of it being stylistically sloppy, because the voice I settled into was defined by its sloppiness.  I wasn’t concerned about literary merit because I knew coming in that I was going to fail, I wasn’t going to wind up with a real book and no one was ever going to read what I wrote.  Maybe I was a little worried.  My first paragraph was a disclaimer dedicated to the idea that the reader probably wasn’t going to like what they read, and that they should give up while they still had the chance.
Thirty days later I had just over 50,000 words of pure, unadulterated garbage.  I still love that manuscript for sentimental reasons, but it reads like I was smashing my face on the keyboard over and over.  I’m keeping the story and the characters, because they’re awesome, and I’m rewriting the thing to make it something worth reading, but there’s something special about the original that edits will never be able to match.  I wrote it, a semi-coherent story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, that was approximately novel-length.  Writing actual novels was no longer a vague plan that I had in some distant, nebulous future that I wasn’t even really sure existed.  I’d written a novel, and I was going to do it again, because I knew I could do it.  And I could do it fast.
These days when November rolls around I come in with a detailed outline, chapter-by-chapter plans on where I want the story to go, and I generally follow my plan.  I’m still working on the same story, even if it’s not the same story any more.  50,000 words is no longer the goal, but a step towards completion.  Writing a novel is no longer this huge, almost unimaginable task.  I know the whole story fits in my head.  I’m 105,000 words into last month’s project, and I’ll be writing it through the end of next week (at least).  The fear of failure and the seat-of-my-pants madness that I brought to Nanowrimo my first couple times through are long gone, but I have a blast just the same.
If you’re on the fence about trying it, if you’re thinking about writing a novel but you feel like the job is just too big, my advice would be to try it.  Come in with low expectations, with a story you don’t necessarily love (this is key–if that story you want to write has to be perfect or it’ll break your heart try something else first.  It’ll take so much of the pressure off.) and just write.  Use filler where you have to.  If a scene just won’t come out right write “This scene just won’t work.  We’re assuming it’s over now and everything went just the way I planned.  Onward!” or something.  There are no rules and you can take all the shortcuts you want.  It can be more terrible than you ever imagined.  You can write yourself into a corner, only to have an army of zombies eat the walls.  The important thing it teaching your brain how to make the words flow.  Once you find that there won’t be any stopping you.

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