“So, I heard you’re writing a novel!”
–Everyone, to me, all the time
I’ve heard this phrase several times from different people over the last 23 days (a few days ago, it was twice in one day). And each time I’ve tried to answer them, I’ve ended up doing a weird combination of shaking and nodding my head at the same time while saying the words, “Um, yeahhh? I’m trying to?” The question mark is important here because in my head I’m like, are you really, though? ….You did say that, didn’t you.
I did–a little over a month ago, I signed up to do National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo for short) on a whim. For those of you who don’t know, NaNoWriMo is an annual “competition” where people across the world sign up to write a 50,000-word novel over the course of November–yes, only thirty days. A whole novel. From beginning to end. If you get to 50,000 words by the end, you “win.” And with little to no idea of how my story would turn out or whether I actually had the capacity to write the prescribed 1,667 words a day, I said I would do it. On this blog. And Facebook. And Twitter. And Instagram.
So here I am, keeping myself accountable to you all: as of today, I am currently at 12,936 words. By my calculations, I am supposed to be at 38,341.
Yes, you read that correctly. I am 25,405 words behind. I am over halfway through the month and just barely over 25% into 50,000 words (that’s not even to mention the fact that with the way this novel is shaping up, it’s probably going to be a lot longer than 50,000 words when it’s done). Thus, you can see my dilemma in telling people that, yes, I am in fact writing a novel, when the more accurate thing to say would probably be that I am actively doing everything in my power to prevent myself from writing a novel–and with wild success!
But here’s the thing–I’m really trying to stop myself feeling bad, because I know that feeling sorry for myself and giving into my creative “charley horse,” I-can’t-do-anything-right mentality is only going to make me give up. Let’s face it–discipline and persistence with difficult tasks aren’t my strong suits. As Michael Scott once said, “Guess what? I have flaws…So sue me. No, don’t sue me. That is the opposite of the point I am trying to make.” So, instead of feeling bad, I’m writing this blog post and talking a little bit about the ten things that I have learned through this process of my first real attempt at a novel.
- Set goals that are realistic. As someone whose longest finished work to date is 12,921 words (written over the course of six whole months), 50,000 words in one month was probably not a realistic goal–though admirable, certainly (I’ve never had a problem with goals provided they were completely unattainable)! Notice that “set goals” is not the operative phrase here–you need to have goals, no question. I’ve just learned that maybe I need to set the bar a liiiiittle bit lower for myself.* Admittedly right now I’m in this awkward place where I don’t really know what goal I should set because I don’t know what is realistic for me. I think I’m still figuring this out. But yay for setting a new personal word count record!
*not as sad as it may appear
- Set goals that are personally challenging. On the other hand, while your goals need to be attainable, you also need to set goals that will actually push you to grow. There was literally one day in there (I think around day 10?) where I was telling myself I’d be happy if I got 18 words in. But what I really meant by “happy” was “loathe myself.” Because what kind of goal is that? Don’t get me wrong–I still only wrote 18 words. But I hated myself the next day because I knew I could have written more. And given myself a bit more credit. Right now, I’m really trying to write at least 500–700 words every day, and it seems to be working, mostly.
- Know your own habits. I have learned that, for the most part, I can’t be trusted to write at night. At least, not well. I’m too distracted by other things. My best writing is done early in the morning after I finish praying (and by early I mean like 7 or 8 a.m., because I am privileged enough to be able work remotely from home on a flexible timetable that would give any self-respecting baby boomer the nervous poops). I also learned that I need to be comfortable and warm when I write–so I’m mostly writing from my bed or my armchair or couch, covered in at least one blanket, candles lit, tea in hand. If this sounds like some weird superstitious ritual, that’s because IT PRETTY MUCH IS. Note to self: I should probably work on becoming one of those flexible writers who can write anytime, anywhere, like, on a train. At like 3 a.m. At a funeral. A 3-a.m. train funeral. Probably.
- You decide what winning is. One of the most empowering things that someone told me after I posted how behind and discouraged I was in my writer’s Facebook group was that I can redefine what winning is to me. And it didn’t have to be 50,000 words at November 30th. It could be 25,000 words. But winning doesn’t even have to be a word count! It can be developing a daily writing habit. It can be beating my past word counts (ahem, winner). It can be writing those 500-700 words a day. Those things in themselves are a victory if I decide they are. That was incredibly empowering and encouraging to me. I’m at the point where I’ve realized that at the end of the day, even if for some reason I never wrote another word for the rest of November, I’d still have 12,936 more words than I had before. Which, when I compare it to my past records, is amazing!! Yay me!!
- The solitary, lonely writer is an overrated trope. One of my greatest fears as a writer has always been that I don’t have what it takes in terms of temperament– we’ve formed these ideas of writers as solitary, cynical types who lock themselves in their rooms and never come out. I have never been cynical or solitary, and I am an extrovert through and through. And I’ve always felt insecure about this for some reason–like, somehow I started believing that I don’t really care about my art because I’m not willing to be a total hermit to create it. Like sorry I have friends and other interests?? But I’ve realized that this trope is a sad, scary kind of martyrdom and that sometimes being around people is exactly what my writing needs. I love getting out of my own head: letting my ideas run amok in someone else’s backyard, so to speak. I work more diligently when I’m around other people who are also writing. And I desperately need people to tell me to keep going. My writing and mood have ended up being the better for it. So guess what? Not. Gonna. Feel. Bad.
- You’re allowed to take care of yourself. I’ve seen so many people make jokes about “sleeping when they’re dead” or “sleeping next month” during these weeks of NaNoWriMo. And they’re mostly funny, but I’m also kind of like, that sounds like the actual worst. But I can’t even blame them because I’ve been there. I remember during my junior year of college that I would stay up all hours of the night eating food that would barely pass for edible let alone nutritious, putting off showering for days at a time–all because writing felt more important. I was in the ZONE. And while I don’t regret doing it then–well, let me tell you: it’s been four years and I am not about that life anymore. I have a job, darn it. My body feels a lot worse when I put junk into it now than it used to feel. And I cannot function on less than five hours of sleep. I am too old for that nonsense. So as much as my love for writing would want me to ignore pesky things like nutrition and sleep and hygiene, sorry not sorry. I have priorities, and self-care comes before writing.
- Have goals for your scene before you write it. This one is really important for staying motivated during individual writing sessions. And also not writing crap. Now, I’m not saying you have to plan out every single line of dialogue or comma beforehand–I’m all for spontaneity and letting the characters come into their own. Pantsing, for those of you familiar with the writer’s term. But if you don’t know where your scene needs to end up, you won’t even know how to start, and then you’ll end up writing scenes that don’t make sense for your character where nothing actually happens and then suddenly you’ve written about some irrelevant old man cursing as he drunk-spits onto the carpet at the bar. All I’m saying is–taking a meaningful journey is a lot easier when you have a destination in mind, even if you don’t know the exact road you’ll take or all the speed bumps you’ll find along the way.
- Research and editing can come later. This is my kryptonite, the wax wings to my Icarus, the 2001 denim jumpsuit to my Justin Timberlake. I am the WORST when it comes to letting my writing flow uninterrupted by dubious Google searches or the backspace key. I think I just want everything to be right the first time I write it. I let myself get so bogged down in finding and researching accurate details that I forget what genre I’m writing: fiction. Which means I can make it up!! Hallelujah. It doesn’t have to be totally correct right now. As for my editing habit, I really just have to be okay with the fact that I’m not always going to feel great about what I write in the first draft–it’s going to be a bit clunky and cliche and overwrought. I bought a vintage typewriter recently (her name is Esther) to practice my writing and perhaps decrease how often I use backspace. Here’s hoping she helps.
- Work in small chunks. It might be the weirdly competitive part of my brain, or it might be the part of me that has been trained to procrastinate right up until a deadline, but for some reason setting a timer for 20 mins and putting some pressure on myself really gets me writing. Smaller chunks feel more manageable than larger chunks, and a few short pauses are a good opportunity to collect my thoughts before moving onto the next scene. If I do a few of those a day and that’s all I can do, then I feel good about it. I don’t feel pressure to write for hours and hours at a time.
- Go if it flows. On the other hand, sometimes I do really feel like writing for hours at a time (*sighs, reminisces longingly as she soared past her required word count for all of the first two days of NaNo*). It’s not often–writing usually feels more like a chore to me. But sometimes the mood strikes, and when it does, I’ve absolutely got to follow it. I can’t risk missing out on the momentum and the creative freedom those moments bring me (not to mention the word count). The trick is knowing how to get into these moods in the first place. Usually they come to me after I’ve been staring at a screen for a while, getting up to grab cookies and reheat my rapidly-cooling tea, praying to God, and then yes, finally sitting down to punch out a few keys on my keyboard for a few minutes until it starts to feel natural. It takes discipline to find the flow. And when it flows–the story gets wild and strange and beautiful and threatening and really rather enjoyable to write. Who knew.
These are all principles I’m going to try to keep in mind as I continue to work on my novel after November ends. Because, like I said before–it’s unlikely I’ll get to 50,000 words this month, much less finish the novel. But the cool thing is that I’m excited to keep going. That never happens–usually I give up halfway through because I’m not motivated enough. This time, I feel like it’s just beginning. And though I can’t make any promises that I will finish it because I know how flaky I can be, I desperately, desperately want to be wrong. I want to bring my book to life–whatever book it actually turns out to be, anyway. So bring it on, world:
“So, I heard you’re writing a novel!”
Yes. Yes, I am.