November’s yawning, December’s stirring, the Christmas tree is up and NaNoWriMo is no mo. This year’s NaNoWriMo (a mouthful I can never say aloud which is probably for the best anyway) was especially challenging because it was an election year, and a dire one; election years are every other year so every other year NaNoWriMo strikes right at peak stress levels ... but me being me, I always try anyway. Plus, it’s good to focus on something outside the nail-biting future of our precarious democracy. On top of the election, I have two children, and then there were holidays and in-laws visiting and this is all to say I am tired, I am oh so tired, but NaNoWriMo, I gave you my best. I got over 30K words and a solid idea in motion. Hooray! This year I reflected a bit on the usefulness of the sprint-a-marathon exercise that is NaNoWriMo and I think, for the first time, I understand its purpose.
I’m going to go back four years, to my first NaNoWriMo, sort of. I didn’t intend it to be NaNoWriMo, but I had just had my first baby and I was on maternity leave and I started writing a new novel during my eight weeks off. I wrote the whole thing furiously, knowing the deadline was my first day back at work; I wore my daughter, a lump that nursed, pooped, and slept, in a carrier and bounced on a yoga ball at the table, laptop open. I felt manic, electric, and when I turned in my manuscript to my agent shortly after I went back to my job, I expected nothing but accolades. As usual, I was wrong. My agent’s notes back to me were extensive. She wanted me to cut several prominent characters, fix the mood of the whole thing—too lighthearted for such a tragic premise—and basically rewrite it. I was a popped balloon. I spent the next year and a half rewriting that thing over and over and over again. Then I got a publisher and I spent the next year and a half rewriting and revising that thing over and over again. Looking back, NaNoWriMo, my maternity leave, the novel I thought I wrote, was just groundwork for something that took so much more thought and care than the gushing wordmonster I was during NaNoWriMo.
The next NaNoWriMo I wrote a novel and my agent was basically like “nah.” It shocked and stung a little less this time. I screamed into a mind-pillow and moved on.
Last year, again, I threw myself into NaNoWriMo, but this time I accepted beforehand I was probably just going to write something that was 60K words of rubbish. It basically was, but with a little glimmer of hope. My agent saw a few sparkly moments and seeds in there. I felt good about it, because it’s not a waste of a month to write if you have the premise of a novel figured out at the end. And I did. I ended up going back to it with focus and it took me 8 months to rewrite the whole thing into something I felt was really good, and my agent agreed.
So this year, I went into NaNoWriMo with eyes wide open; it’s a short-ass span of time when everyone is writing nonsense and guess what? That’s okay. It’s one month of your life. You can write something that doesn’t work or that nobody likes. And it’s a first draft, so it’s going to suck no matter how long you spend on it. Might as well spend as short a time on it as possible. As a throw-shit-at-the-wall type, NaNoWriMo is a challenge that can result in a draft that just gets the bones of the story on the page so I can rearrange them later.
My proverbial bottom drawer is not just full, it is overflowing. I’m being honest and not falsely modest when I confess most everything I’ve ever written is terrible. I’ve spent a year on a failed first draft, or a NaNoWriMo month. Obviously I’d rather write my shitty first draft as fast as possible and get to revising and editing, where the real magic happens. So if you’re someone, like me, who is a panster, who is prolific but mostly horrible, whose first drafts are hit or miss, NaNoWriMo is your friend.
What I love about NaNoWriMo:
The commiseration; even just hanging out on Twitter during the month of November makes you feel like you are not alone in your craptacular, why-have-I-done-this-to-myself feelings.
Gives you a mess of a draft to work with, which is probably what you’d end up with no matter what in the first draft stage.
Thrives on self-competition—the BEST kind of competition.
Famous fancy writers, many of them in YA, have actually written bestsellers and such in NaNoWriMos. That’s motivating!
The community aspect of it. The fact that so many writers on so many different levels of the writing/ publishing journey are in the same boat together every November—from people who have never published anything, to established, polished folks and bestselling fancyfaces. It’s accessible and it’s a thing we all do together.
The fact it’s totally okay to fail—in fact, it’s pretty much expected. Most NaNoWriMos begin with a sprint that ends up with us tripping and falling flat on our faces at some point. Writing is failing. NaNoWriMo is a whole month to fail.
It gives you an excuse to be the introvert you already are. “Sorry, I have a word count I have to hit today. It’s NaNoWriMo.” “What kind of rhino?” “Never mind.”
Anyway, November, I appreciate you giving me the time to gush, the time to try new things and embrace the concept of constructive failure. Now it’s time to slow down, reflect, ask for feedback; now it’s time to turn this nonsense into something with shape and potential. And I can breathe, now, and sit with the words like those of a stranger, because I wrote them in such a hurry I hardly know them.