Thursday, October 27, 2016

Five Myths, and One Important Truth, About NaNoWriMo

It's that glorious time of year again! Trees are turning, and fall is falling! Homecomings are homecoming, and little and big kids alike are putting together their scariest costumes.

How cool is Autumn, right?

More important, though, we're running rapidly up to my favorite month of the year: National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo .  I'm going to assume that since you made it here, you already know what the NoWri part is all about, so here are five myths, and one important truth, about what happens in November, based on my own several years of wins now.

1. It's scary

Yeah, this one's probably true if you let it be, but NaNo doesn't have to be scary. What's there to fear? Carpal tunnel takes a while to set in. Overcaffeinating yourself as some folks do has some deleterious impacts, but that's why we also drink water in November.

Failure? Is that what you're scared of? Nah, come on. Nearly everybody I know has failed NaNo at least once. That is, of course, everyone who's even attempted it. Truth is, you can't fail it if you don't try it, so let's all go into the effort secure in the knowledge that even if we fail, we're gonna wear that badge proudly.

Think of it this way: most people fail to write a novel every single day of their lives, and the only big news is that they aren't showing any real progress toward turning that trend around. Us, though? If we fail, we'll at least have written more words than those people, right?

Drop the fear. Punt it all the way into December. You're going to write. You're going to write a lot. What you write is going to suck, because everybody's first draft always sucks. But by then you'll have accomplished something very few people do, and you'll have a draft to revise, as well.

2. It's hard

Yeah, no. I mean, everything's hard. Some days getting out of bed is hard. Drinking enough water is hard for me. But I do it, nearly every day, and you know how I accomplish it? One drink at a time.

Same approach here. I just read someone else post to the Gospel According to Facebook: "It's hard to write 1667 words a day when you work also." I totally disagree. What's hard is to do anything I don't care to do when I work also. It's hard to get laundry done when I work also. It's hard for me to waste time at a bad movie over the weekend when I work also. It's not hard for me to write, though; in fact, it's hard for me to stop writing to go to work. That's partly because I've written a lot, and I've developed a habit and an enjoyment for the magnificent sport of prose-jockeying. My message? You can, too.

Back at West Point I became quite a runner. I'd do 10 or 12 miles a day if I had time. It wasn't hard. What was hard was doing other things when I really wanted to be running. I didn't start like that at first, of course. In the beginning I'd do a mile, maybe two. Then I worked up to longer, and then longer. In each case, though, it was by taking one step, and then another, and then another. Running is like that; a few steps add up to a long distance, which over time becomes an enjoyable and healthy habit.

Treat writing the same way. This is a perfect month to limber up those "muscles," if for no other reason than you get to enjoy the wacky zany activities with everybody else. Hey, you don't have to write 1667 words. Set your goal at 10. Ten words is easy peasy, right? Then do that five times, and then do that 35 times and you've got it.

How long does it take to write 1667 words? If you say a matter of hours, I'll argue that you're overthinking it. I type upwards of 90 words a minute, and I've literally gotten my 2000 words onto the page in less than half an hour before...and not just once, either. If you don't type that fast, that's okay (though hey, this is a perfect month to practice that, too!). How fast do you type? 40? 1667 words should take you 42 minutes to type at that rate. To go more than an hour for 1667 words you have to type slower than 28 words per minute, and I've seen hunt-and-peck two-finger typists go faster than that.

"Oh, but I have to think about them first!" No, you don't. Try it. Try imagining the scene you're going to do -- heck, spend 15 minutes doing that. Then type it. Don't think. Literally, don't edit. If you misspell a word, leave it. You can fix it later. Grammar error? Fix it later. Character says something out of character? Fix it later. You're a writer now. Write. Write, for goodness sake.

Write, for your sake.

Writing's not hard. Learning to let yourself write is hard. 

3. You have to be prepared

We always hit this point in late October when people start chickening out. "I only have two characters and a short situation!" So? Write that, then blow something up, and write more. Most of us started our first attempt with less than that, after all.

Look, if you don't want to write a book, then don't write a book. Find something else to do in November, and I promise I won't judge you for it (much). But if you do want to write a book, there's only one way to start: write the first word. And then, write the next one. And then eight more, and do that five times, and you'll be 50 words into the 1667 goal for the day. And here's the secret for that point: don't stop. Keep going.

It's going to suck. Stop judging. You may be able to fix it next March, and you may not. At least by that point you'll have confidence. At least by that point you'll have experience. But to get there, you have to learn to turn that part of you completely, totally, utterly off, and just write.

Write. Don't prepare. Or do prepare, I don't care; the first draft is still going to suck. But don't let not preparing be the same as not writing. Don't fuss and fumble and fume over anything.


4. You get something for "winning"

Know what you get for winning? You get to print out your own certificate. Yay, you. And you get a JPG you can use as your Facebook image to show your friends just how crazy you are. Oh, and you get half off of Scrivener, which is my go-to app for writing these days. That saves about twenty bucks, I think. Worth the whole month, it's not.

Nope, sorry. You don't win diddly squat when you win NaNoWriMo.

5. You get nothing for "winning"

"The only source of knowledge is experience." - Albert Einstein
"Experience is simply the name we give our mistakes." - Oscar Wilde
"Experience is one thing you can't get for nothing." - Oscar Wilde

You know, while you're busy celebrating on December 1 at your Thank Goodness It's Over party, I'm sure you're going to be terribly, horribly depressed over the diddly squat you didn't win when you verified your >50K word count at the NaNo site. Or maybe it'll be the diddly squat you didn't win when November 30th hit you in the face and you only had 23K words.


You'll have a novel, or at least part of one. And it's nobody else's novel -- it's yours. Yes, it will suck. No, it may not even be fixable. But experience is priceless.And once you build on that experience, as I did, you'll find, as I did, that initial effort is worth punting and doing a deep rewrite on. Or not. But I guarantee you, one way or another, you'll be glad you did it.

And that leads us to the one Important Truth:

It's (totally) worth it.

Hey, nobody ever said writing a novel is easy. Nobody ever said running a marathon is easy, either, and yet I've done it. Once. Just once, because I got what I needed out of that one time and I don't feel the need to do it again. Writing a novel, though, is worth doing again, and again, and again.

First is the experience, which I've already touched on. My first attempted NaNo sucked worse than any prose on the planet has ever sucked before. I'm willing to bet, especially since it can't be called, that Vogon poetry sounds better than my first effort at prose. But it's there, still, and I've wrangled it into a useful plot these ten years later, and sometime in 2017 I hope to craft a viable novel out of it.

My second novel sucked, too, but after 13 revisions and two professional editors it sucked a whole lot less. I'm actually pretty proud of it. The third sucked, too, and after nearly as many revisions and only a single professional editor, I'm afraid it's not ever going to be my best prose. get the drift. Every novel I've written has taught me something about the craft of writing, though, and so I've gotten significantly better each time. Not that the first drafts don't suck, regardless!

Second is the novels themselves. Look, folks, it takes a LOT of effort to produce a readable novel. Frankly, anybody who goes into November thinking, "I'm gonna produce a readable novel in this one month" is fooling themselves. I mean, one or two probably do it, granted, but the vast majority of us mere mortals just plain suck at first drafts. For us, we need to spend months after the initial draft doing revision after revision, painstakingly roping the text into something we and others will enjoy reading. That's the part of novel-writing that people never see. I didn't, back when I was getting angry over my favorite author's not publishing books fast enough.

Editing is hard. Revising is hard. Please know that if you do this NaNo thing you're going to create something that will eat up hundreds, if not thousands, of hours of revision time, if it's even worth that. But one way or another, it's yours, and it's yours forever.

That's why NaNoWriMo is worth it, to me.