Me and a thousand other hobby writers!
This was my first attempt at NaNoWriMo after telling the Darwins last year I was considering it. For the uninitiated (like me, 60 days ago), the plan is to write 2000 words a day for 30 days and TADA! you have a novella. It’s like the P90X of writing, except with Billy Blanks and a lot of cocaine. Never edit! Always add! Your manuscript screams when you cut it! Don’t hurt it!
I actually cheated a bit and started early because I have not been writing for many years. As November drew on, I stopped early to balance it out because 1) guilty conscience and 2) damn this is a lot of writing. Being a dad and a teacher with a very long commute doesn’t leave a lot of time for the pen, and I didn’t have enough plotting and dreaming stored up to keep pushing much beyond the first quarter of the book.
But I did learn a lot from the effort, and I am very grateful for having attempted it. Here’s my self-post-mortem:
I wrote 20,000-25,000 words in a month. I haven’t written that much fiction since I was in college. In those days I could get ideas on paper (actually, on WordPerfect 3.0) as easily as I could breath or play video games. Blasting 2k a day was child’s play in those days–I’m sure I did 10k often in those days. Twenty years later, I never hit 2k once. My best day was about 1200, and that was Veteran’s Day when I stayed home and pretended to be a full time writer.
I learned a fair amount about how I want to write these days. Once upon a time, I only cared about story. Now I primarily care about craft. I count words and structural elements with more than a little obsession. I don’t want to write in the zone, I want to plot and plan and revise repeatedly until diction and syntax are powerful. Although as the month came to an end I realized how much I still needed at least a little “zone.”
I also cannot sit in front a screen, at least not yet. I instantly hit a block when I try. Because of my schedule, I wrote exclusively on the train to and from work (2 blocks, 45 minutes each). That’s not laptop on the train, that’s yellow legal pads and pencils worn to the nub. I found that holding a pencil almost instantly unblocked me, at least in the early weeks of the challenge. It’s a time-waster compared to fingers flying on a keyboard, but not compared to sitting in front of a screen typing nothing. I eventually hit a rhythm where I could pound out 400 words each time I sat down on the train. I think I could probably get to 1k/day consistently with this method, and I found the growing stack of yellow leaves in my folder to be immensely satisfying.
I make myself feel better about my technological woes by thinking of how Homer composed. Yeah, I went there.
I don’t think blast writing like NaNoWriMo is for me. I would fight for days not to go back and fix sections that were weak, and each day my productivity would drop until I went back and edited. I want to write compactly and I want things to be of a certain quality before I move on. I don’t think it’s a perpetual edit-trap, but I can see how it would become one. I just need to have one pass to make sure what I wrote has some punch to it. Eight hundred words of (semi-)quality please me much more than hitting a word count for the day.
Perhaps most significantly, I can edit for content now. When I was young I could only write under inspiration, and once it was written I could never touch it again except for simple proofing. Such is childhood. Now I feel no such compunction; I can rewrite scenes from scratch just to compare two or three alternatives. I’m much less a pantser and much more a plotter now.
But am I any better? I am far more literate than my younger self (who was no slouch, but still–20 years of reading classics is a big upgrade). This has given me vastly more resources for composition, and this has undoubtedly made me a better writer. By contrast, I haven’t been writing for many years and that has made me worse. I’m not sharp, my muscles have atrophied, and I have not benefited from feedback for all this time. But this is a hobby and (maybe) a part-time job; I don’t have deadlines and I am not trying to put food on the table. I’ve got time to grow. And if Gene Wolfe can write his brilliancies before work each day…well, ok, maybe not compare myself to the modern Melville.
Would I do NaNoWriMo again? We’ll see in another year.