Learnings from NaNoWriMo 2012

The moment of truth

The moment of truth

Yeah, I’m one of them. If you’re snark-minded I’m one of those amateurs who needs a competition to do the thing they’re “passionate” about. If you’re perky people I’m a dedicated dream-follower. Reality is I’m a slightly ashamed thirty-something with keyboard-finger on the four digits I type with.

I tried NaNoWriMo back in 2008, and fell way behind due to dumb things like writing long-hand and then editing as I transcribed, a total lack of planning, and picking the story out of thin air a couple of days before the month began. I made it about 5 days in before I fell so far behind and got so pissed off that I threw the towel in, then went and retrieved it to roll up and whip myself with.

But 2012 came around and I thought that I was ready. So I did smart things like thinking of a killer concept, scheduling writing time into the day, and forgoing the ink-laden pen for a keyboard only experience. And I made it, as the cartoon above illustrates.

Here are my take-aways from the experience, for anyone thinking of doing it next year, who did it this year (whatever your outcome), or who just likes to laugh at the puny amateurs and their little games.

  1. Brainstorming is not planning. That’s why it’s a different word, like “raptor” and “penguin”. Scribbling a near-comprehensive list of options and possibilities in different coloured, and therefore theoretically more memorable, pens on little index cards? That’s not planning, its planning foreplay. Stop kissing your story’s earlobe, and start getting thoroughly acquainted.
  2. Planning is good. Because when you’re feeling the pressure of writing 50,000 vaguely worthwhile (be non-judgmental) words (and more on exactly how much pressure that is later), having a plan is not a safety net, but a destination. It’s something to refer back to, embellish, deviate from (knowing you can always come back), and scribble all over. And in order to create a plan, you have to actually think things through.
  3. Don’t just make something up for the novelty. Maybe if you’ve had a good year thus far of making and creating, and NaNo is an opportunity to relax a little and kick around something new, free from the constraints of your other, longer lived-with projects, maybe then it would be fun to just make something up on the spot and see what happens. But if you have ideas that you aren’t working on and you pick something completely knew, there will come a moment when you think “Why am I devoting a month to this brainfart when I have ideas I love, waiting faithfully in my notebook for me to make them real?”. That moment will coincide with your getting deep enough into November that starting over isn’t an option.
  4. 50,000. Does that sound like a lot to you? It did to me. But break it down, and that’s 1667 a day. Give yourself a week-end off, and then you have 5001 to write to get back up to speed. When you have a good day, 5001 is a few hours, and they fly. Respect the number, but don’t fear it, because when you complete, you’ll be pissed you wasted energy on fear. 50,000 is designed to be an attainable pressure. So quit freaking out, the pressure’s on but it’s a squeeze, not a compactor.
  5. Don’t write for the number. The cosmos does not care if you gather 50,000 words in one place and submit them to NaNo’s counting machine. So you better care. If you find, towards the end, that you’re looking at the numbers more often than you’re thinking about the story, log that, and when the month is over, ask yourself whether you really care about the story you’ve worked on. If you don’t, you have 50,000 words more experience, and have learned to care. If you do… then stop messing around and start editing!
  6. Know your ticks. Nope, not your writing ticks, like your compulsion to describe things as smells (obviously purely hypothetical), but your personal ticks. How do you respond to pressure? How do you react when you are tired? What do you not like to do with your writing, and how does doing that thing make you feel? Alright, enough cuddly stuff, basically if you’re the kind of person who reacts to being tired and afraid of “failure” by cramming christmas cake and M&Ms down your throat, or getting drunk, or trolling, then know that about yourself. And know that doing those things can only compromise your quest. And then do them once and see how shit it is compared to just facing the screen, focusing, and laying 1667 little digital eggs.
  7. Write stuff down. Don’t be the guy who crawls into bed after hitting 1668, thinks of the perfect opening paragraph for the next day, and doesn’t write it down. “It’s killer, I couldn’t forget that in a million years.” Hey, fucknuts? Yes you can.
  8. Don’t be a dick [a]. Let yourself write, the goal is purposeful quantity, not a Booker shoo-in. That thinking hasn’t worked for you so far, has it?
  9. Don’t be a dick [b]. If you complete a sentence, look it over, and realise instantly that five words could be replaced by one, do it. Or do it next month and rue your laziness.
  10. Know why you’re doing it. To generate a first draft. To prove you can hit a target. To show your childhood bullies you beat dyslexia. To win a bet. Whatever your reason, know it. Because you will ask yourself why you’re doing this, and finding the answer eats up writing time.
  11. Have fun. Ooooh, that’s a weak finish. That’s a bloody weak finish isn’t it, the ever-present exhortation to have “fun”? You’ve read those articles where writers talk about killing your babies, going through and stripping out your favourite sentences because they don’t work? Well that’s editing and rewriting. NaNo is about making babies, so have fun with your characters, your references, your asides, your locations, your subtext, have fun with your November. You might die under a bus on the 30th before you update your word count, you loser. Live a little.
  12. Say Goodbye to one Fear. We all need company. And Fear is always at a loose end, Fear’s the party friend who makes you look more popular than the folks who show up alone. But once you’ve conquered a fear, it disappears, leaving you alone with the proven truth of your potential. Which is the scariest thing in the world. You’ve been warned.

I’m going to go and drink and watch mindless comedies now. And think about the next 50,ooo words, and which project deserves it most.

Oh, one more thing. I didn’t “win”. You never “win” if you’re doing what you believe is your thing. “Winning” is a bullshit construct for anything non-destructive or lacking a physical adversary. But if you don’t do your thing, whatever it is, then you Lose. Funny how that works.

Thanks for reading.