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The NaNo Diaries: A Month of Writing Dangerously

Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor

ImageIn just a few short days, 2011’s National Novel Writing Month will start.  CC2K’s Book Editor, Beth Woodward, intends to participate again, but given that everything and anything short of alien abductions have stolen her time this year, she’s not optimistic about her prospects.  But that’s no reason not to celebrate the month of writing dangerously by looking back on her winning NaNo adventure back in 2009.


November 1: Day 1 of my first genuine attempt at finishing National Novel Writing Month.  50,000 words in 30 days–it’s crazy, it’s masochistic……but it also sounds like a hell of a lot of fun.  I’ve been thinking through the rough plot of my story for the past week or so.  It’s a young adult novel with a bit of a sci-fi twist.  It’s exactly the kind of “guilty pleasure” reading I would probably pick up for myself in the bookstore, so I might as well use my obsession with young adult literature to my advantage.  And besides: if I’m going to be spending 30 days on this story, it might as well be something I like, right?

I hit 4,625 words before I went to bed.  Not bad for day 1.


November 3:  What I’ve discovered about writing, NaNo style, is that, when the goal is crossing the finish line rather than literary perfection, the temptation to self-censor is lessened.  And I think this is a good thing for me.  I spend a lot of time obsessing over my own work, and I either start to hate it or get bored with it.  And since I tend to write only sporadically, when I feel like it, it’s hard to finish a story when I still have momentum going–and once momentum is lost, it’s almost impossible to regain.

The speed at which this exercise is taking place is leading my characters to take some unexpected turns.  My female lead?  She’s a lot more serious than I realized, and she doesn’t always “get” sarcasm or humor–but then again, she’s kind of from out of town, so that makes sense.  My male lead?   He curses a lot, and he has vivid green eyes.   (Who knew?  I thought they were brown.)  His older brother died in a car accident, but not his father–he actually skipped town afterwards because he couldn’t handle it, but he still sends money every month.  She writes in em-dashes, and he writes in ellipses.  (Only an editor like me would find that interesting.)  So far, the unexpected twists haven’t hit the story itself yet–but I’m sure they well, soon enough, once I lose track of where I’m going.  (Which is usually where I hit a wall.)

I’m now at 8,539 words.  I’m ahead of the game for now, but I still want to write a little bit more before bed.

November 7: The last few days haven’t been so great for me.  I’ve been chugging along slowly, though more slowly than I’d like to be.  That said, at 14,038 words at 1:15 a.m. on day 7, I’m still ahead of the game–albeit not as far ahead as I was on days 1 and 2.

But I work, dammit!  And as much as I would like to spend my days pushing my word count to the maximum possible threshold, I still have to earn a living.  That said, this past week has proven at least one thing: I have written something every day.  And as much as I have, in the past, allowed myself to use “lack of inspiration” and “lack of time” as excuses, I haven’t allowed them to be as much of a factor here.  Even when I haven’t wanted to write, I’ve forced myself to every day.  And that’s quite an accomplishment for someone like me, who only–even at the best of times–has written sporadically.  I also believe that I’ll be able to get my word count up more this weekend, which is good.  I also have next Wednesday (Veteran’s Day) off from work, which is also good.  50,000 words is entirely doable.

I’ve also realized something else: I have absolutely no idea where this story is going.  I guess I should revise that a little.  I’m envisioning this story in three parts (which, in my head, are already three bestsellers on the Barnes & Noble shelves).  Part 1 will probably give me my 50,000 words, or maybe more.  I’m pretty sure of where this is going, although I’m also sure things will surprise me along the way.  Right now, part 2 not as defined in my head, but I’ve got a pretty good idea of where it’s going.  As for part 3…well, I have no idea where it’s going or even what it’s called.  By part 3, my protagonists are in a situation that I haven’t yet figured them out of.  And since I usually know the endings of my stories before I even begin (also a big factor in me getting bored with them), this is exciting for me.

So far, the clear, measurable word count goal and the undefined parameters of my story have actually been plusses for me.  Who knew?

November 14:  As I near the end of day 14, I am at 27,560 words–past the midway point at last.  I’m still ahead of the game, but I fear that the plot of part one is not going to stretch to the 50K mark.  Problem is, in an effort to maintain my forward momentum, I think I moved things along really quickly, skimping on characterization and so forth at the beginning.  And I’m tempted to go back and fix that…but I’m not sure going back is the best way to finish this challenge.

Of course, words are words.  Who cares whether they come at the beginning of the book or at the end.

I’m also beginning to get a little bit stir crazy.  Luckily, I actually did go out and see the light of day today; it was maybe the second time this month I’ve actually seen my friends.  I also managed to eat something that wasn’t macaroni and cheese or pizza, so I guess that’s an accomplishment.

I also might have discovered what could be the secret to high NaNo word counts: sleep writing.  This happens when I start to fall asleep at my computer, and yet…my fingers keep typing complete words anyway.  (Twelve years of speed typing has familiarized my fingers with the keyboard pretty well.)  It’s only happened a couple of times, and at no point have I actually managed to type anything that remotely made sense within the context of the story.  Still, I hold out hope that, one day, I’ll doze off in front of the computer, wake up, and discover a masterpiece.

November 17: It’s right after midnight, and I’ve finally made the 30,000-word mark.  I’m not as far along as I’d like to be, but I’m still a few days ahead of schedule.  I’ve been lucky–I haven’t had any periods of getting stuck or bogged down in the story.   Or maybe I have gotten stuck or bogged down, and I was too busy writing to notice.  There have been a few bumps, but relatively speaking those have been minor.

And things are still changing, still evolving, as I continue with the story.  I thought I had part 1 entirely under control, that it was going where it was going and that’s that.  Little did I know that my male lead was going to experience media infamy after the girl he ditches at the dance gets kidnapped.  And later on, he’s going to try to play hero and get himself into trouble.  (I think he fancies himself kind of a Han Solo-type figure.)  And two characters that started out as very minor have ended up having pivotal roles in the story.  The girl especially–although at this point, she’s really more of a device than a character.  But maybe that’s something to work on for part 2, or somewhere in the revision process.  On the other hand, the male character is becoming more complex.  A guy who started out as a very shallow, jerky character has actually turned out to be a really nice guy, the only one who sticks by my male lead when everyone turns against him.

But what really surprises me–and the best part about this whole experience–is that I’m still having fun.  I love the spontaneity of this.  I love that even I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen.  I love that a story I started 17 days ago has already reached page 103.  I’m writing a story that I would probably read, if I weren’t writing it, so I’m enjoying spending time in this world.

Maybe it’s time to rethink how I look at writing.

November 24: The nonstop pace of NaNo is taking a huge physical toll on me.  I’m not getting a lot of sleep, and troubling dark circles seem to have taken up permanent resident underneath my eyes.  I’ve been feeling vaguely “under the weather” for about the past two weeks or so.  And every few days, something that I think is an allergy (though I have no idea to what) flares up, leaving my lips sort of swollen and numb and my tongue all puffy-feeling.

I am physically and mentally tired.  But at 38,295 words with six days to go, I can now see the light at the end of the tunnel.

I also took the opportunity to make a $50 donation today.  “But Beth,” you might think, “NaNo month is supposed to be free.”  And it is.  But regardless of how exhausted I am right now, regardless of how I’m wondering, between work and my last-minute trip up to New York for Thanksgiving, how the hell I’m gonna hit 50,000 words by Monday, and regardless of the fact that my word count bar has slipped just below the expected amount for the first time all month, this has been a great experience for me.  It has taught me that I can write all the time, if I put my mind to it.  It has taught me that, if I keep pushing myself, I can take something to completion.  Right now, I have 130 pages of a draft novel sitting on my hard drive.  And that is an amazing thing.  How can I not give to the event that allowed me to do that?  How can I not help them out so that other people will be able to have this feeling next year?

And I WILL make 50,000 words by Monday–even if I have to sell my soul to do it!

November 28: Thanksgiving was a big setback for me.  On Monday, I got an invite from a friend of mine to watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade with her from the NYPD VIP section.  And seeing as how I’ve been dying to see this parade live since I was about four years old, there’s no way I could turn that down–even for NaNo.

So I got out of work early on Wednesday, and I got some writing done then.  Then, I got a little bit more done on the train up.  Thursday after the parade, I ended up spending most of the day haplessly wandering Manhattan.  My intention was to do more writing on the train ride back Thursday night.  But by that time, I was just so ridiculously exhausted that I slept most of the way.  Then, I took Friday off from work, thinking that it would be another opportunity to do some writing–and I ended up sleeping most of the day, as well.  Sometimes, I think your body just takes over.

The good news is that I did manage to get some writing done late last night before I crashed again.  The other (somewhat) good news is that my internet connection went down, which equals one less distraction for me to fight against.  Of course, that means I haven’t been able to update my NaNo stats of late, but judging by my word count on MS Word (for some reason, Word and NaNo’s word count validator count differently, which is frustrating because Word always gives me a higher word count than NaNo), I’m at about 42,900 now.  It’s not where I should be, and it’s definitely not where I’d like to be, but at least the end is still reachable from here.

My trump card is this: It’s now 9:53 on Saturday morning, and I’m already awake and ready to go.  Today is my day, and I won’t be unlocking my door for anyone or anything.

November 29: I’m at 48,579 words–back on track, if you’re keeping score.  And, with less than 28 hours to go, I decided to make a major change to the end of my story.  We’re talking major as in possibly killing off a main character major.   Since, in my head, this is only part 1 of 3, this could seriously impact the way things progress in the other two parts.  And it’ll make for one hell of a cliffhanger ending!

I’d forgotten what this felt like, the excitement of writing something new and allowing your story and characters to unfold themselves in your mind–only to have it all change at the last second.  I think, in the last few years, I got so obsessed with making everything “perfect” in my writing that I became paralyzed, and I never wrote much of anything.  And I also think, when the focus is on publication rather than self-gratification, it sucks the life and the fun and the thrill out of the whole writing process.

So here’s what I’m doing.  I’m writing a story I like, one that’s fun and interesting for me.  It’d be nice if other people liked it, too, but maybe no one else will.  But in the end, that doesn’t matter as much as the fact that I’ve had a great time living in my head for the last month.

Do you remember being a kid and playing games of “pretend?”  It was my favorite game as a kid, and I never needed much as far as props went: an old box, a broken pencil, a grocery store receipt.  For me, that’s what writing is: a chance to play pretend once again.  I’ve gotten to spend the last month pretending to be people who have lives way more interesting than mine.  And since I’ve only been a few steps ahead of my own writing, I don’t know exactly what’s going to happen any more than the characters on the page do.  It may not be the more organized form of writing, but for me it’s more fun that way.

And maybe you could say it’s weird, or maybe even a little pathetic: here I am, an educated, successful 26-year-old, and I spend my free time indulging in a Water Mitty-like existence in my head.  Except that so many of the educated, successful people I know are also miserable, stuck in lives they never wanted and hating every minute of it.  As they get older, they become bitter and jaded, hating those younger and more optimistic for continuing to dream their dreams.

But I don’t hate my life.  I still have my dreams.  And to be honest, the time I spend inside my own imagination feels more “real” to me than the time I spend slaving away at my 9-5 job.  Who needs that harsh, cold reality people (mostly the bitter, jaded ones) keep pushing on us?  Dreams and fantasy sound so much better to me.

November 30: At approximately 2am, I crossed the finish line of NaNoWriMo–and my story–with 22 hours to spare.

And it was…exhilarating.  Not only had I finished a novel, a complete story, in just one month, but I realize that my NaNo novel is, at present, the lengthiest piece of fiction I’ve ever written.  And maybe 50,857 words isn’t a lot, given that something by, say, Stephen King is probably about ten times that.  But it’s a lot to me.

So what have I learned this month?  I learned that, despite having a full-time job and a life, I can write nearly every day, that’s it’s only been my own laziness keeping me from doing so.

I’ve learned just how much time I waste on useless crap.  I can’t pretend that I don’t need a little more sleep than I’ve been getting, that it’s one of the reasons I’ve been so run down these last few weeks.  But mostly, I’ve only sacrificed things that I’d thought I’d miss more but didn’t miss at all.  Television.  Oh, sure, it still comes on when there’s something specific I want to watch, or if I’m just zoning out over dinner, but do I really need to see four NCIS reruns a night?  The internet.  My connection went down Thursday night, leaving me unable to connect in my apartment since then.  I got to work today, and I had 67 unread e-mail messages–and 65 of them were complete crap, anyway.  

But despite all rumors to the contrary, participating in NaNo has not–at least for me–turned me into a complete recluse.  I still went to work (almost) every day.  I still called my mom at least once a week, and often more.  I still started attending a pottery class.  I still went out with my friends–if anything, I valued that time more because I only went out when I wanted to go out, rather than at my friends’ whims.  And going to the Macy’s parade threw me off of my game for two days, and I still finished with time to spare.

But mostly, I learned–in a very tangible way–that the only person who has ever stopped me from doing what I want to do is me.  I’ve spent most of my life dreaming about being a novelist, and the fear of rejection has always stopped me.  “What if I’m not good enough?” I wonder.  Thing is, all my life I’ve stuck to the comfort zones, doing the things I’m good at and avoiding the things I’m not.  And I’m good at a lot of things, enough to land me a stable job that keeps a roof over my head and food in my stomach.  But fiction writing is very subjective, and so much of the writer’s life is rejection–something I’ve avoided most of my life.  And I think this fear, and this incessant need I have to be the best, has made it very difficult for me to finish any of my pieces.  When I think of all the stories that I’ve started, that dangle unfinished in the ether…well, it makes my computer seem like a little graveyard.

I wish I could say that I’ll never be scared again, that from now on I’ll be able to write freely and go from start to finish and submit things for publication with a devil-may-care kind of attitude, but that would probably be a lie–or at least overly optimistic.  But finishing NaNo, getting from beginning to end of a complete story, is a step.  A big step.  I created my own demons.  And I have the power to overcome them.

And now that I’ve gotten into the mindset of writing all the time, I suspect it might be easier to stay there than I would have thought on November 1.  After a month of writing almost nonstop, I decided to take tonight off from writing, a treat to myself for a job well done.  And you know…I feel anxious.  Listless.  I ended my story with one of my main characters dead, and the other about to kill someone.  And part 2 and 3 are still in my head, beginning to be written.  I could go back to my old life, spending most of my evenings watching television and reading online articles and checking Facebook 14 times a night, and let those stories rattle around in my head like Marley’s ghost.  But you know something?  I don’t think I want to.  So tomorrow I’ll pick up my computer yet again.  And I’ll see where part 2 takes me.