I saw a tweet that mentioned getting ready for NaNoWriMo the other day, and it took me by surprise. For whatever reason, November always creeps up on me, and this year has been no exception.
What is NaNoWriMo, you ask? It’s a world-wide event that occurs every November in which you write a 50,000 word novel in that one month. You have to start on the first day of November* and stop at midnight in your time zone. There are NaNoWriMo support groups across the country, and you get motivated messages from the NaNoWriMo team throughout the month as well. There’s no reward at the end except a badge for your website page and the satisfaction of writing 50,000 words in a month. It was established in 1999, but really seemed to take off in the past decade. There has been debate whether it’s a good thing or not because the only goal is to write a 50,000-word novel in a month. Some people think it allows more dreck to be created while others see it as a way of encouraging emerging writers. I’m in the latter camp because I know how hard it can be to just sit down and write. I’m not a big fan of the plethora of shit that is published, but that’s not the responsibility of NaNoWriMo. Most pop culture is dross, and it’s been that way since the beginning of art. It’s not as if a novel written in a month is immediately going to be published, anyway, so there’s little danger that a novel will go directly from NaNoWriMo to the shelf.
I’ve done NaNoWriMo several times, and it’s always jump-started my fiction writing. I’m about to say something that will make many NaNoWriMoers mad, but it’s really not a humble brag. I’ve never had a problem meeting the word count goal because, as you can probably tell, I’m a verbose writer. “Why use one word when ten will do?” is my motto, and I follow it passionately. The first three years I participated, I wrote a complete novel of more than 50,000 words plus a good chunk of another novel. I reached nearly 200,000 words (or passed it) one year, and I’ve gotten past 100,000 more than once. The last few times I participated, I decided to set my own goals rather than just aim for 50,000 words.** Before that, I had taken a break for a few years because I was just…not bored, but…not enthused about doing it. Part of the fun is seeing if you can meet the goal, and without that tension, it really just fell flat for me. By setting different goals, I reinvigorated my excitement for NaNoWriMo without aggravating my OCD tendencies.
That was part of the problem. Take a trip down a side road with me. When I used to diet and slid into eating disorders, I would count compulsively. Not just calories, though I did that, but also as I performed my routines, and I do mean routines. I would do the same thing in the same orders with the same reps every day. The first time I went down this road, I was doing 700 sit-ups/crunches a day. Every day. That’s the one number I give when I want to depict how disordered my thinking became, but it was by no means the only distortion in my thinking. One of the common suggestions when dieting is to count calories. Now, there are calorie counts posted on most foods sold and in restaurants. This is distressful to me because I used to intimately know the calorie count of everything I ate, and I’ve had to actively work not to obsess over it because it was actively contributing to my eating disorders.
I bring this up because it’s indicative of the way I operate in general. When I used to participate in NaNoWriMo, it wasn’t enough for me to meet the minimal requirements. I would set arbitrary numeric goals (like writing 5,000) words a day, and then push myself to meet it, even if I wasn’t feeling up to it. It took the joy out of writing for me, which is a problem I have in general with the rule maker in my brain.*** It’s not bad to have guidelines per se, but when they harden into dogma, it can be problematic. I can find a way to take the joy out of almost anything because I have such a sense of duty. If I’m going to do something, I’m going to give 100% to it, which is not possible to do all the time without harming yourself mentally. It’s not human, anyway, to always be ‘on’, but it’s something I demand of myself whenever I actually apply myself to something. It’s also the excuse I use not to try something if I don’t feel I can give it my hundred percent. You might be saying that’s a good thing, but it’s not because I use that excuse too often not to even start something.
Here’s the thing, though. I haven’t written fiction in an uncomfortably long time, and I’m feeling the emotional effect that the dearth of creativity has had on me. Don’t get me wrong. I love to write blog posts, and I’m glad I’ve gotten into the groove so that I’m writing at least five posts a week. I find that my brain is sharper when I’m able to produce these posts on a regular basis, and I’m planning on continuing to do this for the foreseeable future. However, I thrive on my fiction writing,**** and every day that passes without me doing it makes me my brain a little grayer. Periodically, I re-read the fiction I’ve written, and some of it is pretty damn good. Much better than a lot of the crap that is out there right now. More to the point, it’s not like anything else out there. One of the reason I started writing fiction in the first place was because I didn’t see me in any of the thousands of the books I voraciously consumed. Nowadays, there’s more diversity in literature than there had been when I was a kid, but there’s still nothing that reflects my reality. I’m a forty-five year old, fat, agnostic, single, childfree, upper middle class, bisexual woman, and I’ve never seen a protagonist even remotely like me in books. It’s not the only reason I started writing fiction, but it was a big factor in my determination to continue writing.
I’ve always had stories swirling around in my head, which I found comforting. I felt a little less alone with a panoply of characters chattering away at me in my mind. I never thought that they belonged to me or that I created them. I was the conduit for their message, and I tried to recreate it the best I could. Any time I tried to make them say or do anything that wasn’t in keeping with their nature in order to push my own agenda, it would come out flat. It’s hard to explain and it sounds weird, but the words would look flat instead of shimmery which they did when I nailed the delivery. To put it bluntly, they looked dead, and it would remain that way until I rewrote the words to the characters’ satisfaction. I felt so accomplished when I was able to write a scene that was energetic and alive, and it was enough to spur me to keep on writing.
In the past several months, maybe even a year, the voices have been silent. They haven’t been talking to me, although it could be that I haven’t been listening. Perhaps not coincidentally, I haven’t been as depressed in the last year as I have been in times past, so maybe there’s a correlation. I don’t necessarily believe that I have to be depressed to write, but I can’t deny that when I was depressed, writing was sometimes the only thing I could do. I don’t want to believe that I can’t write if I’m not depressed, however, because then I’d have to give up writing. As much as I love writing, I refuse to slide back into the abyss of despair once again. It’s been hard as hell for me to claw my way to the surface, and I am not giving it up for anything–even writing.
I doubt that my writing is tied directly to my depression, however, because when I contemplated doing NaNoWriMo this year, the stories immediately flooded back into my mind. It’s as if they were waiting for me to say, “Come in, the water’s fine.” I have felt some despair in the last year or so because I couldn’t write fiction, but it appears that it was me doing the blocking–not the characters themselves. I have the rough outline of a whole story in my brain, and I’m excited to get to work on it. It’s a mystery, of course, because that’s my favorite genre. By the way, I’m glad that people are starting to accept that genre books can be literature as well. It’s always frustrated me that some book snobs looked down their noses at genre novels, declaring them lesser. Don’t get me wrong–there are a lot of shitty genre books, but there are some fucking amazing ones, too. Plus, there are some really bad so-called literature as well; I should know because I’ve tried to read several of them.
This is how I operate when I work, by the way. I don’t do outlines. I never have, and nothing anyone can say will make me change my mind. Basically, a story hatches in my brain, and by the time I sit down to write it, the essential plot is already in place. This doesn’t happen every time I write, but it’s how I work more often than not. With this story, I have the protagonist sketched out as well as the murder victim and the perpetrator. I have a family member of the protagonist who will play a prominent role in the story, too. I don’t know how I’m going to kill off the victim yet, but I know why. Another thing I do that many writers scorn is that I edit as I write. Heavily. The common accepted method is that you’re just supposed to write without editing to purportedly not interrupt the flow. I understand that sentiment, but i do not endorse it. When I write, I cannot overlook something bad that I’ve written. In addition, sometimes I go down the wrong path, and I have to course-correct.
If you’re not a writer, it’s hard to understand how alternately glorious and frustrating the writing process can be. The one thing I will say, though, is that it’s very individualized and that what works for me may not work for anyone else. That’s why I have a hard time taking any writer’s advice seriously. Here’s a great post on terrible advice famous writers have given about writing. When I’m asked for advice, the most I can say is, “Write often.” I don’t always follow my own advice, but it’s the only thing I really believe when it comes to writing. That and write what you want to write. Yes, you will get shit for it, but that’s part of being a writer. My third piece of advice is to do what’s best for you. If writing an outline works for you, then do it. If it doesn’t, then don’t. I’ll tell you what I do, just for shits and giggles. First, the ideas come to my mind. I let them simmer in my brain for a day or two, just to allow them to bake into something coherent. Then, I just start writing as I have a general picture of what I want to say in my brain. I edit as I go, and I write a thousand or two words at a time. Then, I think about how awful what I’ve written is, then I forge on. I mostly write in the wee hours of the morning as that’s when I feel most creative. I usually stop when I feel as if I’ve reached the end of my creative juices, and then I think about the story until the next time I write.
Just talking about it is making me excited to get back to it. I think that’s the main value of doing NaNoWriMo–it gets me to actually write every day. It’s also the best thing about getting my MA in writing, and while it would be ideal if I could be internally motivated to write, it’s not always the case. I’m going to do it. I’m going to do NaNoWriMo this year. I’ll let you know how it goes.
*In other words, you can’t continue on a novel you’ve already started.
**I considered it a given that I’d reach that goal.
***Thanks, fundamentalist Christian upbringing!
****Which, in and of itself, is an off-shoot of me not doing what I really love–acting.