Friday, October 11, 2013

The Silly, Completely Inconsequental Contest that Changed My Life

Source: wikimedia commons

If you listen closely, you can hear the frantic typing of thousands of writers gearing up for November, when they will embark on a month long trip into Insanity, Population: You. 

Some choose to outline their novel ahead of time (ahem). Some choose to completely wing it with notes, but have their novel premise and characters completely thought out. Others have put several ideas into a hat and when the clock strikes twelve on October 31st, they will choose the novel to write.

Yes, that's right: I'm talking about National Novel Writer's Month. Or NaNo for short.

In other parts of the Internet, writers are complaining about NaNoers, not because they're opposed to arbitrary goals with no consequences, but because they feel it makes the querying climate harsh for people who know not to polish their novel for two days before deciding it's good enough and sending it to unsuspecting agents everywhere. There's some truth to that, but honestly A) December was going to be a harsh month to query anyway and, B) these same inexperienced people are also your year round competition which really aren't competition because no agent is going to say yes to someone in the slush pile who clearly hasn't edited their novel.

Whatever your personal feelings for NaNo, I will always hold it in a special place in my heart, because the year I did NaNo for the first time was the year I really got "serious" about writing.

Let me explain. I was always serious about writing. I was always writing stories, and even attempting novels in high school. I started and stopped many novels since I was fourteen or so, with the notable mention going to the novel I wrote when I was 17 that was 15oK and still nowhere close to the middle. I honestly didn't know how long a book needed to be, because I'd never researched it before. This was before being a writer was ubiquitous with being on the Internet, blogging and maybe self publishing.

I read Stephan King's On Writing, and Orson Scott Card's Character and Viewpoint. I subscribed to Writer's Digest. I still didn't seem to be able to translate the pictures in my head to the page in front of me. Then I read an article in WD about NaNo and I thought it sounded fun. I still remember sitting in my old apartment and taking the magazine over to my computer so I could properly enter the website address into Google. Lately, I had been feeling depressed. Down. Like writing was just a dream I would always have, but never achieve. For the last few years my writing had taken a back seat to going to Massage Therapy school and working long hours. I was trying to build a business from scratch with other entrepreneurs, and it was grueling, heartbreaking work.

But I'd see my copy of On Writing, and feel a pang a sorrow. I'd get my issue of Writer's Digest in the mail, and devour all the articles like they would be my salvation.

And in a way, they were. Because when I went to the NaNo forums, I found a community of writers. Just like me. Beginners, completely new to everything about writing, and people who had been writing for years. Pros. Hobbyists. Amateurs. Amateurs to amateurs like I was that first year, who didn't know what my average daily word count was, or even what conflict was to a novel.

From there I furiously Googled things like creating characters and building conflict. I found Holly Lisle's website and promptly used half the free articles there to develop the idea I had for my book. Because I signed up for that year, and even though I had absolutely NO IDEA if I could even write 50K in a month, I knew I had to try. I knew time was passing, and if I was really serious about being a writer, of being the person who had books in a store instead of just being someone who talked about it, I knew that I needed to take writing more seriously. Instead of thinking "I'll write a book and then edit it" and letting that be this vague statement, I needed to figure out how one actually goes about doing that.

I started that first novel, called Seeing Red, about a modern day take on Little Red Riding Hood, and learned through the course of the month that I could type fast. Only having a day job to worry about, and my then boyfriend/future husband, I could ignore everyone for a month to work on my novel. And you know what? I wrote 150k words that month. 

More importantly? I finished that novel, something I had never done before. I'd written novels before, novels that long even, but I had never, ever managed to type "The End" without jumping from the middle straight to the end and writing one last scene.

It was invigorating. Exhilarating. I knew this was something I wanted to do the rest of my life, and I haven't looked back since. I wrote another book in February. I tried to edit the first book I wrote. Then I tried to edit the second. I bought and read LOTS of novels about writing. James Scott Bell's Plot and Structure was one of the first, recommended by just about everyone on the Internet, and it's still one of my favorites. 

I started this blog, to talk to other writers and blog about my thoughts on writing. You'll see those early posts, where I thought I had my process all figured out. I still cringe when I read them sometimes, but there's a lot of information there, and people still say they get some use out of them, so I leave them up.

Almost seven years later, and I feel like I know less in some ways than I did then. Writing is harder with all that knowledge in my head. All the dos and don'ts and rules and opinions and trends and what to write about and what not to write about and omg you're going to die in a broken heap if you put vampires in your novel. But you know what? I've written--and completed--at least seven novels (I think it's more, but I'm too tired to count right now). I've started countless more in those seven years, and I've lost count of how many books and articles on writing I've read. All but one of my best friends I found through the Internet, through our writing.

There's a dark voice inside me, one I think we all have, that wants to point out it's been seven years and I'm not published yet. That I still have issues starting and finishing novels. That I should be further along in my writing career by now. That I should at least be moaning about all the rejections I've stacked up over the years.

But right now, reflecting back on all the good that's happened to me, it's easy to push that voice aside. Cathy Yardly, in her phenomenal book Write Every Day: How to Write Faster and Write More talks about our fears, and points out that the things you fear are parts of yourself. Crushing your self doubt, smashing your internal editor to smithereens...these are all pieces of yourself. You doubt things because you're afraid. Of failure, of success, of mediocrity. This is a part of you. You can embrace and attempt to work through it, or let it consume you. I have not found another option; if you have, please tell me.

So in the spirit of celebration of how far I've come--how far we've all come, because every person that views my blog, that writes their own blog, that toils away at their novel when the whole world sometimes feels like it's against them--I'm going to do NaNo this year with the same bright eyed innocence and steely determination as I did that first year. I don't know what project I'm going to write yet--I keep jumping from project to project as one fear or another rears it's ugly head, but come October 31st at 11:59 my butt is going to be in front of the computer and I'll be ready to start a new book. I'm going to write it until I can type "The End". And then I'm going to celebrate.

I invite you to write along with me. I plan to post this month what I'm doing to prep myself (most of it will be of the "try not to freak out" variety since that's where my issues currently are), and then during November I'll blog about my progress. You can come and leave comments or links to your own update posts and we can cheer ourselves on.

What do you plan to do this November? Write a novel? Are you already in the middle of one? How do you shut out the voices about marketing and trends? 



  1. The day my seventh grade teacher let me borrow her copy of On Writing will be a day I will never forget. It really changed my way of looking at writing and I spent the next decade writing my butt off. Sadly, I haven't written a damn thing in 2 years, but I still love it as much as I always have. Hopefully this year's NaNo I can get my butt back into it. I have a vague idea of what I want to write but so far I have no concrete plans. I'm hoping that once the clock starts the sheer panic will make me write. hehe.

    Good luck and I look forward to hearing about your adventures in writing.

    1. Panic is always a good motivator! I plan to use much of it myself. Good luck with your book and keep me posted. I'm sure you'll do well.