I usually try to send this newsletter on the first of the month, when I send it at all. (So… rarely.) But did you know that if you spend a month in a 50,000 word writing marathon, you’re very tired and need a few days to process?! So I’m not letting perfect be the enemy of the good here, and will send this… I don’t know, early in the month. You’ll know when you get it, I suppose.
“Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good” is actually pretty good advice for NaNoWriMo, which I just completed. But let’s be real. The point of Nano isn’t to get anywhere near good. It’s really, I guess, don’t let perfect be the enemy of the mediocre, and also, mediocrity is the point. All of which is a long intro to saying, hey! I won National Novel Writing Month! Go me!
To recap: back in October I told all of you I was going to give Nano a try, after more than a decade of not doing it. Over the last few years I’ve been coming to terms with the fact that my writing process involves writing a truly mediocre first draft, which I use only to mine the little gem of an idea buried inside it and figure out what it might be with a lot of polish. Then I toss it all, no matter how many words it was, and write again from scratch. So I figured, if I always end up doing that anyway, why not do that on purpose, and fast, so I’m spending one month rather than four to six on the draft that’s going in the garbage?
So, I did. Here are some things I learned:
I’m not an every day writer. Writing every day is a cool thing to do sometimes, when it feels useful. For me, I’ve found that it helps push me into gear when I’ve stalled out on something. When that happens, it’s great to have as a tool in my toolbox… but during November, the standard assumption is that you’ll write 1,667 words every day to hit 50,000 words in 30 days. And that just did not happen. But also: I didn’t need that to happen.
After all of these years of tracking my writing, I know I average a bit over 2,000 words in an hour… which meant I needed less than an hour a day. It also meant that if I didn’t write for a few days, but could put in a few extra hours on the weekends, I knew I’d be fine. And that was what I did. I’d often end the work day tired from, well, work; then I’d either drag myself out to go swim laps for a bit, or spend some time making dinner, and after all of that a lot of the time I just didn’t want to write, or didn’t have the focus. So I’d poke at it every couple of nights, try to get a thousand words, and then on the weekends write a whole lot more. And guess what: that worked fine!
My brain needs a break. So, as noted, a lot of evenings I didn’t have the focus to write, so that put a lot more pressure on me to churn out big word counts on the weekends. But I know from years of tracking my writing that after about ninety minutes of focused writing, my brain gets a bit mushy, because writing is actually pretty hard work. (Not to mention, my wrists don’t hurt much these days, thankfully, but after a couple of hours they do get a bit rubbery and weird.)
To avoid those problems, I started breaking up my days into a morning writing sprint and an evening writing sprint. (I use “morning” a bit loosely here. It was usually 1 PM, which is close to the morning still. Look, whatever your mental image of Not A Morning Person is, I’m much, much less of a morning person than that.) Basically, I’d sprint early-ish, give my brain and wrists hours to recover, and then come back after dinner.
It’s the sort of thing which, typing it out, sounds obvious. It wasn’t for me, and I was shocked that it worked, like I was somehow scamming myself. To be honest, I hadn’t been sure I could find the motivation to do those second sessions when on most weekends after a bit of work my brain kicks and screams because it’s a weekend, who wants to do more work?? But the breaks were long enough that it didn’t feel taxing, and the deadline pressure was enough to be motivating, so I managed it. This is a cool new trick I think I’m gonna carry well past Nano.
Writing with friends helps, too. We are actually still in a pandemic, and I’m immune suppressed, so, sigh, I still can’t go out and do coffee shop writing, with or without friends. That used to be how I’d get words out. Luckily, I’m in a few discord servers I’m in with other writers, and they all have a sprint bot, and doing 30 minute sprints with other people either sprinting along, or cheering me on, was great. Having a community is always a good thing. It definitely helped to get little cheerleader emojis when I’d post my progress reports. Hooray!
It’s kind of addictive. I actually finished the 27th, the end of the long holiday weekend, and am starting to draft this email on the 2nd. So it’s been a few days. But all week it’s also been kind of a weird void, because shouldn’t my brain be working on a project? It’s felt like something missing. I feel the same way every time I finish a draft or a revision, actually.
Working on something creative can become a habit. But more than that, it feels kind of… nourishing. I’m not going to make any grand statements about other people, but for me, having a creative outlet I’m taking part in regularly is just good for my brain. In this case, with nothing to write at the moment, my brain started spitting out ideas for a project I shoved in a drawer years ago, and also I wanted to read. That’s a whole other can of worms — I did not read much this year, sigh — but having the feeling of “I want words in my head, my own or someone else’s, whichever’s closer, right now,” is awesome.
Okay. So those are some of the overarching themes I noticed. But what about the really big question — did my experiment work? I was specifically trying to see what, if anything, I’d get out of fast drafting for a month to help me work with my process and make my next version of the project easier. And… Um, I don’t know? I probably won’t know for sure until sometime next year, when I sit down and start working on this project again. Right now, all I can tell you is where I think I’ve landed which is: this was probably pretty helpful.
I jumped into this project a lot quicker than I have with anything in the past. Usually I have months — if not years — of time with a project stewing in the back of my mind before I outline, and and I feel pretty confident that my outline is going to carry me through. In this case, I’d had a little bit of the concept for awhile, but had only really been thinking through what that might mean for a story for a month or two. I only had half an outline, and I had next to no worldbuilding. For me, getting started with so little feeling ready was more intimidating than trying to draft 50k in 30 days… but since even when I plan I run into big problems and have to rewrite, I figured it was worth a shot.
I spent the whole month jotting down scenes, knowing that they didn’t really make sense strung together. Some of them have notes early on for things like “this happens too easily” or “how do they know that??” or “none of this makes any sense”. I stopped bothering with that after a week or so and just plowed on through. What I have is nothing like a complete draft: I have the first act, bits and pieces of the next 25%, a crappy version of a dramatic midpoint, two scenes from the next 25% or so, and then a terrible climax. And that’s fine, because I wasn’t looking for a complete draft, I was looking for those brilliant little gems.
I think I found some. I also found a lot of things that weren’t quite right. I’d toss in elements to see if they sparked ideas, and a lot of the time they didn’t. But I did write one scene — one single, stand out scene — that showed me the relationship at the heart of the story. That crappy, nonsensical climax showed me a big element of worldbuilding I’d been missing. The draft gave me a surprise character who’d been nowhere in my notes or outline but turned out to be pivotal, and a decent sense of the other characters, which is a big win since character is usually one of the last pieces of the story that snaps into place for me. I think I have roughly the shape of the story, though the second half is still pretty amorphous, and most importantly, I have the high-flying feeling of potential. The thing I spent a month putting on paper is an unfinished mess that no other humans should ever read… but it left me feeling excited to put in the work to turn it into something real.
So, will this mad dash of a draft prevent me from having to rewrite from scratch multiple times? I don’t know, but I’m jazzed to find out, and that is a win, no matter what.