On Writing 2: NaNoWriMo: Autopsy of a November

I never officially signed up for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) this year. Their website was overloaded on November 1st and wouldn’t let me on. After the first day I was already writing, so it didn’t seem like a good use of my time.

I'll happily download images from their site, though.

I’ll happily download images from their site, though.

Like so many of the other official things about NaNoWriMo, signing up wasn’t really the point. Writing 50,000 words wasn’t really the point. Finishing a novel in 30 days wasn’t really the point.

The point was to start building something, and to learn from the process. So here’s my breakdown on November 2016, what went right, what went wrong, how I’m feeling now, and a few numbers to hopefully connect my statements with reality.

First, my raw output was 25,988 words, which is less than my goal, but is still about 115 pages double-spaced. My first Masters thesis was about 90 pages long, my second 75; I wrote over 40 pages in 8 hours for my MLS comprehensive exam. I’ve certainly written faster in my life, but this is not just the longest piece of fiction I’ve worked on in my life. Halfway through, this is already the longest document I’ve ever written. It’s not perfect, and entire days’ worth of work are not very good, and most importantly it’s not done. I’m convinced it’s worth finishing, so I feel pretty great about that.

In terms of my work breakdown, I worked 17 of the 30 days in November. I only have daycare 4 weekdays right now; my wife works 5 days a week and my in-laws work more than that. My daughter, perfect and wonderful as all daughters are, is 3 years old and not yet independent enough to play by herself for an hour if I ask her for some time. However, my wife was generous and made sure to protect my time on weekends, so I typically got between 2-4 hours of writing in on a given Sunday afternoon. I also took the day off after the election to feel angry and depressed and to write an ad hominem filled open-letter to Donald Trump. I spent half of the following day writing the much more productive letter that I published on this site, but I also made my quota that day so it counts as a writing day.

Thanksgiving kind of kicked my butt in a different way. Yes, it was only one additional day off away from my computer, but I didn’t write that weekend either. I didn’t even make the attempt. Monday ended up being a 500 word day because I couldn’t get my feet back under me. Tuesday I spent an absurd amount of time doing necessary but exhausting chores– airplane tickets are even harder to buy when you’re spending someone else’s money– and probably wrote around 200 words at the very tail-end of the day. However, those 200 words felt absurdly good.

Mathematically, I didn’t meet my quota for my daily word count. I regularly managed to write 1,600 words a day, and on good days I broke 2,000 words. Bad days where I wrote 500-800 words hurt my average more than I thought, though– only counting the days I worked, I ended up with an average of 1,500 words a day. My first feeling is to chastise myself– 100 words is a mere handful, I can easily write that in a quarter hour. As a person who has spent half his life yelling at his brain– and the other half on his brain yelling back– it’s not a very useful response. If I got 1,500 words a day written for 4 days a week for a year I’d be thrilled! I’d also probably have a few books written. I think the better lesson is that if I write for many days in a row then it feels good and I get things done.

Sundays afternoons were some of my most productive writing days, sometimes resulting in over 2,000 words. I think knowing that someone else was making a sacrifice for me, and knowing that I only had a little bit of time for work, helped. I also didn’t have to worry about soloing my little girl as I got her ready for pre-school, driving her in, and then trying to change my entire mindset as I sat down and stared at a blank screen. It was a short enough time that I didn’t have to worry much about food, exercise, and bathroom breaks either. To apply this lesson, I’m going to try setting aside smaller blocks of writing time as absolute and sacrosanct. As the saying goes, I’ll poop when I’m dead, amIright?

Iamnotright

#Iamnotright

A lot of the things I’ve learned from the last 30 days are things I technically already knew. Life gets in the way of creation. The only way to do something is to stop thinking about it and do it. That angry, confused Twitterbot less than half of voters elected is going to be a grotesque hybrid of Silvio Berlusconi and Warren Harding. I feel better when I get to the gym. Obvious stuff, really. By actually doing the experiment, though, I’ve proved that I don’t have to work obsessively. I just need to work consistently. I don’t have to rewrite every scene until it’s perfect. I need to write every scene, learn from them as I write them, and be prepared for the arduous editing process to come.

This time next year, I’ll have a finished novel. It won’t be published, but if I’m lucky some of my friends will like the first chapter well enough to show it to their agents. If I’m not lucky… I’ve still written a novel about a reluctant teenage supervillain. My life and the world will be immeasurably– in the strictest sense, because good luck measuring this stuff– better for my work. And I’ll have a whole new fictional world to play around in.

Plus, Peter and Tink aren’t even in The Neverworld yet. I haven’t even gotten to the good stuff yet! WE CAN’T STOP HERE, THIS IS BAT COUNTRY!

Never stop here, friends. Everywhere is Bat Country.

On Writing 1: The Stupid Guide to NaNoWriMo

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A few minutes ago, I made my commitment to complete my first novel.

I made a big geographic move in May, and in the process gave up my money-making career so my wife could pursue her dream job. She’s killing it, so no problems there. In that time I have started this blog, increased my presence on social media (some… a lot of folks say Twitter is a dying format, but it seems to work for me), completed one satirical short story, and rewritten the introduction to my novel about 6 times.

It’s time to move forward. It’s not like I don’t have hopes of turning my pseudo-philosophical essays into a print collection, but the novel– for people who write, it’s the dream, the goal. It’s how you know you are Getting Shit Done. And since we live in a world that is filled with Shit, Shit that needs to Get Done… well, best get to it.

The name of my novel is Comatose: The Life and Crimes of the Coma Kid. It’s a darkly comic YA novel about a teenager who, despite his best efforts to do good, becomes the world’s greatest supervillain after he kills Superman– who is a godlike lady named The Imperatrix who comes from an alternate timeline where the Roman Empire was eternal, but you get the picture. It’s a solid concept, and sometimes it’s a lot of fun to write. But, amazingly, it isn’t perfect, either in conception or in execution, and this irks me. So I start again.

So, not only am I making my commitment to its completion, I am also writing myself this guide, so that I can finish my work and feel good about it.

  1. Don’t Worry About Finishing It

The alleged goal in National Novel Writing Month is to write a 50,000 word novel. That’s a 200 page book. So, is finishing the book in the designated time frame the most important thing? If I do not reach this arbitrary goal, or reach a different arbitrary goal, have I failed?

Of course not. This is not about failure or allowing for the possibility of failure. This is about building good habits, about creating something new and strange, about learning new skills and not undermining myself. If I move forward on my novel every day then I succeed.

2. Lower Your Standards

One of the great challenges in writing is finding out that your ideas, so beautiful inside your head, turn into sludge on the screen– the written equivalent of lukewarm oatmeal. It happens to me almost every time I write.

This means I have taste.

If every time I wrote a sentence I looked at it and said “Perfect!” then I would have no business writing. I am not a literary Mozart, my words need a lot of help. A lot of drafts.

Do them tomorrow. Today you are going for distance, going for speed. You are going to write a story, and you’ll judge it and change it and break it later. That’s not November’s job or November’s problem.

Most writer’s use about 10% of their first draft in their finished novel (and about 10% too many apostrophes). Sure, I’m better than most writers, but I’m not going to prove it in my first novel’s first draft.

3. Prepare for Failure

I don’t mean set yourself up for failure. Never that. I mean don’t let the setbacks stop you. There will be days when you write nothing, or you simply hate everything you wrote. You will get sick, your daughter will get sick, Netflix will release a new show that you need to binge. You will get bored, and you will get angry at yourself, both for your terrible writing and for your terrible lack of writing. Please know this, though: unless you’re playing punk rock, self loathing will not help you. It is masturbation; it wastes time and gets nothing done.

4. I Should Be Writing

Is there a new show on TV? That’s cool, I should be writing. Is there a Pokémon that needs catching? Well, yes, obviously– but I should be writing. Is everything hard for me, and when I feel that way does it feel like it will last forever? Definitely– but wallow later. It’s time to write.

I’m a diabetic who writes and whose wife is supporting him (as I supported her through years of PhDing). So my daily checklist is as follows:

1) Love my wife, daughter, friends and family. Make sure they know I love them. Do the Nice Things for them and also get the wuggle child to school.

2) Work out once a day. Walk if you can’t do anything else. Eat well. Do kung fu and Tai Ch’i, do some pull-ups, squat-thrusts, lip-ups if you can figure out what those are.

3) Read, of course.

4) Write. Writewritewritewritewrite.

This message brought to you by the Center for Admitting We Are All Stupid. Now shut up and write.