It’s already week three of National Novel Writing Month. That means I’ve survived week two. So far, so good. Even with a weekend of kids birthday parties and other events, I managed to keep up with my daily word count and move the story along. In the process of writing, though, I’m realizing that I may have done what I typically do as a writer: try to do too much.
In the spirit of “silencing the inner editor,” I’m just making mental note of it, and not trying to fix anything right now.
As you can tell from the widget in this post, I’m now at 23,894 words as of yesterday. That’s 556 words more than my daily goal, which means I only have 1,111 words to write today, to keep from falling behind. It seems odd to have a daily word quota for a purely creative project. After all, what if you’re not inspired? What if you’ve got no ideas? You can’t churn out creativity like some novel-writing machine? What’s the point of writing 1,667 words a day if it’s all crap?
Something I learned long ago is repeated on the NaNoWriMo website: You will write a lot of crap before you write something even kinda good.
Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that’s a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down.
I’m mindful that, as Salon columnist Laura Miller pointed out, you have to revise (and revise, and revise, and revise) that crap before it’s any good.
I am not the first person to point out that “writing a lot of crap” doesn’t sound like a particularly fruitful way to spend an entire month, even if it is November. And from rumblings in the Twitterverse, it’s clear that NaNoWriMo winners frequently ignore official advice about the importance of revision; editors and agents are already flinching in anticipation of the slapdash manuscripts they’ll shortly receive. “Submitting novels in Nov or Dec?” tweeted one, “Leave NaNoWriMo out of the cover letter … or make it clear that it was LAST year’s NaNo.” Another wrote, “Worst queries I ever received as an agent always started with ‘I’ve just finished writing my NaNoWriMo novel and …'”
I don’t share her views on NaNoWriMo. When I did it the first time, it was a great experience. It got me out of my political-essay mode of writing, and back to working out writing “muscles” that had gone unused and were starting to atrophy. It gave me permission to write a novel that had been in my head for ten years, but that I’d never written a word of because of the amount of research I felt I had to do before I could even start. If you ask me, the drive for perfection stifles the creative process at its start. NaNoWriMo gave me permission to be imperfect and to just write — to get the story in my head out, in a medium where I could see how it worked … or didn’t.
If nothing else, it made writing that first novel far less intimidating, and made writing a little bit less of a lonely pursuit. I was already in the habit of writing every day, but that “permission to be imperfect” was liberating, and essential. After all, I can’t edit or improve what I don’t write.
I do share her views on the importance of revising, though. I signed up for National Novel Editing Month, which invites writers to “pick up that red pen” and spend 50 hours revising that NaNoWriMo novel. I started revising my first NaNoWriMo novel. A death in the family caused me to put that activity on the back burner. When I approached the task of revising again, I realized that in order to really write it the way the story was laid out, I’d have to write about places I’ve never been. (That’s why this one is set entirely in the D.C. area.)
This might not work, because (I’m embarrassed to say, at the age of 40), that I’ve never been anywhere. I’m shamefully untravelled. The places in the world I haven’t seen could fill an atlas.
Seriously. It’s one of the frustrations I’ve felt as a writer, at least as a writer of fiction. I don’t think it’s possible to write effectively about places I’ve never been and never seen except in magazines and on television. I suppose I could Google “Rome in August” or something like that, and try to fake it, but anyone who’d been in Rome in August, or anywhere else I haven’t been but might try to write about, would know in a minute that I’d no idea what it was really like.
That’s part of the reason I still haven’t picked up the first draft of the novel I wrote for National Novel Writing Month. I started revising it, and outlining the changes and additions I thought it needed, and realized the action was almost all in just a few places, when – to tell the story the way I really wanted to – I’d have to write about places I’d never seen or been to, and wasn’t likely to visit anytime soon.
Somehow just writing about places I’d researched or read about didn’t seem good enough. I’d probably still get some important things wrong. And get tossed into some literary agent’s “circular file.” (Because they don’t have the time, I’m sure, to deal with people who don’t even know what they’re writing about.)
As I write the current novel for NaNoWriMo, I’m realizing that my subplot is competing with the main plotline. And I think I may be trying to write two stories. One character in particular keeps trying to come to the fore. If I decide to revise this one, maybe I’ll break the stories apart, or find a way to put them back into balance. In the meantime, I just want to get a first draft done.
Meanwhile, that first novel sits on the shelf. But I don’t consider it a wasted effort, because it got me back in touch with part of myself as a writer that I’d lost for a while. It gave me back what I call my “writing buzz.” It’s something that happens to me in those unexpected moments while writing, when a story takes a turn I didn’t see coming until I wrote it, or when a character steps into the spotlight and his or her heart is revealed, or something I’d been trying to say in the story starts to come together without my trying to force it.
When that happens, I can write for a long time before I want to stop. Typically, when I’m in that mode I don’t stop until I have to. That’s usually because I have move on to some event or appointment, or because the rest of the family has come home and the boys need my attention, or because its 2:00 a.m. and I’ve got to go to bed because I’m starting to fall asleep at the keyboard (and because I’ve got to be well rested for work and the rest of the day before I can get back to writing).
It’s those moments, when the “writing buzz” hits that makes me want to get back to writing. Yes, I am one of those creatures Miller writes about — writers who will keep pounding away at the keyboard whether or not anyone cares or notices. It’s who I am and what I do. (Even my husband says, “You’re happier when you’re able to write.”) My first attempt at writing a novel was in elementary school. I haven’t stopped trying since, and most likely won’t.
But I doubt I’ve have gotten there, and gotten that “buzz” back when I did if it wasn’t for NaNoWriMo. So, that first novel serves as a reminder to me not to lose that part of myself again. I don’t know if it will see the light of day. Maybe, years from now, I’ll get to visit those places I tried to write about in the story and revision won’t seem so impossible. Until then, I don’t dare even think of sending it to anyone or even making any part of it public. It’s not ready for anyone else to read yet. Maybe the second one will be, someday. But I won’t be posting it anywhere or sending it to publishers on December 1st. Maybe not even December 1st 2011, or 2012. Not until I’ve done everything I can do with it, and feel that maybe it’s ready.
I agree with Miller, though, that the world needs more readers. But as a writer and an avid reader (I always have at least two books going, and the only reason it’s not three is because I’m more likely to finish them if I keep it at two.) I don’t understand why the two have to be mutually exclusive. I can only speak for myself, but my guess is that many of the participants in NaNoWriMo are also readers, many of whom were inspired by the novels they’ve read. I know that’s how it was for me. It’s the books I have read, am reading, and will read that inspire me as a writer and give me something to aspire to. Even if I never reach those aspirations, I’m better for having tried. (Hell, that’s a theme for a story right there. It’s been done before, but so has everything. So, it can be done again — because so has everything.)
But mainly, I don’t care much for pooh-poohing other people’s dreams. My mom sometimes repeated the phrase “Reach for the moon, because even if you miss it you miss it you might catch a few stars.” I always took that to mean that even if I try and don’t reach my goal, I might still be better off for having tried. If I learn something, discover something new, or reach goals I didn’t know existed before, then it’s worth it.
I’ve never understood telling someone, “Don’t try. You probably won’t be successful anyway.” Doesn’t the world have enough of that?
I think I may tape this quote above my computer monitor.
“Only as high as I reach can I grow, only as far as I seek can I go, only as deep as I look can I see, only as much as I dream can I be.”
As an antidote to voices that say “Don’t try.”