Today, I did not have to write a massive number of words for a crappy first draft of a novel. I didn’t have to draw anything. I planned to write a blog post, but I was not required to do so.
I’ve never been required to do any of those things, of course, not by any regulatory or other entity. The only person who has ever insisted that I had to undertake any creative endeavor has always been me. For a lot of people, that fact makes all the stuff I completed yesterday puzzling.
Here’s what I did: I wrote the first draft of a novel, with a word count of at least 50,000 words, for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I made 30 drawings in 30 days, for DrawMo. And I posted at least one blog entry every day for 30 days, for National Blog Posting Month (NaBloPoMo). You can find my initial rationale for doing all this in an earlier blog post.
In the rest of this post, I tell what happened this month, what I discovered, and what I plan to do next.
Of these challenges, NaNoWriMo was the hardest by far. It takes time to type 50,000 words. I type reasonably quickly and didn’t have to worry about spelling or grammar, and even so getting about 1000 words into a computer takes at least 20 minutes. Throw in the requirements of having a narrative flow to these words, and my speed drops to about 1000 words in 30 minutes.
But the bigger problems are internal editors and creativity. Everyone has an internal editor — that voice in your head that tells you that what you’re writing or making or thinking is awful and embarrassing, that you’ll be a laughing stock if anyone sees it, that you have no business trying to do what you’re attempting. The internal editor is cruel and harsh, and even accomplished writers and creative types fight her all the time. One trick we use in NaNoWriMo is to agree that everyone’s first draft will be lousy and awful, and no one will ever have to see it. This cuts off many of the critisicms of the internal editor.
But thinking that your work is supposed to be lousy is not always a help, especially when you are forgoing other things, fun stuff, in order to sit at a computer or desk and write. So the second trick is to trust the process. As it happens, when you set out to do something and don’t worry too much whether it is good or not, but in stead focus on making it something interesting or fun for yourself, that something generally turns out to have at least a little bit of good in it. Later, you can take that bit of good and make it better, revise and improve it. But for the purposes of NaNoWriMo, recognizing the little bit of good in what you’ve done makes it possible to go on — much the way a single good putt or drive in a round of golf makes the other 100+ strokes bearable. At least, that’s how it works for me.
This was my fourth or fifth NaNoWriMo. (Unfortunately I’ve not kept good records.) Through working professionally as a writer, and through other writing and blogging I’ve done, I’ve become pretty good at silencing or at least ignoring my internal editors. (Mine are a team, and they take turns attacking me from various angles. I also think they may be green in color, although I’m not certain.) My problem this time around was creativity, and the reason creativity was a problem was that I started to run out of time.
I had a busy month on the whole, and I was determined not to let any of these challenges get in the way of the rest of my life. Work, social events, family, football — I didn’t want to miss any of it. But this meant I had little time and energy for writing each day. I assured myself that I could make it all up during Thanksgiving weekend. But that weekend rolled around and I didn’t have much time then either. So I found myself in the final week with four fifths of the novel to write. The next couple days I didn’t meet my revised quotas either, and then I was down to four days and over half the book to finish.
As I mentioned, I can type a lot of words in an hour. That assumes, though, that I know what those words should be. As I dove into trying to reach incredible word count goals each day, I found that I was running out of ideas. Ordinarily when I write, I work in shorter bursts and do stuff in between, and while I’m doing the other stuff I think up what I should write. It’s a nice system, and from what I can tell lots of other writers do the same.
But I didn’t have the luxury of time to do other things. I tried, but I needed longer breaks than I was giving myself. I suspect I needed a lot more sleep too, to process the regular events of each day and the things I was creating. I drank a lot of coffee to keep my energy and attention going, but this dehydrated me which, in turn, made me groggy. On the last day I poured myself a big pitcher of water and made sure to drink it through the day; I believe this was critical to my keeping going at the end.
So I grabbed at some other tricks, like taking random suggestions. For example, my friend Miko mentioned in the comments that she’d seen a guy at the gym using a treadmill and wearing a kilt. I put him in the book, and he became the next major character and drove the plot for about a quarter of the book. I also tried jumping past scenes that seemed to be bogging down, moving my characters from one room to another whenever the action slowed down, and focusing on what was the worst thing that could happen at any moment and making that happen. With each of these tricks, I revived the momentum of the story and made it possible to write yet another page, and then another.
All well and good, you might say, but what’s the point? What good does any of this do?
Here’s what I got out of this:
- I accomplished something I set out to do, under terms that worked for me. I couldn’t do everything I would normally do in life — I dropped most of my exercise program and my house looks like a pig sty — but I staying involved in the lives of family and friends, kept up with work projects, stayed in touch with world events, saw some plays, read books. I didn’t have to give up everything to pursue creative endeavors, and I’m happy to prove to myself I can juggle things like this.
- I haven’t written any fiction in a couple of years, and this helped me get back on that horse. I remember now what’s fun about it and why I should make time for it.
- At least one section of the manuscript is worth pulling out and revising, probably not into a novel but into a short story. The whole month is worth it if I can get just one short story out of it.
- I got myself into a jam on this, falling so far behind schedule from the very beginning, but by working my fingers off I got myself out of it too. I’m proud of myself for not giving up when my goal looked unreachable. I very nearly did, several times. On the last day for example, when I needed to get 10,000 words by midnight but had just 9 hours, and when I had been averaging 1000 words an hour and I was pretty clearly not going to make it, I chose to keep going. I decided that if I finished after midnight, that would be not as good, but it would be OK — I would prefer to try and fail than to give up early. I’m glad I made that choice, and even gladder that I found some internal reserves that let me finish on time anyway.
Will I do it again? Right this minute I do not want to, honestly. But by next November 1 I will have recovered, and I’ll have had even more time to see the benefits of this past month. I bet I will sign up again.
DrawMo is a different sort of challenge for me. It’s a chance to explore things that I can’t do easily, to practice and improve at something.
And it’s a good way to practice being bad, publicly looking bad, if you see what I mean. I think it’s valuable to have one’s ego knocked at least now and again. We almost all try to look smooth and sophisticated, and that is good in its way. But we can’t do everything well, and it’s good to be reminded that there is more in life to learn, and we are permanently imperfect, and that everyone can keep learning and growing daily. DrawMo gives me a chance to brush up against others who do things so, so much better than I do but don’t make fun of my failings.
I love it, and I think everyone should try it. Even if you do nothing else after reading this, please consider drawing. Or if you’re already good at drawing but bad at writing, please try writing every day, or making music if that’s hard for you, or cooking. Whatever. Find some others who do the same thing and who are better than you at doing it. Try and fail and try again and fail again but better the second time, and stick with it. I promise you will be glad you did.
As for blogging every day, I don’t think that has to end with NaBloPoMo. It started as a way to document the month, and it has evolved into something like an on-going conversation with life. I feel I consume a lot — entertainment, ideas, information, food, drink, society — and I’ve been troubled that it’s all being sucked into my brain but from there it goes nowhere. Well, it goes back out in the form of conversations and work products, but the input:output ratio is too high. This blog gives me a chance to balance it out a bit more. So I plan to continue for the duration. And I plan to enjoy it.