What I learned from NaNoWriMo 2013

“We learn wisdom from failure much more than from success. We often discover what will do, by finding out what will not do; and probably he who never made a mistake never made a discovery.”
— Samuel Smiles

I finished my first National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) having accumulated 21,196 words of the 50,000 needed to win. It can be argued that a challenge bested on the first attempt is no challenge at all, so I am dusting myself off and taking a hard look at what happened with an eye to the next time. I’m the sort of daydreamer who has often fantasized about chucking away the career to write for a living — short stories, essays, articles, novels — hardcore writing that owns my most wakeful hours of the day and tops the priority on the daily to-do list. Surely if I could only do that, I could be the kind of Self-Actualized Human Being that Abraham Maslow would place at the top of his eponymous pyramid, from whose pinnacle I would gaze down at the rest of the world like some sort of radiant Sun-God…

But before checking in to that flight of fancy, I knew that there were more reasonable milestones, like finishing something, and paying my ego-dues in rejection letters until I finally published a piece. And the steps towards those milestones, according to every writer who cared to opine on the subject, were to WRITE. EVERY. DAY. Not to make excuses. Not to lie there waiting for inspiration. But to make myself prolific and practiced enough to call myself a writer without qualifying the word, or feeling like a fraud.

NaNoWriMo was the perfect opportunity to test myself. I claimed to want the Writer’s Life, but could I live it for 30 days? Could I block off the time to produce 1,667 words every day, alongside my day job and parenting a toddler, no matter how tired, burned-out, distracted, or blocked I felt?

No, as it turns out. I couldn’t.
But now I have a much better sense of why.

I Dropped Out Of Weight Watchers, Too

Writing 50,000 words in 30 days is no easy task. In a standard manuscript format document, that equates to writing about six pages every day. For me, the daily 1,667 words took around 3 hours of writing time; more, if I had to piecemeal it throughout the day and settle back into the groove where I left off. Falling behind was disastrous. It incurred a debt not easily paid off.

It reminded me a lot of another exercise in self-discipline I attempted a few years ago: Weight Watchers. Both NaNoWriMo and Weight Watchers are structured to help you establish a goal-oriented lifestyle. Both have a form of daily check-in, progress-charting to encourage you, and legions of cheerleaders to help you to your feet when you stumble. And in both programs I fought against the downward spiral of failure begetting failure because it’s so much easier to let gravity win and stay off program than it is to get back on. But while Weight Watchers is open-ended — you can spend two years to take off those last 20 pounds if you need to — NaNoWriMo has a narrow time frame in which to win. Sure, the ultimate lesson is that any progress towards your goal is better than none or regression. But when you’re playing the NaNoWriMo game to win, unless you have the discretionary time to binge-write, do not fall behind.

NaNoWriMo, like Weight Watchers, is about establishing and sustaining habits that support a goal. Some would call that “intentional living.” In concept, it’s a great thing, and there’s no good reason not to do it. And yet, somehow it’s hard. Because… excuses.

Excuses, Excuses

There are those who claim that there are no reasons you can’t reach your goals, only excuses. As a motivational slogan it may have merit, but as a description of reality, of course, it’s horseshit. The slogan’s main merit is to force you to examine your values and make the hard calls on where writing fits into the demands on your time — on what constitutes a reason and what is an excuse.

Was winning NaNoWriMo more important to me than caring for my 2-year-old, fulfilling the obligations that allow me to draw a paycheck, or feeding and taking out the dog? It was not, and that meant that I would not be writing between 6:30am and 9:30pm (except during a few stolen moments), weekdays and most weekends (my kid doesn’t nap). That left 9 hours a day of discretionary/sleep time to allocate.

Was winning NaNoWriMo more important than catching up on Boardwalk Empire/Homeland/American Horror Story/TheWalking Dead? Yes, it was. And still, there were nights when I didn’t choose what I valued, I chose what felt comfortable. (Lesson learned: stay strong.)

Was winning NaNoWriMo more important than sleeping? Sometimes it was, sometimes it wasn’t. It depended on how many consecutive days I decided it was. (Lesson learned: I’m not as young as I used to be.)

And then, of course, there’s that most universal of excuses: the holidays. I used to wonder why NaNoWriMo was in November. Thanksgiving is in November. There’s travel (or houseguests), cooking, cleaning, interacting with family in real-time without the benefit of a computer screen and asynchronous communication. Now I think it’s genius that NaNoWriMo chose November. Thanksgiving plans are usually made well in advance; the holiday is toward the end of the month, and there is ample time to plan your strategy around the holiday — because if you’re going to live the Writing Life, this kind of stuff can’t knock you off your game. In Weight Watchers, they would devote an entire meeting session just before each holiday to help people plan how to manage the caloric temptations, and familial pressures to eat, that we all knew to expect. Was winning NaNoWriMo more important than cooking the family meal, or spending time with my mother who lives alone in another city, but had come for a week to spend time with her son and granddaughter? Hellz no. And I knew that before November even started. Lesson learned: plan for the holiday.

The clearest lesson out of this process of weighing values was that there was a set of things I was willing to give up, and a set of things I was not. That defines one’s level of commitment to any new undertaking, and sets some practical boundaries and expectations. I learned a lesson in undergraduate that hadn’t been true before, but has been true ever since: there are things that can’t be accomplished even by staying up all night. When we were young, we were encouraged to know our limits so we could exceed them. In my 40s, I’m starting to feel the need to know my limits so I don’t sprain something.

But I Did Some Stuff Right, Too

In October, I prepared for NaNoWriMo by creating an outline, and it was the smartest thing I did. I had never written a novella-length piece of fiction before, and I didn’t know how to approach one. But I had written many a short story, and I figured out pretty early on that I wanted four point-of-view characters in my novel. Not only were they the smallest subset of characters who could properly represent the story’s events, but they had some elegant symmetries and contrasts that seemed too clever for me to pass up. I started by having four headings, one for each character, and jotting down a rough chronology of events or scenes I envisioned unfolding under each point of view. I kept this outline electronically so I could review and tweak it on the bus, in the restroom, between meetings — whenever I could. My goal before November was to have four reasonable character arcs, as though I were writing four short stories.

At various points, two or more characters’ scenes would intersect, so I restructured my outline from a character chronology to a global chronology. For the outline, I used my favorite Web-based productivity tool, Workflowy, which let me create a line to describe each scene, and I tag each scene with the characters who appeared in it, as well as a “#todo” that I would later remove after the scene had become paragraphs in my manuscript. I could then use the tags and Workflowy filters to collapse the global chronology to a character-specific one, or even to just the scenes I had left to write. Before I even began writing the novel, I ended up with two things: a sequence of scenes that told a complete story, and some confidence that each character had his or her own internal journey over the course of the tale. I’ve trained myself to be ruled by checklists, so having an ordered (and re-orderable) set of bullet-pointed scenes made the whole idea of writing a novel much more approachable.

As I was writing, of course, I allowed myself the freedom to veer off the outline, and if I chanced upon something interesting, I retrofitted it back in to the plan. I also used the outline to jot down notes about the emotional core of a scene, and what experiences of my own I could tap into to make the scene ring true. Or I’d make a note about character voice — channel a little Han Solo when writing this guy, or Hannibal Lecter when writing that woman.

I jumped around in the chronology. I wrote the first few scenes of each character, then the last climactic scenes. Then I started working backwards and forwards toward the middle. I stuck with one character until I got bored or blocked, and then I moved to a different one. I dispensed with scene transitions if I was eager to write the action. Or if I couldn’t think of a good way to move a scene forward, I’d pour in physical description or prattling dialogue until something sparked (or until I got my night’s word count).

And as the NaNoWriMo coaches encourage, I dialed down my internal editor as much as I could. The only metric that mattered for November was word count. If I used the same turn of phrase in two consecutive paragraphs, I let it slide. If the descriptions were workmanlike and lacking flair, I didn’t worry about it. If I wasn’t sure of a detail, and wanted to do some research first, I went with my gut and deferred the research. From my experience with short stories I knew that revision was where the magic (and much of the fun) happened. I committed to making my job in November the creation of a substantial draft that I could revise.

Even if I didn’t win, I’m pretty happy with the result. I wrote 19 of the 26 scenes I had planned in my outline, and I have 75 pages of writing. This is a project I believe I could finish. And isn’t that the bedrock difference between real writers and dabblers? Real writers finish things. And I now have the confidence I can do it.