So my first-ever attempt at this NaNoWriMo thing? Not going so well. Oh, I could provide a litany of excuses. In fact here’s five, in no particular order, that I just thought of:
- I’ve had to closely monitor media updates on Ari and Pete’s breakup and subsequently listen to thank u, next 5 million times a day on average.
- I already write almost 5,000 words a day for work and other projects, so the inside of my brain is not so much gray matter as cotton candy by the time I can sit down for NaNoWriMo.
- My sister got new puppies and they’re really cute.
- I’ve been traveling a lot for family reasons-stuff-things.
- Daylight savings?
While I’m pretty sure each of those items constitutes a rock-solid alibi for my lackluster writing performance this November, I realized the real reason last night. And it was fairly liberating. Here’s my process of discovery, in three digestible stages:
Stage One: Why is Everything I’m Writing Crap?
It’s not that I’ve been having any trouble writing. It’s just that everything I’m writing is crap. Because I write for a living, reaching word counts isn’t that much of a challenge for me. Like a little robot, I let my eyes glaze over and I tippety-tap-tap away until my page fills up with words. Sometimes, I don’t know what I’ve written till I read it over. Sometimes, this is a mystical and marvelous process that creates something surprisingly tolerable. And sometimes, this is a disappointing part of the process, indeed.
Over the past few days, I’ve found that although I can force myself to sit down for the requisite amount of time and write the required number of words in my new NaNoWriMo project, the resulting work isn’t leading me anywhere viable. Unlike previous projects I’ve done, my characters aren’t taking me by the hand. In fact, they fucking hate me. There’s a detachment, a lack of emotional connection, and it really comes through in the writing.
My refrain over the first week or so of November has mostly just been: WHY IS THIS CRAP WHY IS THIS CRAP WHY IS THIS CRAP.
Stage Two: How Have I made this work in the past?
Although my three part series (yes, the one I’ve blogged about incessantly) is potentially crap, it doesn’t feel that way to me. It feels exciting and fulfilling, and a lot of the times it’s the only project that I’m proud of in any given day. And when I wrote the first drafts for those books, I followed a similar model to NaNoWriMo: I wrote a certain amount every day, for a period of time, no matter what. And it worked.
So why isn’t it working now?
Last night, I even went back to my very first chapter in the very first book in my series that I started two years ago.(Like the weird miser I am, I keep copies of ancient drafts that have since undergone drastic revisions.) And though it was very clear this first chapter needed editing, it definitely had the spirit and the style that encapsulates my series. In other words, this initial chapter already read like it belonged. Even before edits.
So far, nothing I’ve written in my NaNoWriMo book has given me that feeling.
So why would a strategy that worked so well for that previous series fail so hard this time around? I mean, I’m really excited about this new story idea, and I feel like it’s a relevant and prescient story. And yet. I haven’t written a single word that I’m proud of! I want to delete everything! And I didn’t even write anything for this project last night I was so disheartened! What gives?
Stage Three: Realization
After further midnight digging in the glorified graveyard of my old writing projects, I started to sprout flickery light bulbs over my tired brain. In addition to that first chapter in M&J, I uncovered some documents I’d totally forgotten about. Namely, two other starts to the series that would have taken it in an entirely different direction.
These initial false starts contained neither of the main characters that are so integral to M&J (it’s 110% character-based). Further, they suggested no inkling of the dramatic three book arc I eventually conceived. Worst of all, these false starts were utterly devoid of flavor, voice, tone, and pizzazz. Reading them, I felt icky and detached and a little dead inside.
The same way I felt when re-reading everything I’ve written for NaNoWriMo.
This was my Eureka moment! And it’s simple: everything I’ve written that I’m actually proud of had a bad beginning.
Like I’ve done in the past (and apparently forgotten about)I just have to keep trying until it sticks. This means changing characters, re-working plot ideas, starting the story in a different setting, experimenting with exposition— anything to strike the right chord. Anything to gather that momentum. Apparently it’s possible for me to sometimes write fun stories, but first I have to fail a million-billion times.
So, what now? It ain’t pretty…
Everything I’ve written thus far for NaNoWriMo must go. It’s not grabbing my attention and I’m not invested in the characters, the tone, the setting, or the style….so it has to be buried in the graveyard with the other neglected documents of its ilk.
Although this may seem like a very troubling course of action (that’s many, many words to scrap!) this is actually the wisest solution to the problem. I mean, I could keep going with the characters I have and the voice I’ve established, but I know that the rest of the story would fall flat. And it would be torture to write.
Instead, my plan is to just keep starting the story until it sticks. Experiment with narrative style, characterization, and themes until I found something that strikes me as authentic and true. Until it feels right. (By the way, I think it’s more than possible that my personal muse is every bit as flighty and annoying as I am, and does this purposely to test me.) With this philosophy, I certainly can’t hope to actually complete 50,000 words or whatever this November. By the end of the month, I might only have 10,000 or 1,000 words.
But if I know anything about my writing style (which, god help us, I’ve spent enough time obsessing about), then this is simply a part of my creative process. And forcing my creative process to fit the mold of a writing prompt would lead to a disaster of a book, a frustrated me, and characters with whom I share a mutual loathing.
How’s your NaNoWriMo Going?
So, obviously my NaNoWriMo is kinda fucked. But at least I know why, and how to fix it. And that’s okay with me.
How about you? Is this something that you’re doing this year? Have done in the past? And do you have any weird writer-ly idiosyncrasies like me? One more question: how can you tell that something you’re writing is really working for you— or whether it needs to be approached from a different angle?