On Feast, Famine, and Staying Hungry

by | Nov 14, 2019 | Writing

November is an interesting month of abundance–the final harvest before the cold, bleak winter. We gain pounds, lose the leaves, and, of course, squeeze out a ton of words.

That’s right, I’m talking about NaNoWriMo–or National Novel Writing Month for those who aren’t yet fluent in writer-ese. NaNoWriMo (or NaNo for even-shorter) is a bounty or a scourge, depending on who you ask. As someone who’s seen it from both ends, I’d like to take another year to weigh in!

I’ve written a few drafts during NaNoWriMo and Camp NaNoWriMo (the summer version), but none of them have been publishable. However, my first NaNo story helped me understand how NaNo could work with my process. It also helped me get over one of the earliest humps for new novel writers: finishing the damned draft. I can’t tell you how great it felt to finish my first manuscript–to prove to myself that, yes, I, procrastinator extraordinaire, Sir Flaky-McGee, was capable of penning an entire novel! It wasn’t a great novel draft, but it helped me understand that a novel was within my scope–something that I’d had to prove to myself experientially, and NaNoWriMo helped me do it!

This time last year I was buckling down to finish the first “draft” of Blood Tramp Blues. I call it my vomit draft–I get the dreck out so I can write the actual novel. For me, NaNo is a great opportunity to do that and do it quickly! I find that the process helps me understand what I want my novel to be–and what I don’t. What parts did I write that made me cringe? At what point was the plot stymied and are there ways to avoid those impasses? Which characters didn’t matter, which did I spend too much time on, and which characters did I ignore to the detriment of the story? These are all questions I don’t always have the answer to the first time around–which is why I toss the initial draft and start fresh with a keener sense of what I want to actually write, rather than spend months (and maybe years) polishing an awful turd.

However, NaNoWriMo has its detractors for a reason. Not everyone can write an entire novel in one month, and those that do are unlikely to have a publishable work out the gate–despite how many NaNo works eventually do get published. For many, NaNo represents a month of forcing people to do something uncomfortable with promises of grandeur that are unlikely to pan out, even if the process works for them. “Failing” NaNo can also lead to a learned helplessness–a confirmation of one’s personal failures–but this is why nuance is so important!

I’ve also failed at NaNoWriMo and that’s been a learning moment, too. I learned that some story ideas can’t even carry a shitty draft–let alone anything good–and needed to ferment a little longer in my subconscious before they’re ready to be written. I’ve learned that sometimes it’s ok to take longer than a month to write a draft–especially if you want to write a solid draft that will require minimal editing–and that finishing within the month isn’t as important as finishing in general.

But through all of this, I haven’t let NaNo be the be-all end-all of any manuscript. Finishing that first NaNo satisfied me for a little while–and then I became desperately hungry to get that high again. I wanted to feel that sense of accomplishment, and subsequent NaNoWriMo attempts have not satisfied. The next step for me is to finish something and get it published. I know I’ll feel that rush again–I’ve had hints of it with Writers of the Future–but until I’ve finished a polished draft and have it printed in my hands, I’ll be chasing that dragon. And that addiction, hunger, and drive, are something NaNoWriMo gave me.

So if you’re in the middle of NaNoWriMo, or thinking about future challenges like it, consider what you’re getting into. Because it’s not easy to get that high again, but if you’re a writer you’ll have to try.

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