Welcome to November. It’s National Novel Writing Month, known as NaNoWriMo, NaNo for short well… shorter. If you aren’t familiar with NaNo, it’s a writing challenge that takes place over the entire month, the idea being that if you write 1,667 words each day, you’ll have 50,000 by the end of November. Whether that’s an entire novel for you, the beginning of one, or the ending, it’s a heck of a challenge and a good lesson in powering through.
I wasn’t always a NaNo fan. I never liked the idea of being beholden to a word count that someone else set for me, or checking in with a website on a daily – or if I’m feeling particularly needy – hourly basis. I partially resented NaNo simply because it was something everyone else is doing, and I tend to be suspicious of things that other people like.
Then, in 2016, I needed to finish Given to the Earth. That’s my longest book, clocking in at nearly 100,000 words, and while I loved the story and was motivated to work on it, I knew my usual word count goal of 1000 a day wasn’t going to put me near my deadline. This book was a mammoth, and I felt like I was attacking it with a toothpick.
The Nano requirement of 1,667 words a day would push me to do more, and so, needing a boost, I signed up. The Nano site is free, easy to use, and offers more than just a word count accumulator. You can have writing buddies, check in with them for accountability, hop onto the forums if you need a break from your isolation, or even check out some pep talks from famous authors.
And while community is great, what I needed in 2016 wasn’t that. I’m a goal driven person, and suddenly I had something in front of me that appealed directly to that aspect of my personality. A progress bar. I’d get lost in what I was producing, take a quick assessment, then dump that number into Nano to watch my brown bar turn blue. It was rewarding, even on days that I struggled for a hour only to produce 200 words, that blue still crept forward, even if only minutely.
You “win” Nano by hitting the 50k word count goal by the end of the month. Winning means that you get a little rosette that says WINNER and weirdly, those pixels make you feel pretty awesome. I not only “won,” Nano, but finished Given to the Earth by writing a whopping 56,235 words that month. That’s an insane output, and I’m happy to say because of the nature of it being a sequel as well as already halfway finished when I began Nano, the first draft was fairly clean for being written at such a breakneck pace.
2017 found me in the same situation. I was promoting my newest release – This Darkness Mine – traveling, putting together this podcast, maintain the blog, and trying to hit a deadline for my upcoming book, Heroine. It was tight, it was tough. So I NaNo’d again. And while I did not “win” Nano – I only wrote 34,245 words that month – I did what I set out to do, using Nano to finish the manuscript and hit my due date.
This year is a little different. I’m not on deadline, or under contract. For the first time since 2010, I found myself working on a project that is just for me. It’s an adult historical novel with dual timelines, an audience jump for me. I don’t know if it will sell. I have no guarantees with this one – and I admit, that does take the motivation out of the project a little, as I write for a living now. But there is something freeing in writing only for myself, allowing time for experimentation and not beating myself up for every word I delete, and every minute I simply stare at the computer, not typing.
Okay, that’s a lie. I’m still definitely beating myself up about both those things.
But, returned to this new space of writing only for myself was weirdly intimidating, and I found motivation somewhat lacking. November 1st rolled around and I thought – why not?
I signed up on the first and promptly decided to defrost the deep freeze and make cinnamon rolls from scratch. These are not normal Mindy activities. This is called procrastination. I didn’t write a word on November 1st, which mean that my goal to catch up on the 2nd was over 3000 words. That’s a lot for one day.
I chipped away at it, got it knocked down a bit, went to a book festival on the 3rd where I peddled my wares all day, drove home, and sat in front of my computer to face a blinking cursor and a feeling of failure. I was back at needed to put in around 3 thousand words, actually more like 3 thousand three hundred. It was 8 pm. It felt insurmountable. So I wrote a little bit, and plugged it into my progress bar. It was about 200 words.
They were good words, but there were only 200 of them. I stared at the last sentence, unhappy with it. Here it is :
Her panic was tame; what was passing through the crowd gathered in front of the Archer’s Ferry schoolhouse was a wild cousin, its presence made known not through frantic movement or rippling screams, but rather a stillness of limbs and silenced voices, paired with questioning eyes that asked each other – what do we do?
Wait – does that sound like that’s my left eyes asking MY right eye what do we do? Or is it my eyes asking someone else’s eyes, what do we do? I flicked my pen up and down for a minute, then carried the laptop into the kitchen and read it to the boyfriend, followed by my question about pairs of eyes or individual eyes.
He looked at me over his coffee and said – maybe you’re over thinking this?
It was a valid question, but I still didn’t have an answer so I texted my extremely reliable critique partner RC Lewis with my query. She replied within a minute – I read it right the first time. You’re overthinking.
Yep. I was. Instead of plowing forward I was overanalyzing what little I’d done, picking away at what I’d produced – which wasn’t pushing that blue bar any further ahead. This is also called procrastination, by the way.
I took my laptop upstairs and laid down in bed – my preferred writing spot – and gave myself a pep talk you probably won’t find on the Nano site: Mindy, write some fucking words.
So I did. I wrote in the spirit of Nano, plowing forward in what I have always called a word vomit – just letting it all come out. Not editing, not staring, not over thinking. Just writing. It was 1 AM by the time I finished, but I did make up the deficit to hit my goal, a total accumulation of 5 thousand words in the first 3 days of November.
In fact, I’d like to brag a little and say my actual count at the moment is 5 thousand and twelve.
I had two somewhat related questions come from listeners last month. One asking, how do authors stay motivated throughout a book, not getting discouraged by rational thoughts? How do you power through? And the other stating: Sometimes reading too much on craft stunts my creative process and I worry too much that it’s all shit.
First of all – me too. Seriously. I absolutely read what I wrote the day or hour before and believe that it his horrible, unpublishable dreck. I’m usually typing away at something and shaking my head at the same time, because I think it sucks.
It’s true. I’ve got eight published novels and receive complimentary emails and tweets and have fans tell me to my face I’m their favorite author and guys – it just doesn’t matter. Whatever I’m creating right now is going to be the book that reveals me as a fraud and a hack. I have no confidence when I’m creating, so if you’re in the same place – congratulations. You’re a writer.
Every good writer I know thinks they are terrible.
Every writer I’ve ever met who thinks they are gifted is… not.
If you’re bored, Google the Dunning-Kruger effect.
But to answer the first question – how do you power through?
First of all, recall my moment this week when I was analyzing a handful of words, wondering if they indicated that one eye was questioning the other, or a pair of eyes questioning someone else’s eyes. That’s editing. In fact, that might even be copy-editing. It’s not actually writing. Now – don’t get me wrong, editing IS writing, but I’m talking about the actual act of getting something down, producing a first draft that you can go back and fix. I needed to move my characters forward, give them something to say or do, instead of – literally – stranding them just staring at each other.
One of my favorite quotes from this podcast has been in an interview with middle grade author Liesl Shurtliff who said – “I can’t edit nothing.” Truth. Stop those rational thoughts while you’re drafting. Get the words OUT before you question them. Move on. Move forward. That little blue bar on the Nano site will motivate you to charge ahead, instead of look back.
The first draft is not a time for rational, analytical thought. Earlier I called it a word vomit. I mean that. Think of the actual physical act of vomiting. You are incapable of thought at the moment, you have one goal and one purpose – GET IT OUT. You’ll clean it up later, right? You’re not cleaning it up while you’re still puking, are you? Nope.
Yes, I’m disgusting.
Yes, it also works.
People often ask me about my process and I’m often at a loss to describe it beyond that really horrible graphic notion of vomiting out words. I sit in front of my computer and try to move what’s inside of me – out. That’s my process. I know it’s a simplification, but I don’t know how else to describe it.
Will you find the term word vomit in a book about craft. No. Does it work? Yes.
To address the second listeners thought on craft stunting her creative process – yeah, I get that. I can’t even tell you for sure what craft actually means. To me, it sounds a bit stuffy, a term used to make some of us feel accomplished, while make others feel inadequate.
I feel inadequate when craft comes up.
I once had a friend who writes adult literary novels tell me I could teach a class on structure. I told her I couldn’t, because I don’t actually know what it is.
That’s the truth. I’ve never taken a writing class in my life. Seriously. Not a single one. Not in high school, not in college, not as an adult or at writer’s conferences. I majored in English literature studying what others have written – not creating my own.
However, that study – and a lifetime of consuming stories, novels, plays, movies and television – had taught me structure. I absorbed it subconsciously as a viewer, and it shows in my writing.
Craft is an intimidating word, and I urge you not to think about it too much. Write your story, see what comes out of you. Fearing that you aren’t good enough will follow you no matter what, so set that aside as well. Inadequacy will dog your heels whether you’re a high school drop out of have an MFA – trust me, I know writers in both those situations and they’re both really, really good. And neither of them believes it.
Trust your gut. Trust your instinct. Write what’s inside you.
Just get it out.