As I sit here writing this, it’s the 26th day of November. If I was on track, I would have written 43,333 words by now.
My Scrivener count is at 14,429. And there are a few pages of handwritten scribbles yet to be written up.
So, you could say I’m a bit behind.
HOWEVER, by the time you finish reading this, I hope I’ll have managed to convince you otherwise.
NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, is a not-for-profit organization that supports and encourages people to write 50,000 words of a novel in one month. It began back in 1999, and boasts supporting hundreds of published novelists through their writing process, as well as inspiring almost half a million writers to work on a novel in November.
I’ve been writing fiction for more than ten years, and a few years ago, whilst attending a Sutton Writers writing workshop, I first heard whispers of NaNoWriMo and – probably like most people – shied away from the daunting idea of writing a whole novel in a month. Scrunched in my defensive corner, I watched others in my group do it, whilst I made barely any progress on my poor, long-suffering novel, which I continued to drag slowly through a life without structured, consistent writing sessions or defined goals.
And every year, as November rolled round, I’d hear whispers of “NaNo…” in the writing groups, and flashes of its token blue viking helmet and shield in my peripherals. And every year, I’d eschew it, firmly stating that I needed to finish my novel, not start a new one. And so it remained an elusive mystery to me.
This year, however, has been a bit different.
Earlier in the year I discovered the magic of dedicated daily writing sessions, and so months before November rolled around, I’d finished an thorough edit of my novel and placed it faithfully in the hands of a group of beta readers. I could no longer use it as an excuse to avoid NaNo.
And that’s how I found myself on the eve of the 11th month: project-less, entering another dreaded lockdown, and determined not to sit and be miserable. A new character knocked at the door of my brain, and she was in trouble. So I did as all writers do, and sat down to let her speak. It just so perfectly collided with the date, and I decided to take the plunge and register for NaNoWriMo.
I didn’t do a ritual.
I didn’t prepare, or plan.
I didn’t even ask myself what this story was going to be, or where it was going to end up. All I had was three women in a tavern in the middle of a storm.
But it was enough to sit down and try to write 1,700 words each day for the next month. So I found the NaNoWriMo website, registered, tried to find all the other people I knew and add them as friends, and I looked at what they were doing.
Some were using this as a chance to finish edits, others as a chance to make progress on a couple of different projects. Some were picking up old projects, others starting anew, or using the end of November as a deadline for something else. And I realised then that it wasn’t as strict and scary as I’d made it out to be in my head all those years whilst I was hiding in the corner. It was something for writers to use as they needed, a month of moral support from fellow writers across the world. Even if you don’t end up going to any of the write-ins organized across the globe. There’s comfort in knowing that you’re not in it alone, that other people are doing the same crazy thing you are.
And for the first week or so, it really worked.
I kept a tally on my whiteboard, noting down every day I wrote and adding the extra words to the count.
Something that really helped was that I kept telling myself that it didn’t matter how awful the writing was, it was important to get it out, to use this shitty first draft as my exploration of the story, my way of gaining on it, and finding out what it’s really all about.
A writer friend told me that she’d been talking to a published author who will do thirty drafts of her books. And each time she starts a new document and rewrites, rather than editing over the existing document. This made me feel really good about my rubbish first draft. It’s easier to run with things when you know nobody is going to see it. When you can have as many gos over it as you want before you let someone else at it. How liberating! Having that in mind has given me the confidence to push those annoying voices of doubt over the edge of the cliff as I put pen to paper and see what strangeness comes out.
And as Neil Gaiman says, “the first draft is just you telling yourself the story”.
Anyway back to NaNo… it all started well, and somewhere along the road, I fell off the bandwagon, and the amount of words I managed to get down on the page every day grew less and less. I think my pinch point was that I always have to write by hand first. For me, the first words flow on paper, but not on the screen. Which meant I had to double up each day, first hand-writing, then typing up for the word count. With work and feeling sorry for myself about lockdown, I just didn’t have enough time in the day for both, so I fell out of the rhythm.
But I don’t see this as a failure. I had done something. I had started something, and it had the potential to grow. The story that’s unravelling now could never have been written in thirty days, unless I’d quit my job and hired someone to cook, clean and sleep for me. Perhaps not even then. Some stories come fast, cascading like waterfalls, others trickle along, picking up villains and coconspirators as they go, threads weaving together, ideas strengthening. From time to time, we must look up from the page, observe the world and the people around us, and let them inspire us.
So no, I’m not going to hit 50,000 words in the next four days. But I started this thing with zero expectations, so I’m already way ahead of the game.