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My take on NaNo, one of many, I'm sure

So, I did NaNo this year. And you can’t tell me you haven’t heard of NaNo. No? Really? Oh boy, here we go.

NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month, which happens every November. NaNo is the ‘put up or shut up’ of writers. Many say “I’m going to write a novel,” but then never do. So the challenge is to write a first draft of a novel in a month. At least 50,000 words. It grew from a small group in San Francisco several years ago to a global event, with several thousand participants. nanowrimo.org, if you want to learn more.

My reason for participating may seem, I don’t know, cheap. I had a goal this year. Publish four items. Four. Well, in late October I learned I wasn’t going to make that goal. I’ve got three. A guest blog post, an article in an e-zine for May of this year, and a short story in That Mysterious Woman: A Shaker of Margaritas Anthology. (It really is an excellent book, you should get a copy.)

So, since I wasn’t going to make my publishing goal, I took the sideways road and decided to do NaNo. Something I haven’t done before, and I wasn’t in charge of Thanksgiving this year. Something I always said I would do when the kids got older. Well, they are older. All roads led to NaNo.

I was already familiar with the local NaNo group, as I have joined them on write-ins previously, and they graciously allowed me to sit at their table in the coffee shop, even though I wasn’t actively working on a novel at the time. So joining this year wasn’t difficult.

Here’s where I have difficulty separating the wheat from the chaff. When I became a writer, I read a lot of advice on what makes one a ‘real’ writer. Writing every day, whether you are in the mood or not. How Stephen King gets twitchy if he can’t write regularly. You get the idea. Based on that advice, I was found wanting. I didn’t write every day. I wrote when I had the time and the motivation. And I stuck to short stories. (I still think of myself as a real writer, and I won’t let anyone tell me different, thank you very much.)

50,000 words in a month is an achievable goal. It averages out to 1667 words per day. Many people pass the finish line at the end of the month and can say yes, I did it. Many others pass the finish line and can say yes, I wrote more than I would have, even if I didn’t win. And in case anyone is wondering, nobody throws a parade for completing 50,000 words. It’s just one of those personal pat on the back things.

I cheated.

The word count is God in November. It’s true. Now, some writers have the ability to stick to what they are doing the entire month, know how to plan novels, and have the kind of focus needed to keep a plot quasi-going. I, however, do not fit into this category. I’m a pantser. Which means that many times during the month, I got lost. My characters wandered around, had goals, but weren’t really sure how to achieve them. So, I cheated. Some days were completed by journaling. Writing something that had nothing to do with my story. Because that isn’t the point of NaNo. 50,000 words is the point of NaNo.

So the first thing I learned is that I need to learn how to plot better. Another thing I learned that if I had focused more on my story, and hadn’t let myself be distracted, my characters might have had a clue as to what was going on, why they were supposed to be in love, and whether or not it is possible to avoid stampeding horses with a bullet hole in the stomach.

Another thing I learned about myself, I’m embarrassed to say, is I think I might actually be a writer. I got done with the month, and December 1 rolled around, and no one was happier to step away from the computer than I was. And then the twitchiness came. I got edgy, couldn’t sit still, couldn’t watch a half-hour television show without getting up and trying to find something else to do. It was like some twisted form of withdrawal. On December 2, I journaled on my computer a bit, and actually was able to sleep that night. Here we are, on December 3, and writing this blog was the first thing that popped into my head to do.

Like I said earlier, word count is God during NaNo. The people in charge of this little show don’t care about spelling, grammar, usage, cliches, adverbs, or any of that crap writers are told to avoid. It’s all about the word count. Which makes breaking all the rules very, very easy. Because after November, if you so choose, you get to edit.

If I partake in NaNo next year, and I’m not certain I will, I think I would like my goal to be to actually turn OFF my word counter. Not be concerned with the count. Just the story. See if writing every day actually keeps me in touch with my story, my characters, what they dream and want. And if the end of the month comes, and the story isn’t done yet, so be it. I will have written a draft that might be salvageable.

And now, to keep from driving my family crazy, I have to write every day.

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Mary Ellen Martin

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