Wednesday 14 December 2011

NaNoWriMo: My 30, ah, 18 days of writing madness

First of all, I would give a realistic assessment of churning out fifty thousand words under the guise of having written a novel in two words, "Who cares?" I was going to say "Who gives a rat's ass?" but I wanted to be as succinct as possible. I don't want to rain on anybody's parade - you do deserve credit for having gone the distance - but this blog entry is about me, not you, so let me expound on my experience in this first time in my life exercise in creativity.

I started by saying "Who cares?" to try and put any of this in perspective. I have run across a lot of hoopla surrounding the writing 50,000 words and a lot of disparaging remarks. Knocking off fifty thou does not a book make and all those criticizing this as a month of producing crap have missed the point. NaNoWriMo isn't about the results; it is about the process.

To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.
- Robert Louis Stevenson

This little gem from Mr. Stevenson points out in a Zen-like fashion that any of us better be enjoying the now, and not waiting for tomorrow. Don't spend your life or waste your life involved in what is not enjoyable with the idea that someday, yes someday, you will enjoy yourself. Your ship docks in paradise. You walk down the gangplank and wait for the tourist bus which is going to take you to the resort. When it pulls up, the driver accidentally goes over the yellow line behind which you're waiting and flattens you like a pancake. How about that one for the irony of fate? Drop dead a metre (3 feet) from the finish line, a single metre from paradise.

NaNoWriMo isn't about writing a book. It is about the process of writing a book. It is about the personal discipline to sit down each day for thirty days in a row and pound out 1,667 words. As a joke, the official web site says that you are not allowed to write the same word fifty thousand times so from there, anything is possible. For inspiration, the same web sites does list a few names of people who have participated in the event and gone on to publish their efforts as books however, let's be realistic, the number of people having done so is just this side of infinitesimal when you look at the total number signed up.

In 2011, according to the official web site (The Office of Letters and Light) there were 256,618 participants with 36,774 winners or 14%. Don't forget that the word winner means you have written fifty thou; it does not mean that you have written a publishable manuscript. Anybody, from the greats like Stephen King to NaNoWriMo itself will tell you that anything you've accomplished during this time is and should be considered as a first draft. First draft? What? I haven't spun gold first time out?

Stephen King's 2002 book On Writing (see my book review) is part autobiography, part writer's manual. Considering the success of the author, this is a fascinating look at how the man got to where he is today and his own recommendations at how any aspiring writer can succeed at their craft. If there is any one lesson to be taken away from the book, Mr. King talks of the discipline of sitting down each day and doing two thousand words; each day, every day while he's working on a book. He emphasizes the importance of getting it all down on paper - okay, he uses a computer - then putting the entire thing away for a couple of months. After a period of time away from his work, he will come back objectively and edit the novel ready, as he amusingly puts it, to "kill his babies". This graphic statement, not surprising in light of his stories of horror, means nothing more than being able to remove what may amount to good ideas that don't fit into the narrative. Unfortunately not all ideas fit with the flow of the story and an editor, as opposed to the author, must be brutal in remaining focused on the finished product and not get stuck on a specific idea, scene or even character.

In other words, sitting down and hammering out fifty, sixty or even a hundred thousand words is, drum roll, a first draft. Even the master, the professional, the published author loved and admired by many the world over does not spin gold the very first time. Let's come back to the objective of NaNoWriMo. Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo, has written a book called "No Plot? No Problem!" which is qualified on the cover with the line "A low-stress, high velocity guide to writing a novel in 30 days". With a deft touch and a comedic slant, Mr. Baty offers encouraging words to those who want to take on the personal challenge of writing a 50,000 word novel. He points out quite clearly that the goal here is the doing not the final product. The point to the exercise is that your average person gets so hung up on being perfect the first time they put pen to paper, they never get around to writing anything. NaNoWriMo is about saying to yourself "To heck with my mistakes" and Baty writes that we need to lower our expectations from "best-seller" to "would not make someone vomit". He adds:

Writer and championship figure skater Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "In skating over thin ice, safety is in our speed."

Writer and championship figure skater? Chris is one funny guy but he does have a point. No procrastination, just do it. Start and don't stop until you're finished. And who said that was just a slogan for Nike? "Just Do It" makes a lot of sense.

Writing is a lonely job
Isn't this self-evident? However the word lonely has more than one meaning.

1. Sad because one has no friends or company
- lonely old people whose families do not care for them

2. Without companions; solitary
- passing long lonely hours looking onto the street

3. (of a place) Unfrequented and remote
- a lonely stretch of country lane

I would say that lonely job is referring to meaning number two, that is, it is a solitary occupation. Okay, you may feel lonely in the sense of feeling sad about being alone, but no, we just mean that it's something you do by yourself. How many have pointed out the difference between being alone and being lonely?

"Writing is a lonely job. Even if a writer socializes regularly, when he gets down to the real business of his life, it is he and his type writer or word processor. No one else is or can be involved in the matter."
― Isaac Asimov, I, Asimov: A Memoir (Goodreads)

Let me return to Stephen King in his book On Writing where he writes:

Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.

When I read that I understood something important about somebody we all perceive as being successful. He didn't start writing with the idea of "I want to be a success". He writes because he's passionate about writing. His motivation isn't the success, the fame, or even the money (I'm sure that doesn't hurt), it's about the writing. Doing NaNoWriMo isn't about publishing a book, getting it on the New York Times Best Sellers list, having it optioned as a movie and doing an interview on NBC's Today show. Nope, it is the more humble goal of going through the process of writing and Chris Baty is completely right. How many of us have ever sat down and tried to do what Stephen King describes? That is, pound out each day, every day, a couple of thousand words with the longer term objective of producing something akin to a book? Hey, we've all written an essay in school. With the advent of the Internet, some of us even take on the personal challenge of writing a blog and posting a few hundred or maybe a few thousand words about a personal experience, a political diatribe or some flash fiction. But a book? An entire novel? Wow, can I do that? Surprise, surprise, there's that blank page, that virgin sheet of paper just waiting for my words to transform it into heavens only knows what imaginary world. I'm not Stephen King or James Patterson or Dan Brown or Stephanie Meyers however I realise they all sit down in front of a blank computer screen just like me and start typing. I read about how J. K. Rowling started when she first started writing Harry Potter: blank computer screen, start typing. Okay, I'm not Rowling but I'm sitting down with a blank screen just like her and trying to string some words together which may or may not make sense, which may or may not be entertaining to a potential reader.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. This is about the process. This is about discipline. This is about the Nike slogan of Just Do It. No more talking about it. No more planning. No more procrastination. I sit down and start typing and I don't get up until I'm finished.

The journey is the reward.
- Chinese Proverb

How did my "journey" go? I got occasionally stuck. I paced up and down in my apartment racking my brains about whether to turn right or turn left. I procrastinated. I watched some old episodes of the television series Castle on my computer instead of typing. I went for walks. I snacked. I cleaned my apartment. Yes, cleaning my apartment was me avoiding typing. Ha!

On the other side of the coin, I had moments of great activity. I had fun. As I created my mental image, the film running in my head of what I was writing, I smiled, I laughed, and I said, "Oh yeah, somebody is going to find that scene funny!" A few times, I finished off a paragraph, leapt out of my seat and did a fist pump in the middle of the room while exclaiming out loud, "All right!" In other words, I did have fun. Yes, it was work but it had its moments of fun.

My Biggest Mistake
Lazette Gifford is an author (consult Amazon's author page) who seems to be quite busy meaning prolific. She offers a free eBook "NaNo for the New and the Insane" that is a compilation of blog entries about writing and writing for NaNoWriMo. The perspective of doing the 30 day marathon from a professional is interesting. One thing she mentioned was planning. According to the rules of NaNoWriMo, you must write your fifty thou during the 30 days of November. You can't do anything before November 1st and you can't do anything after November 30th. However, you are allowed to plan. This means working out a synopsis, creating character descriptions and even detailing chapter by chapter what's going to happen in the story.

I found Gifford's ideas of planning to be eye-opening. Why? Originally, I was going to start on November 1st with an idea. Just an idea, no planning, no outline. Start writing and see where that would lead me. This seems to be how a lot of people approach NaNoWriMo from what I found out in Chris Baty's book and reading elsewhere. However Gifford said planning is an important part of the process. She wrote about easily knocking off fifty thousand words in a couple of weeks and even managing to write a hundred thousand or more in the month of November. She would put together her plan then when the time came to start, she would write by following her plan. She wasn't sitting around wondering what to do as she had already figured that out. The plot, the twists, the characters, etc. had already been worked out. Once started, it was merely a question of writing it down.

I read Ms. Gifford's eBook only a month before NaNoWriMo and realised my fly by the seat of my pants idea was probably not the best one. Consequently I started jotting down a plan which I used. Subsequent to this, I discovered major authors may do some or even a lot of planning. On the television show Castle which is about an author, an episode showed a large computerized board, like a white board, on which he explained how he mapped out his novels. Really?

The proof is in the pudding. The stuff I had planned out ahead of time went quickly and smoothly. Those chapters I had worked out in my head only required me to write down what I already knew. There wasn't really any thinking; it was all just doing. Despite November 1, 2011 falling on a Tuesday, a workday, I managed to come home, have dinner then knock off 6,000 words. I had forty thousand words by day twelve and would have finished early, really early but I got bogged down. I hadn't done enough planning. I sort of painted myself into a corner and had to think of how to get out. Yes, there are the amusing "escape" techniques like introducing Ninjas or a worm hole or some other such deus ex machina, but I did want to write something plausible. In the end, I finished my fifty thousand on day 18 then set the whole thing aside and goofed off for the rest of the month.

Goofing off: Castle
I don't know why, but I re-discovered the ABC television series Castle on the Internet. Throughout November I was rewarding my hard work by allowing myself to watch every episode from seasons one, two and three. (see OMG! I've turned into a Castle junkie!)

My point in mentioning this as I began to have a great appreciation for the writers of the show. They would come up with a very clever premise for a murder mystery and put together a great story where the protagonists would go through the steps of discovering who committed the crime. This very much made me think of what I myself was writing and how planning can be essential for figuring out your plot and coming up with plausible explanations for the crime. You may or may not like the show but watching the show while trying to write a story made me think that writing a story, a good story, heck a great story is, well, not that easy. Hmph, no wonder an author may get writer's block. Sometimes a Ninja or a worm hole just isn't going to cut it when trying to get your hero out of a corner.

50,000 words
Okay, just what do fifty thousand words represent? Wikipedia's article Word Count defines various literary works by size:
Classification     Word count
Novel              over 40,000 words
Novella            17,500 to 40,000 words
Novelette          7,500 to 17,500 words
Short story        under 7,500 words
How does this translate into the books we all know? I found a web site dealing with school books and looked up a few examples of the novels I have read over the years either on my own or possibly as part of my English classes in high school.

Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
word count: 49,459

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
word count: 63,766

1984 by George Orwell
Word count: 88,942

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
word count: 47,094

Animal Farm by George Orwell
word count: 29,060

The Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
word count: 73,404

Are my 50,000 words a book?
Do I have a book? A novella? Nope. I have an idea. I have a few scenes, maybe not bad scenes. I have some characters who are well, characters. But I don't have a finished story which would enthrall you from beginning to end. Following Stephen King's recommendation, I am going to leave the whole thing in a drawer for a month or two then I'm going to come back and "kill my babies". Will I finish this? At the moment, I'm making no promises as what the heck, what inspiration of the moment is going to strike me next? I'm already scheduled to shave my head and move to an ashram in southern California where I will take a vow of chastity and begin knitting in silence.

Final Word
NaNoWriMo is about the process of writing a novel. A number of critics say it's merely an excuse for fifty thousand words of crap and while that may be an accurate assessment of the results, it is ignoring that the real goal in the month of November is to go through the process and find the self-discipline to start the project and see it through to the end. From there, well, that's anybody's guess but anybody who's done it may have a better idea, a better appreciation what the masters have gone through before their literary endeavour ended up a best seller.

An amusing thought comes to mind. Right now I am sitting all by myself typing these words. At some point, Stephen King was sitting somewhere, I'm assuming all by himself, typing out his first big hit Carrie. J. K. Rowling was sitting by herself someplace writing Harry Potter. The same for James Patterson, Dan Brown and any one of a number of famous authors you could think of. All of us can think of their success, marvel at their fame and be envious of the monetary rewards for their efforts however, it all started with them sitting down and writing. They had the self-discipline to start and keep going and to keep going until they were finished. That is what I see NaNoWriMo is all about. It isn't about publishing a book; it isn't even about my 50,000 words of crap. It is about the process of writing, that all by yourself locked up in your imagination marathon of creativity. Some people paint but not everybody is Leonardo da Vinci or [fill in name of recent artist you admire]. Some people make music but not everybody is Johan Sebastian Bach or [fill in name of recent classical/rock/pop artist you admire]. Anybody need a further example or do you see where I'm going with this?

November is over. It is now December. Hmmm, now what to do? Wrap presents? *Looks at the calendar* Oops, time to shave my head!


NaNoWriMo: Are you out of your freakin' mind?
Links about NaNoWriMo (some given below), writing in general, and blogging

NaNoWriMo: Write a novel in 1 month?
This is it, the original go for broke 30 day trial.

Assembly Line Writing
Writing in a hurry is stupid? Laughing all the way to the bank?

On Writing by Stephen King
Penned by the master himself, this book is part biography, part technical manual about the craft of writing.

James Patterson
Q: What do you say to critics like author Stephen King who say you are not a great prose stylist?
A: I am not a great prose stylist. I'm a storyteller. There are thousands of people who don't like what I do. Fortunately, there are millions who do.

Holly Lisle
This moment started exactly 25 years ago today, when in my diary I wrote, “Before I turn 25, I want to write a book.” 25 years later, I’ve written 33 novels (plus one I did anonymously as work for hire), am working on a couple more, and intend to keep writing novels as long as I live.

NaNoWriMo: Hopeful or hopeless?
[Some inspirational links and videos]
As flippant as it sounds, I'm getting the idea that success is tied up in the slogan from Nike: Just do it! No quibbling, no discussion, no angst about your inner struggle. Just do it. Or maybe in some cases, it needs a little emphasis: Just f**king do it.

NaNoWriMo and an inspiring author: Dean Wesley Smith
I "discovered" this gentleman back in March and found him to be a prolific, disciplined craftsman. It seemed appropriate to reprint the article as a run-up to the month of November when many give themselves the personal challenge of doing the unthinkable: write 50,000 words in 30 days.

November: It was a dark and stormy night...
The perfect opening line for one of the duller months of the year: 30 days of somberness between the sparkling heat of summer and the snowy cold of winter. Charles M. Schulz hasn't been with us since 2000 and even though his comic strip Peanuts is still republished, is the next generation familiar with these words? I am dating myself by the number of times I have seen Snoopy the writer on top of his doghouse pounding out that opening line on his typewriter in mock homage to Edward George Earle Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Baron Lytton PC. November? Snoopy? Bulwer-Lytton? Is everybody confused by this mishmash of seemingly random ideas?


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BigLittleWolf said...

Enjoyed this post, and the book-word count references (not to mention your wit).

It's December, and what do we do?
Keep writing, of course. How could we not?

Joy said...

I've enjoyed your posts on NaNoWriMo...oddly enough, I feel compelled to try it out. And, wow, 18 days...really? Amazing. I need to rediscover discipline in this art if for no one but me. Hmmm....

Judyth said...

Although I've often thought of trying NaNoWriMo, for some reason in November I'm usually too busy editing other people's work to do much writing myself. I find it just about impossible to write fiction while editing somebody else's work; likewise, I can't really edit my own work while writing something else. It seems as if the two sides of my brain are unable to co-operate properly.

That being said, I'm an editor most of the time. You nailed it with "But I don't have a finished
story which would enthrall you from beginning to end."

People who want to *have written* a novel (as opposed to really wanting to write one) often seem to think the process of turning their first draft into a good, publishable book should involve no more time and effort than the routine of correcting typos and recasting the odd awkward sentence, a job they can pass on to a copy-editor--with whom they will be very unhappy if the result is not compelling enough to interest an agent or publisher.

Economics being what they are, few publishers will take on a manuscript that needs structural revisions, let alone one whose author is in a hurry and can't see the flaws in his/her own work. People who really want to write novels (as opposed to having written them) will keep on wrestling with the manuscript--with or without the assistance of an editor--until it will achieve what it set out to do from the perspective of its eventual readers.

I am not a big Stephen King fan but do consider him a real novelist, although he may not be striving for great literary merit. What James Patterson does is a different process with different intentions; as you rightly pointed out, mass-production and mass-marketing can occasionally bring great material success. But Patterson's books are disposable consumer goods; King's are novels, and I suspect they'll be read with respect a century from now (assuming people still read then) as the Poe of our generation.