On the first of November, 2012, I cautiously typed my first word onto a blank Word document. I had a good idea of the plot – it was a story I had worked on previously – but I only had a few pages and they needed an awful lot of editing. So I put one finger in front of the other; these fingers quickly gathered speed, and I developed a good pace over the next few days. I was hitting the daily word count. I was getting there! I was succeeding!
Then I stopped. I’m unsure why – work commitments? I’m unsure… but I stopped and fell behind on my word count. I gave up on catching up, and when the 1st December hit all I had was a measly 15,000 words. That’s still something, certainly, and I was proud of the words that I had – but that’s 35,000 words less than the target. I’d failed.
The following year – this year – I added an extra 25,000 in January whilst looking for a job. I needed something to do between applications, and writing kept me sane between all the dates, figures, and recruitment vocabulary nonsense of CVs. Again I stopped; this time due to plot trouble and fear of writing a certain scene. A scene I managed to complete at the start of last month. This time I kept writing. I stalled a couple of times, but I caught up. I hit 50,000 words on November, 30th.
The journey itself is not the most interesting aspect. I’d spend the day writing job applications and constructing CVs, and then in the evening I’d get down to writing – usually staying up til 2/3 am to get it all done. I’d light a couple of candles and type away. It became a little more difficult later – whilst on a writing trial for Cheat Code Central, and then again with volunteering at Pulp Fiction (and this was where I stalled), but I got there. The bit I found far more interesting was what you ended up with at the end, and how NaNoWriMo alters your writing habits.
Quantity, not quality. This phrase crops up a lot with NaNoWriMo and is usually used in criticism; all these half-baked writers thinking they can write the next ‘Harry Potter’ in a month, ending up with 50K of unstructured, unedited, uninteresting prose. Quantity, not quality is a positive: the hardest part of writing is the writing – the day to day grind of getting characters from one scene to the other. It’s enjoyable, but getting it right takes a fuckload of patience and dedication. ‘Write drunk, edit sober’ wrote Hemingway, and it’s good advice. We nitpick, we fiddle and delete, it can take hours just to form a sentence but when drunk you can bang it out. Pages form in minutes – potentially shit pages, but if one page is worth saving out of three then that’s good going, no?
I studied writing. That doesn’t mean I’m necessarily any good at it; it’s incredibly subjective – but the magic of academia is that I now know how it works. How it should look on the page, how it should sound, the structure and how to pin down certain moods. During NaNoWriMo (this year) I basically had to drop all my academic knowledge and just write. When writing (as an activity as opposed to making a text) everything is about flow, smoothness, style and character. When you hit this you tend to hit a pace, and then you can just go on and on and on and on…
Some of the other writers at my writers group thought the idea of writing 50,000 words in a month was insane. Some write a paragraph a day, others far less. The idea of putting yourself under pressure to reach an arbitrary word target was almost disgusting. What stops you from leaving a scene halfway through? Nothing. What stops you from rushing and not correcting a paragraph? Nothing. It’s a sliding scale – quantity and quality – and you can put the marker where you want, but with NaNoWriMo you have to hit 50k to win.
Something I didn’t like about NaNoWriMo is how writing quickly became a chore. For the first week and a half it was a pleasure. Then it changed. I snagged on a scene, and getting the daily word count was become a pain. I was staying up late, not because I was enjoying it, but because it had to be done. This became worse and worse as I found myself responsible for more and more stuff, and I couldn’t take a break. I had no free time, so I struggled to relax, and everything became a big ball of stress.
It was odd because I still enjoyed the story I was writing; it was more the act of writing that was causing me difficulty. As great as NaNoWriMo was, I wish there was a break in the middle – just a few days or so? Of course, I could have planned ahead – if I were to write a little more everyday then I could either finish earlier, or use that excess word count to ‘buy’ me some time later in the month. Maybe I’ll do that next year.
I havent yet looked through the words I have, but it feels at least as good as the stuff I’d written previous to NaNoWriMo. It needs some tidying, sure, but because of the continuous daily nature of the writing it flows pretty well, and everything slots up rather nicely. It’ll need a lot of pruning though, but that’s what friends are for, right? So who wants to edit the 100 pages I have? Any takers?