When I first heard of National Novel Writing Month, years ago, I thought it was nutty and pretentious. Gradually, though, as I got more interested in writing fiction, I began to see that it might be just what I needed. I’ve never been a fast writer, aside from one grueling weekend when I wrote 30,000 words for one of my books, but that was nonfiction. I’ve always been a picky writer, one who wants the perfect word in the perfect phrase with the perfect sense and rhythm for each perfect sentence before I move on to the next. With its emphasis on quantity—50,000 words in 30 days—NaNoWriMo would force me to squelch my infernal internal editor and just spew forth words without a second—or third or fourth—glance.
Much to my surprise, when I finally tried it in 2009, it worked. Not only did I reach that arbitrary 50,000-word goal, I discovered that I really like writing fiction. Writing is far more work than reading, of course, and even at a NaNoWriMo pace, goes much more slowly, but I found myself restless when I wasn’t writing, itching to get back to my manuscript and find out what those people were going to do next.
Then came the holidays, during which I let my completed first draft sit, ignored for long enough to let it begin to read like something somebody else had written. When I read it again sometime in early 2010, I decided it wasn’t half bad. It needed a lot of work that I wasn’t quite yet ready to tackle, mostly because my USA Fencing commitments had increased. It wouldn’t hurt to let it sit for a few months more. So I let it sit.
All too soon, it was the middle of Summer Nationals, and as soon as I began to recover from that year’s festivities in Atlanta, I concluded that since I didn’t think I could finish the necessary work before the next November NaNoWriMo, I would sign up to write a first draft of the next book I was planning (another murder mystery set in the fencing world). But by only three days in—less than 4,000 words—I realized I didn’t know enough about any of the characters (except the three or four from the previous story) to figure out what they would do. I didn’t know who would cause enough trouble to be worth eliminating, or who would be motivated to do them in. So I abandoned my 2010 NaNoWriMo entirely.
In 2011, I meant to try again, even signing up for it in mid-October, but never wrote a word. (By then, I’d been TC chair for a year and was letting USA Fencing matters eat up my time.) For 2012 and 2013, though I tweaked a few sentences every few months on that 2009 manuscript, I was Fencing’s creature and never really considered trying NaNo again.
Once I was home from another SN in Columbus this summer, though, I was determined to do what was needed to get that 2009 story into publishable form. I pulled it out, realized that it wasn’t half bad—it was mostly bad—and pummeled it into a genuine second draft, doing all the work I described in my last post. With a better grasp of my characters, I decided then to spend October seriously figuring out what would happen in the second book, and spend this November’s NaNoWriMo banging out that first draft. Then I’d be able to set it aside for aging and come back to finish my work on the first one.
I made my usual sluggish start, taking a couple of the early days to figure out some pieces I’d missed in October, before I started the actual writing. But I kept up with my self-imposed pace—as long as I kept my daily minimum requirement to less than 2,000 words, I’d be in good shape to hit my 50,000 words. It was close for a couple of days—I was up to a 1,994-word minimum at one time, but I kept at it.
Then my B-arc took a left turn on me and decided it needed to be the A-arc. Suddenly I had a story with a completely different focus than I’d been planning. I took another day or two to do some basic research in the new direction, and hammered out a couple of new scenes. This new story was much better than the one I’d originally imagined—it made more sense with the characters and made the two story arcs hang together better. Of course, there were at least half a dozen fairly major new characters required, but they were turning into people whose minds I could get inside faster than I expected, so I had a pretty good idea of what they’d be up to.
There was just one problem: I don’t know enough yet about the land of that left turn. I know who’s going there and what kind of conflicts will develop, but I don’t know enough specifics yet to write even a crappy version of it good enough for a rushed first draft because I haven’t yet done the basic research.
Then I had an epiphany: I’ve already achieved my goal for the 2014 NaNoWriMo.
I wanted to create a story with enough substance to be able to come back to it in a few months to pound it into publishable shape. I’m 30,000 words short, but I’ve got the story(ies) and I’ve got the characters. What I have now is far more solid than what I came out of the 2009 NaNo with, because I’ve got a better idea of what works for me.
So no more word counts for me this November. I’ll spend the next week or so on more of that basic research, make more notes on settings and characters, and finish the timelines I started blocking out this weekend. Then after Thanksgiving, I’ll get back to work on the first book, which I still hope to make good enough for my beta readers to take a crack at by JOs.
Thank you, NaNoWriMo, for giving me what I needed. (And I may well be back for that third book that’s already floating around in my head.)