Tuesday, November 15, 2011

The Halfway Point of NaNo

I love the halfway point. Four years ago when I cleared 26,000 words by the 16th day and attended my first NaNo event, I was proud, even victorious. I was ready for some much needed encouragement--a little fist pumping and some solidarity.

NaNoWriMo is an interesting beast. I believe most everyone who engages is in earnest. But an earnest writer is not always a generous writer.

Early NaNo stickers touted a certain message--the braggart's right: "My Word Count is Bigger Than Yours!" Four years ago at a Mexican restaurant in Oakland, I wrote my name on a tag and plunged into a crowd of fellow writers eager to hear tips about sticking it out and finding a story in the jumble of words.

NaNo was not my introduction to writing a novel. I studied Creative Writing as an undergraduate and in graduate classes. I'd been struggling with learning HOW to write a novel for several years by the time I joined the ranks of NaNoWriMo. At that time, I was looking for a community like the group I had in Boston.

Unfortunately, after several people sat down and said to me, "I'm Kevin. I'm Julie. I'm Jorja. My word count is 65,000, 35,000, 84,000. What's yours?" I despaired. Despite having happily written the minimum words for sixteen days, I did not find encouragement. The only people who continued a conversation with me were people with fewer words. They were nice people but they had already given up.

That first NaNo, I only wrote about 30k words. It was a strange story that split into three vignettes. Each one was shorter than the last--the first was 15k; the second was 10k or less. The second two were incomplete thoughts with no direction, each more painfully unfocused. I finished feeling deflated and a bit like a loser.

The person who introduced me to NaNo sagely said that he had finished only once and it mattered not what my word count was, but that I had engaged. Over the next few months I felt moderately prouder as I envisioned the first story re-written into a minimalist play.

When NaNo 2008 came along it was a much needed diversion, something to look forward to in a life slightly off kilter. I decided to ignore the basic tenant of NaNo and took the opportunity to continue with my primary novel. It was standing at 50k and needed an infusion. Once again I petered out at 30k but it was thirty thousand new words added to a novel for which my creative juices had stalled. This was a turning point in the plot and a rejuvenation of my love affair with my characters.

My third effort was my most pathetic, the word count not worth mentioning. I just couldn't focus and let the month slip daily by, feeling the loss of each word like fifty thousand little needle pricks. In the end I forgave myself for missing out by letting go of the unchangeable.

I readied for NaNo 2010 by choosing a theme that had been swimming in my head, intimidating me for six years. The story was like nothing I had ever written. "Graffiti" was my first successful 50k and I learned that it takes me a while to find my rhythm, to take the story from an abstract urge with vague intentions into a living breathing expression of a theme.

My first novel was not written this way. It was a scene here, a scene there, a random exchange over here that developed into scenes with no purpose as I struggled to flesh out character personalities and relationship complexities. Some scenes tried on each section like outfits for a date: introducing the novel to propping up the denouement to driving home the ending. I kept getting so lost in my potential plot lines that I had to devise an editing method in order to chart character and plot consistency.

For me, NaNo is very linear. Because the clock is ticking, I write the beginning, the middle, and then the end. I know, it's just such a revolutionary approach! But it only works for me in November. I think having written a story with no idea of how or what or why was happening also helped me. I was able to acknowledge that I could and would rearrange some of the events later--the key being not to worry about it during the first draft. Don't worry so much about getting each scene just right or even the overall story. Just write.

As I clear the half way mark of NaNo 2011, I've noticed that once again the beginning is a jumbled mess of me finding my tempo, starting and restarting without deleting anything (the holy NaNo tenant). The first weekend, instead of attending a NaNo event, I discussed my plot thoughts with a reader of the genre. After a few hours and some wine, I jotted down a few necessary events and felt better about all of the assumptions I made regarding the time period. This was so much more useful than a penis measuring contest with people who refuse to talk plot.

One reason novelists don't share is because we don't want anyone to steal our ideas and beat us to it. We're egotistical and completely insecure.

NaNo is an awesome event that offers great support to writers, yet I rarely attend write-ins anymore. I no longer share my word count, shaking hands and saying "I'm at this point. Where are you?" while looking significant and even a little bombastic. Novel writing is a solitary process and just knowing I have comrades typing away is enough for me.

The purpose of NaNo is simple. At its core, it encourages us to put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard. It's another method to help writers focus, so use it to your advantage. Take it seriously or take it at face value. Write 30k or 250k, but write. Worry not how many words others have written. The number will be their total achievement or just the beginning. Only the author has the power to determine which.

Let NaNo be a tool, not a competition. It's useful to post my word count on the NaNo site, not because others are looking, but because it encourages me on--which is the whole point.