NaNoWriMo Got You Down?

I originally posted this on reddit.com/r/writing and incidentally violated the subreddit guidelines by linking to my blog.

Oops.

Anyway, I didn’t want it to die on the vine, so reposting here:

I know many of you are chin-deep in NaNoWriMo at the moment, but for those that still find the long form daunting, I wanted to share my “what-I’ve-learned-so-far” experience at writing 52 short stories in 52 weeks.

On July 30th, 2017, I came across a YouTube video of Ray Bradbury speaking at Point Loma University in 2001. It wasn’t the first place he’d suggested that beginning writers tackle 52 short stories in 52 weeks before settling in on a novel, but something about his manner and way of speaking convinced me that it was the shot of writing adrenaline I needed. I had been languishing in novel drafting and outlining hell for way too long and felt any craft improvements had been made at a snail’s pace. I have about six or seven unfinished novels sitting on my hard drive. I’ve “won” NaNoWriMo two times and I have nothing to show for it.

It’s painful to think about.

I’ve been writing “seriously” for six years now, and I use quotation marks because even though I thought I’d been writing seriously for that long, it’s a lie. The fact is that I never got serious about my writing until I started this challenge.

So, on July 31st, I impulsively got down to business and worked on my first story.

This rapid (for me) timeline means I don’t have time to waffle. I don’t have time to fear — fear what others think of my writing, fear whether or not the story is good or bad, and so on. I have to get the story down as cleanly written as possible, I have to finish it, and I have to publish it on my blog (as well as Wattpad and Medium). This level of output requires becoming, in the venerable Steven Pressfield’s terminology, a professional.

I show up every day to write with a single purpose: to push my current story towards its end. Some days are great. Some are agonizing. I start on Monday and, on average, my story is on the blog by Sunday evening. I also make the process very transparent, so I keep a daily journal and post a follow-up article to each story. It has links to the journal entries and a summary of the process for that particular story.

By putting in the work, I’ve been putting in the practice, and the practice is what differentiates the dilettante from the pro.

As of this post, I’ve wrapped up eleven stories of various lengths and genres (if you’re counting the weeks, you’ll find this doesn’t quite add up to one story per week–one of them got away from me and essentially turned into a novelette).

What have I loved?

  • Variety. Variety in genre, characters, plots, styles, voices, etc. I’ve really enjoyed the fact that writing these short stories hasn’t tied me down to one way of writing for months on end. This has allowed me to stretch into uncomfortable areas without too much investment and make astonishing discoveries along the way.
  • Reduction in resistance. At this point, sitting down to write is just something I do. Sure, there are still times where my first instinct is to scrub the toilet, but I have eleven examples that this fear is quickly overcome by sitting down and doing my job. After a few minutes of struggle, I tend to fall into that fictive dream and the word faucet opens up.
  • Building a backlog. By August of next year, I’ll have 52 stories which I can use in any way I see fit…Self-publish an anthology. Submit to contests. Submit to fiction magazines. Springboards for novels. This means I’m not just working on my skills, but I’ll have something tangible and useful as a result.

What have I learned?

  • Schedule time to write every single day. If you have a busy day job and family to take care of, this is a must. Most days, I can only squeeze in an hour of writing, but it’s always on the calendar and it’s an appointment I don’t miss. Anything else is bonus time.
  • Find a good first reader. In my case, this is my wife. She’s great at spotting holes in the plot, characterizations, time issues, etc. Invaluable and has helped me work through some potential showstoppers.
  • Read every single day. I also find when I’ve gotten stuck in the writing, it’s due to something I don’t know (research-wise) or I’m just not feeling confident in my prose. It’s good to refill the creative well, and in fact, Uncle Ray also recommends an excellent writer’s hygiene program — Read one short story, one essay, and one poem each night before you go to sleep. You’d be amazed at how this translates to your writing in the most awesome way.
  • Step away from the writing. If I’m away from the laptop, washing dishes or exercising, I’m usually able to solve any writing problems that come my way. I think we all need that time to think our way out of a situation. Trying to force it while writing doesn’t seem to work well for me.

So, if you’re finding the novel-length stuff nonconducive to becoming a better writer, I’d recommend trying something like this. Don’t hesitate and wait so long like I did. I guarantee you’ll become a better writer for it.

-Phillip

4 thoughts on “NaNoWriMo Got You Down?”

  1. It’s very impressive how productive you’ve become. I like what you said in the end about still working on writing issues while we’re not actually at the keyboard. Many of my plot problems are solved during walks, other exercise, making dinner, etc. When we’re not completely focused on trying to solve the issue, we seem better able to find its solution. It seems backward, but it’s true.

  2. Thank you, Carrie! Looks like I just needed to find my wheelhouse when it comes to convincing me to sit down, write, and finish. Regarding the non-focused thinking, I took a MOOC (Massive Online Open Course) awhile back that really broke down how diffuse thinking and exercise help build and strengthen neural structures. Fascinating stuff!

  3. I don’t do NaNoWriMo, but I think you’ve put together a great regimen for building the discipline of writing. It wasn’t until I forced myself into a routine of writing every day that I really started getting stuff done. Pages add up!

    Keep up the splendid work. ✊

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