Sunday, November 11, 2012

Life Gets in the Way: NaNoWriMo Edition

[Before I get started on the subject of this post, I just want to say a big thank you to the voters of California. For those of you who read my last post, you know I was somewhat pessimistic about the possibility of Prop 30 passing, and feeling a bit worn down after years of cuts to K-12 education in this state. So thank you. I know that we're not nearly out of the woods yet, but I finally have hope that the hard road ahead will lead upwards.]

November is a terrible month in which to write a novel. I know this, because I have done it now three times, and am working on the fourth, and every year I curse the timing. Surely, there must be a better month. One where the kids are in school more (24-7?). One where I am not cleaning up after Halloween and ostensibly planning for the holidays. One that features vistas of spare time just waiting to be filled up with brilliant writing sessions where I effortlessly craft reams upon reams of deathless prose.
If you're wondering, this is what people like me do with their Novembers.

Yeah, right.

I first got introduced to the madness that is National Novel Writing Month by my dear friend and college roommate, who not only participates every year but has her middle school students do the Young Writers Program. The idea is to write a 50,000-word novel in one month, no excuses, no inner editor, just the pure fun of writing at top speed. I watched with envy and awe as she blogged about it in 2008. I was an English Writing major in college, and in the many years between my graduation and that date, had managed to confine my writing skills to business use, grocery lists, PTA fundraising appeals, and the like. She encouraged me to try it myself, so in 2009 I did.

I had forgotten how much fun writing could be. Make no mistake about it, when you're trying to stick to writing 1,667 words a day (approximately 6 or so pages), you're not anywhere in the neighborhood of crafting deathless prose. If you're like me, you've gone into the month with something that looks like an idea, maybe a reasonably well-formed first scene and a few incidents that you know happen somewhere in the middle to drive that shapeless, amoeba-like plot in a vaguely forward direction. But after you've exhausted that meager reserve, you're making it up as you go along, inventing characters, settings, and scenarios on the fly.

In order to have even a prayer of finishing on time, you have to accept that your writing may be bad. Really bad. That later you will look back through scenes you wrote and hope that there's a pony in there somewhere among all the horseshit. On the upside, you will also surprise yourself with bits of clever writing that seems to come out of nowhere, because your brain will spit them out before your internal censors have a chance to shut them down. If you're lucky, you will also have a family that quietly leaves you alone when it finds you giggling over your computer at a phrase or scene of your own that you particularly enjoy.

Save a full rereading for December. Trust me.

That first novel (first draft of a first novel, really) was exceedingly lousy. For that matter, so were novels two and three. But I had fun writing them.

Yes, November is a terrible month to write a novel in. That first November, my husband went out of the country for a week and got go-directly-to-the-hospital-do-not-pass-go-do-not-collect-$200-grade food poisoning, two of the kids got swine flu, the computer died, and all sorts of other hell broke loose. I still dragged myself across the 50,000-word finish line on time. I learned three very important things that year:
  • If your novel is feeling really flat and you hate it, try killing off a character or two to get things rolling. You can always borrow the Traveling Shovel of Death.
  • Back up your novel. It's not fun to spend five days with your computer in the shop, wondering if you're ever going to see the first 11,000 words of your crappy novel again.
  • I can write 50,000 words in a month, even when my life is turning into a domestic disaster movie/farce.

This year I am the furthest behind I have ever been in my word count at this point (I should be at 18,337 and I'm only at about 13,300). My obstacles have included, but are not limited to, hours of following the presidential election, particularly onerous chauffeur duty (soccer practice, rehearsals, therapy appointments, more soccer practice, lather, rinse, repeat), school meetings and more school meetings, and knitting. (Note to self: the next time you think four pregnant friends need cute little items for their babies, plan ahead. Start early, like right after they pee on the pregnancy test. My right shoulder may never be the same.) This doesn't even get into the more routine domestic duties that can make it seem easier to put off writing until tomorrow. Or the next day. I'm bored to tears by my novel and haven't the slightest clue how I am going to eke another 37,000 words out of this story. But since I'll be damned if this is the year I break my perfect streak of finishing NaNoWriMo, I'll keep writing. If I have to throw in an alien abduction, I will.

The truth is, November is a terrible month to write a novel in, but so are all the others. There is no time when life will politely step out of the way and let you write a novel, or start whatever creative endeavor you think you're going to get to "one day" when things settle down. So if I don't return your phone call right away this month...if I don't get to the laundry right away, or the dishes...if I seem distracted and have an odd glint in my eye as if I'm sizing up what's going around me for possible insertion in the World's Worst Novel...I promise I'll be back next month.

I also promise I won't make you read my novel. At least until after the first edit.