National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, is an annual challenge to write 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November. I decided to attempt it this year, because I thought having a more structured approach might help me to make a good start on one of the long form fiction ideas I have been carrying around.
I spent the last week of October planning out my approach. I made a timeline of events, scrutinised my ideas for plot holes, wrote character bios, and considered what I would write when. This all made me very excited about my novel at first, but quickly became more like work than pleasure. Getting technical was already taking the soul out of what I wanted to write. I found myself excluding aspects of the story on account of them seeming unrealistic once I had analysed them, or strangely enough the opposite; they were too realistic and therefore boring. I suddenly felt daunted.
I considered switching my challenge from writing a novel to writing a collection of short stories because it was more familiar and achievable. But I was appeased and rationalised by some ‘pep talks’ and chat from other participants, realising that these 50,000 words did not have to be perfect. It was a first draft. It was, as someone said, ‘gathering together a pile of sand out of which you could later build a castle’. I moved my focus from the planning and back to just getting the words down. After all, I could solve plot holes after the event.
Once November begun, I was glad to find the time to write 1,600 words a day even in my busy schedule. However I stalled immediately whenever I sat down to focus. The time pressure took over and I found myself staring at a blank screen, not at all in the frame of mind from whence my words ordinarily flow. After a few days of this, I began to panic. I was not only not writing my novel, I wasn’t writing anything. I stopped writing my poetry, my flash fiction, my book reviews. I stopped sharing anything on my blog. I even stopped writing my diary of thoughts which I had kept faithfully every day for two years.
With the flow of words cut off, I felt lost and depressed. I started to see that writing had been my best mechanism for coping with life, and I was banishing it with self-induced pressure and judgement. My best writing comes from an open and perceptive mind, not a judgemental one. That is to say it has to be an intuitive, natural process. It is a genuine display of my soul, and that just cannot be expressed when the ego has it in a ball and chain. My attempt at focus was killing my creativity.
So I tricked myself back into writing. I abandoned my plan, my thoroughly designed characters and my imaginary judgemental reader sitting on my shoulder. I started writing how not writing was making me feel. And it wasn’t long before the words turned into prose, and the prose turned into imaginative ideas pouring onto the page. It is as though the good stuff comes from the periphery, never the focus.
My November word-count ended up like this:
My intended novel: 1,387
Other creative projects: 4,131
General philosophical thought/article material: 12,331
This isn’t even half way to the NaNoWriMo challenge, and I believe it is less than I would have achieved on an average month before taking on the challenge. But I am proud of those words, because I now understand where they come from, and the circumstances in which I am able to let them flow.
I truly admire novelists who are able to sit down and write consistently from a plan, it is a real talent that goes often unrecognised. I wager that most people think they could write a novel if they felt like it. I still believe I can write a novel, and I am sure I already have the ideas that can make it to a final and finished piece. But I now know that a time-pressured environment where I write only on one project and towards a specific goal is not going to work for me just now. I am undecided as yet whether there is a discipline there I will have to learn if I ever want to finish a coherent long form piece, or whether I simply need to fine tune my own way of working. But I know that I would far sooner write constantly and without bounds from my soul than dry up and lose my inner light, so for now no more intense planning and no more monthly challenges! I’m just glad to be back to it.