Thursday, December 01, 2011

Lessons Learned from NaNoWriMo

Writing 50,000 words in 30 days was a tremendously positive experience for me. Over the last ten or fifteen years, I had come to think of myself as a poet ONLY. I dabbled with fiction for a few pages at a time, dreamed about maybe one day trying my hand at it again, but never gave myself permission to take the time and to put in the effort to follow a set of characters for an extended period of time. Now that I have stuck with this cast for 30 days, I believe in my ability to do so again and again. A door for creativity has been opened to me.

Now I know that an hour or even 30 minutes a day is plenty enough time to work on a scene, to get some dialogue flowing and to keep momentum going forward in an initial draft. I was amazed how by sitting down for a solid hour in the morning I was usually able to crank out 1,600 words without strain. I won’t claim they were great words or even okay words, but for a first draft, I’m not supposed to worry about that at all. It’s more a matter of learning who the characters are, who they want to be, what they want to do, and where the plot is going. The first draft is only an exploratory journey and a get-to-know-you period, if you will. I’m excited to know that it doesn’t take a major change in my daily schedule to foster that process.

I learned that I can write under terrible conditions, or at least what I once thought were terrible conditions for writing creatively. During the week of Thanksgiving, I had four house guests. That is to say, I had six people total in my little house that only has two bathrooms. The “office” where I usually write had a guest staying in there on an air mattress. He happened to be the latest sleeper too, so I wasn’t able to get access to my home PC in the mornings. During the day the PC was usually tied up by another guest who was doing Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping. Good thing I had borrowed a laptop from work! I was able to sit on the floor of my bedroom and write whenever I could squeeze it in. Sometimes the time was stolen in the mornings or in the late afternoons. One time everybody else was watching a movie I’d already recently seen, so I took those 2 hours to write in bed. This experience taught me to look for those tiny pockets of time and space to write. I don’t need to wait for the ideal situation. Every little amount of writing you can do adds up.

Lastly, I want to underline something I alluded to earlier in this post: FIRST DRAFT WRITING DOES NOT HAVE TO BE HIGH QUALITY! This is a lesson about turning off the internal editor. I found myself bored a few times when I was creating scenes. I also had a few days when I caught myself saying that the book was a flop, that it was hopelessly boring and dull. It very well might be, but when writing the first draft you have to set all those opinions aside. That’s the joy of revision. You can take a sorry story and throw in a few twists and turns and turn it into something wonderful. But you never get that opportunity if you don’t jot down the first round of garbage and let your characters explore options. Outlining doesn’t seem like a viable option to me. I could come up with an outline that says what the characters should do, but that doesn’t mean that they will show up and do those things. It’s only by muddling through the exploration of storytelling that your characters announce where they are going and what is going to happen. You have to trust that process and work the process and tell your editor that he/she needs to shut up until needed later.


Doraine Bennett said...

I'm proud of you! Maybe one of these days I'll jump on the Nano bandwagon. Good lessons learned.

Keith Badowski said...

Thanks so much, Doraine. I highly recommend Nano as a way to get the ball rolling on a novel. It worked extremely well for me, given I've never gotten passed a third chapter of novel writing before.

Nancy Scott Hanway said...

Keith - I did it too, and I found that the only thing that kept me going was assuring myself -- over and over --that the first draft could be terrible. And now I have an actual draft of a new novel -- which I intend to finish once I get my current novel out to the agents. Very valuable experience.

Nancy Scott Hanway said...

Hi Keith -- I agree about Nano. I am planning to do it every year, in part because it was so exhilarating. And it definitely taught me about trusting my instincts on plots. Have you ever done the scrip writing month - Script Frenzy?