What I Learned From NaNoWriMo

Drafting a plan (Soure: Image by Pexels from Pixabay)

November is known as National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo for short. I’d heard about the event for several years, but there was always something keeping me too busy to participate. This year, as I found myself self-employed, time was abundant. I finally took the plunge and aimed for the 50,000 words to get a book started.

Since I’d never done it before, I had no idea how to prepare. I’ve never been much of a planner or outliner as a writer, but I thought for NaNoWriMo it might be best to go in with a blueprint. For the first time ever, before endeavoring to write, I made notes for a general idea of the novel and created character charts for the most important new players (I decided to write the sequel to my current work in progress).

I planned out chapters, which is the extent of preparation I usually do when writing. I can’t see so far ahead in my story that I know exactly what happens in the middle and how it’s going to end. But if I take it one chapter at a time I don’t feel so overwhelmed.

However, since the goal was to reach approximately 1,667 words per day, outlining chapters didn’t give me enough momentum to work with. Instead, I took some advice from a writing workshop I’d attended led by Janice Hardy. She spoke about scenes, what they were, how they were structured, and how to create one.

Once I broke down the chapters by scene, getting to my daily word count became easier. Then about a week and a half passed and reaching my word count got harder. Not because I didn’t have the outline to guide me, but because I kept lacking the focus and energy.

That’s when I switched to breaking my daily word count goal into smaller hourly goals throughout the day. I still had my freelance writing gig to consider, so trying to hammer out nearly 2,000 words for NaNoWriMo and another 1,000 for each article I wrote for work took its toll.

I started dividing my day by three-hour intervals. In the morning I’d write 600 words and take a break between meals. Then I’d start my writing for work and break for lunch. After that, I wrote another 600 words for my novel and took another break to hydrate or just veg out. I finished my work article and then broke for exercise. When I was done with exercise, I’d write the last 600 words for my NaNoWriMo day and finish with dinner.

This worked for another week and a half, but I found myself losing steam halfway through week three of the writing challenge. I stuttered out at the end, managing about 1,00o words on a good day and 300 on my worst. What happened?

Writing every day. That’s what happened. I wasn’t used to it. When I wrote my last two books, I grew accustomed to mashing out a full 5,000-word chapter over a weekend. But I’d never challenged myself to write every day. I thought, “Oh, I write for a living. How hard can doing it for fun be?” Turns out, incredibly hard.

It starts off easy, the excitement and adrenaline propelling you forward. But much like exercising, the endorphins only motivate you for so long. Working out every day or at least three to four times a week in the beginning is harsh. You start off determined and ready to get fit. It lasts for about a week, maybe two, but soon life makes its presence known and before you know it, you’ve fallen off the wagon and gone back to a sedentary lifestyle.

Writing is similar. During NaNoWriMo I was expected to write every day, so naturally life started getting in the way again. It became harder to make time for it. I still managed to get just over 35,000 words in the end, which for a beginner I think is decent. But now that I’ve done the challenge, I understand what it takes to train for it.

Like a marathon runner, I have to spend at least a few months in advance getting my mind and body used to the idea of every day. Beyond that, I need to learn what works to keep me in the habit, not just make the habit. I’m not sure if I’ll participate in NaNoWriMo again (ask me next year). But I do feel better equipped to handle writing on a daily basis now.

Have any of you participated in NaNoWriMo before? Was this year your first year also? What are your techniques to get through the challenge? Let me know in the comments!

Why It’s Absolutely Okay to Write Badly

One of my favorite writers, Cinda Williams Chima, recently made a post on Goodreads saying, “I give myself permission to write badly,” in answer to a question about how she gets past writer’s block.

That’s really what writer’s block, isn’t it? The fear of failure. The doubt that you might not have something important to say. The uncertainty that what you have to say won’t be well-received.

It’s completely okay to write badly though. A first draft is not a final product, and no one expects perfection on the first try.

Writing, like just about everything else in life, is a skill. It must be learned. It must be practiced. You won’t get it perfectly right straight off the bat, so why sweat the terrible first try?

This is a process I’ve been undergoing myself as I write my novel and novella. As I go writing, I find myself reading back a section and thinking, “No, that doesn’t work. I should do this instead.”

That process of editing while writing will delay you terribly. It sets you back to the point where you keep rewriting and revising what you already put down, keeping you from the finish line.

To stop myself from the eternal edit mode, I make notes in the document saying to come back to this. Essentially, I say, “This is future Meagan’s problem.”

It’s fine to write something that doesn’t work the first time you write it down. That’s what revising and editing are for.

You’ll make a rough draft. Then you’ll do developmental edits, revising the story strucuture or character development. Next, you’ll do line edits where you scour the manuscript line by line for syntax. Finally, you’ll do copy edits for grammar, spelling, and punctuation.

Do you see how many steps it takes to get to the final, finished product? How could you ever expect to do all that work on the first round? It’s not possible (or at least highly improbable).

Give yourself permission to write a terrible first draft. It might not make sense. It might make you cringe when you look back on it. But it’s how you’re going to learn how to tell a compelling story.

The important thing is to simply start. More important still, to keep going. Even if you reach the point where your story gets published, you’ll feel like it’s not done yet. That is the nature of art. It always feels like a work in progress.

Something that helped me get past that constant need to go back and edit was writing each chapter of my novel in a separate document. If it wasn’t all together in one document, I couldn’t go back and edit.

Also, I started tracking what was happening in the story by making an outline with chapter summaries. If something felt like it was missing or I realized a story inconsitency, I made a note in the outline to go back and change or fix that element.

Finding tactics that keep moving your writing forward will help you get past the writer’s block. Are there any processes you practice that help with writer’s block? Share them in the comments!

What I Learned About Writing From Taking a Long Time to Read a Book

I picked up a book in Spain over three years ago because it looked interesting. I thought, “I’m proficient enough in Spanish, and this sounds like a fun action-thriller that will be a breeze.”

It was not a breeze. I am not proficient in Spanish (though my father said he didn’t think it was a very good translation, so perhaps that didn’t do me any favors). But I persisted, and I finally finished reading David Golemon’s Leyenda, translated by Ester Mendía Picazo.

leyenda
Leyenda by David Lynn Golemon, Translated by Ester Mendía Picazo

I can’t quite give a thorough review, because since I was so focused on understanding the language, it was easy to get lost in untangling characters and what each one did. I think that may have just been the nature of the book.

There was such an extensive ensemble and multiple converging storylines that it swirled in dizzying action and adventure. What I can say is that it reminded me of a cross between National Treasure and The Da Vinci Code, so it was a fun read.

But this post isn’t about giving a review. It’s about relishing in my accomplishment of finishing my first ever book entirely in Spanish. It’s not my first language, so to say that I read 415 pages in my second tongue, especially when it heavily dealt with a topic of which the vocabulary was completely new to me, is something to be proud of.

I had moments where I thought about quitting and saying that I can’t read in Spanish. But I didn’t do that. Instead, I took my time. I read voraciously some nights, as I was enthralled by the story. And other nights I read one paragraph or one page. That’s okay. There was no pressing need to finish the book in a timely manner (clearly). It took three and a half years, but I finished.

I think it’s important that I took on this endeavor, because it taught me an important life lesson. It may take many years and more time than anticipated, but it’s possible to finish something that seems impossible. Weirdly enough, completing this challenge I set for myself, even three years later, has renewed my energy to finish my next challenge (which I’ve also been working on for four years now): writing my first novel.

I’ve been working on writing my book on and off, writing when I have time. It’s felt like a hobby that I’m doing to pass the time, and like it’s something that I’ll never finish. Sometimes I write a chapter and think, “Okay, that’s the next chapter. Who knows when this will be done.”

But reading a whole book in Spanish and getting to the end taught me that, yes, an end does come, even if it takes more time than I thought. I don’t feel like I’m writing for writing’s sake now. I finished Leyenda, so that means I can finish writing my book.

This all also coincides with the impending end of my master’s program. I see the end of each of these adventures as the closing chapters in my own book, but not as the end of my story. Some chapters are longer than others and take more time, but they do come to an end. And that just means I know I can accomplish these things and feel rejuvenated to start the next one.

I thought being a reader had taught me all it can at this point, but it turns out there’s still so much more that being a reader can teach me.

What have you learned about life as a reader? Let me know in the comments!

Dealing With Imposter Syndrome as a Writer

Notepad with crumpled pages for the trash (Image by Steve Johnson from Pixabay)

I may have mentioned before how I work full time and go to grad school part time. So, when does that leave time for writing? The answer is virtually never, and it kind of eats at me sometimes.

There are some nights after work and studying that I do have a couple of hours to myself where I do have time to write, but I don’t take advantage of it. Instead, I catch up on TV or reading. Does this make me a bad writer?

I don’t practice my craft as often as I should. I know I shouldn’t get too down on myself for this because the truth is, I’m mentally exhausted after work and studying, but is that just an excuse? Then again, is it fair to my characters and stories and poetry if I try to work on them when my brain is fried?

I recently completed a poetry chapbook manuscript that I’ve been working on for over a year. It felt so strange to finally finish something that it left me with a sense of doubt as to if it was really finished and ready to be sent out into the world.

Maybe the full-time worker/part-time grad student is the excuse I give myself to procrastinate on finishing something, because once I’m done, am I really done? Is it really ready? I imagine even full-time writers have this anxiety.

Artists never truly feel like their work is ready for the world to see. Or maybe we just feel like the world isn’t ready to see our work? How many times do we see a look back on some work and see critics say, It was ahead of its time? Nobody wants posthumous recognition.

So, here I am with a completed manuscript, and I haven’t done anything with it since I finished it a week ago. Granted, I spend 10 hours working, including the commute. Then, I have to take a break when I get home, otherwise I’ll lose my mind. Then it’s off to read or answer discussion questions or research current events or work on a term paper, and by the time I’m finished it’s 9 p.m.

That makes me seem like an old lady, but it’s close to bed time and all I wanna do is read my book club book because I borrowed it from the library and I gotta finish it within a certain time frame. How did I even finish that manuscript? Oh yeah, at the pace of an animal I’d imagine as a hybrid between a sloth and a turtle. Slow and steady wins the race?

Is it a race? I know I shouldn’t think of it as such, but when I just turned 27 and I’ve considered myself a writer since high school and I’ve barely had anything published, does that make me a loser?

For anyone experiencing what I am, I’m sorry I don’t have clear answers for the questions posed. I suppose there is no right answer though, and everyone has to come to their own conclusions to get them through the writers’ process. That’s different than the writing process, as the two are not the same. Writing and being a writer that is.

How do you all deal with the existential dread of calling yourselves writers?