Ars longa, Vita Brevis: NaNoWriMo 2016

I did NaNoWriMo this year!

nano-wordcount-tool-screenshot

Well, I participated, at least… I didn’t get to the 50,000 word mark but I did get 10,000 words down. I started off really strong the first day, slowed down on day 2, and then got bogged down for two weeks with Comp Sci homework (and then dropped that class) and the shitstorm that was the 2016 election (spent the 8th working the polls). Realized about halfway through the month I should get back to work and wrote a bit more… then every couple of days I wrote a bit and then made a break for 10,000 at the very end. Well, now I know exactly how bad my work habits are…

Even though my totals weren’t that impressive I’m proud of myself for not giving up. I tried to do NaNoWriMo a couple of times in high school, but I never got very far. There were a couple of things I kept in my metaphorical “backback” this year to help me get through the NaNo journey:

First was one piece of advice, which I think came from Elizabeth Gilbert:

You are safe. Make art.

This quote makes a good mantra for when housework or homework seems more important than getting writing done – you are safe, nothing bad will happen if the dishes don’t get done right away. It’s also good for remembering to open up and be vulnerable in your writing, as well as a reminder to relax: if you don’t feel safe, or if you feel like you should be doing something else, you won’t relax enough to let your mind play. So reminding yourself that you are safe is a good way to get into a creative mode of thought.

Before November, I promised myself I wouldn’t mess with my tools too much. When I first did NaNo, I tried using pretty notebooks, but they were too awkward to hold open and one year I lost it, so I stopped using those. The next couple times, I tried using a full-screen text editor (Q10, WriteMonkey), but I noticed I spent way too much time fiddling with the fonts and background colors, and not enough time writing. This year, I decided to stick with plain old Microsoft Word, which now has a live wordcount meter built in, which kept readability at a maximum and potential for distraction to a minimum.

Something that I started doing naturally as I worked was that I kept a separate Word document as scratch paper. I mostly used this document as a containment zone for my inner critic.  She would express self-doubts or criticism, and then I would argue back or tell her to go away, and then switch windows back to the project. I noticed my internal critic was meanest on the first day: after I heard it out and then told it to go to hell, I was surprised that it actually did (for the most part). I also used the other Word doc to hold funny or silly sentences I wrote that I wanted to share on social media but didn’t want to post because I knew I would get distracted by waiting for or responding to feedback. I used that other doc as a kind of “emotional outsourcing” to hold all the frustration and exuberance that came as a by-product of writing.

This year, I didn’t do any planning before November. The goal was just to write as many words as I could, about anything I could grasp at the moment. Throughout the month, I started and dropped stories a couple of times as I went, leaving them all in the same word document with just a border line between them (hit “=” a few times and then enter). My goal was to just write what I imagined when I sat down at the keyboard. When I used to try to try to write one story the whole way through NaNo, I would usually get stuck and then give up, but giving myself permission to switch stories on a whim made it easier to dust myself off and just keep writing. In lieu of planning, what I did was I started a Word doc which was a list of lists full of things that I think would be interesting to include in a story, with categories like “creatures”, “professions”, “unusual groups”, “places”, etc.

I also promised myself I wouldn’t share anything particulars about the story online. In past years, I would sometimes post my WIPs on forums, etc, but I’ve learned that it’s a really bad idea to share your work before its finished. If there’s any advice I have for younger writers, it’s this. Feedback in the first draft stage is NEVER helpful. If it’s negative, it’s discouraging, and if it’s positive, it’s too much pressure. Even well-meaning suggestions for directions to go can be really distracting and impede progress.

It may not be true for every writer, but for me at least, I have a really fragile ego and bad feedback can put me out of commission for a while… so if I’m going to put something out into the world, it’s gotta be really polished. I think taking the pressure of publication off allows you to write more creatively and experiment more boldly as well as write without having the nagging voice in your mind saying it doesn’t make sense. As long as you keep going, you can keep work on it until it does make sense. When I would post stuff online when I was younger, I would pride myself on being able to push ego aside and endure criticism, but I’ve learned that if I push ego too far away, I can’t write. I’ve come to believe that ego is the place where art comes from. If you try to be too selfless in your writing, there’s no self left to make the art. Ego, in moderate amount, is a creative force for good. Ego is something to be protected and nurtured, not thrown away.

This month, I wrote things that were cliche, absurd, nonsensical, boring, copyright-infriging, and probably very offensive, but I’m not publishing them, so it’s okay. :) I am backing it up and printing it out and putting it in a binder, but this %#*( in its current form is never going to see the light of day, and that gives me the license to continue writing until I hit on something decent.

Most writing doesn’t get read, doesn’t make money, and doesn’t improve anyone’s life for the better in a concrete way. So, why write? Because writing for yourself is one of the most personally fulfilling things you can do! Writing stretches your imagination and your capability for improvisation. The more regularly you force yourself to come up with ideas and imagine scenes, the easier it will become. Besides, if a really good idea comes along, you want to have your writing muscle worked out and ready, and the best way to do that is to have a regular writing habit in place where that spark of inspiration can find a home. Writing is a lot like driving: if you leave the car sitting in the driveway for too long it’ll stop working and need to be repaired, and by the time it’s done being repaired, the event you wanted to go to might already be over.

Writing also puts you in touch with an eerie, creative force that seems to come from outside yourself. I can’t tell you how many times plots, characters, or strange events just seemed to come out of nowhere when I had a quota to fill. My brain would do things like tell me “there’s lava on the walls of the evil computer’s lair” or “that ghost’s screams make wolves gather” and I’d just go “okay, sure, why not?” and roll with it.

Forcing yourself to write helps you learn what you like and what you don’t like to write, what you’re good at and where you need work. What you’re comfortable writing is often different than what you like to read. I read a lot of older books written in a high style, but when I write, I write closer to how I talk. I found that I can quickly come up with a scene and a few characters, but plot is a real problem for me. Forcing myself to write makes me rub up against my own weaknesses and recognize where I need help (thus the small mountain of plot books in my backpack right now…)

The #1 thing I learned during this year’s NaNoWriMo is that none of the stories I worked on existed until I started writing them. Usually, the way I imagined a writer wrote was, they’d get an idea, write an outline, get the characters fleshed out, and then start writing, but NaNo is a very different style. I found it a lot more organic and a bit more exciting. The wordcount requirement forces improvisation and momentum. Usually when I would have an idea a story, I would write it down on my phone, then look back at it in a week or a month (whenever it was convenient) and not remember where I was thinking of taking it, but needing to write every day makes you work on your ideas before they get away.

I’m planning to keep the ball rolling through December and beyond, trying to write at least 1,000 words a day of something (blog posts will have to be included because I spent all of Thursday writing this one ^^;). I started an Excel document with a similar layout to the NaNo wordcount tools to help me keep track of my goal:

excel-wordcount-spreadsheet

 

You can download the Excel sheet here and use it for your own writing: wordcounttracker12-16

Until the next post, stay creative! ^_^

~ Kurobana

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