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I first heard about NANOWRIMO in 2004, and in 2005 I decided that I was going to compete. While I didn’t do it every year, it wasn’t until 2015 that I actually completed the expressed goal of writing 50,000 words toward one story in 30 days. Let’s process that for a moment. 10 years. Usually, when I fail at something for 10 years, I just stop trying entirely. I guess that’s what Writing does to you; you become an addict, constantly looking for the next rush.
It is true that I have always loved writing personally, and that I usually opt to do that if I can. But NANOWRIMO is a bigger challenge than writing a ‘zine, and much more demanding than knocking out a short story on the weekends, when there’s not much else going on and there’s no deadline. For all of those wannabe writers who love to talk about the craft and how they are in love with the written word, there is something about having to produce that much material in that short a period of time, that really forces you to work close to the metal. There are no do-overs. On December 1st, you do a total word count, and hope that you got there with all that blubber you added at the last second.
In 2015, I had a number of factors working for me, and I started very strong with my novel, with the very-high expectation of writing 2000 words a day. This worked great at first, but between technical challenges, a computer crash, and majorly loosing steam half-way through, I missed several days, where I couldn’t write a single word. I caught up quickly, and when I limped across the finish line with a few days left to spare, I just quit completely, and didn’t write anything those last few days, in spite of trying. While I technically finished, I felt a little lame about the way I finished, especially since I did this publicly; not only were chunks of the book being serialized on this very blog, but I was allowing people to read the Google Doc where the story lived at any time, and published that link all over. (It might even still be available, buried somewhere in the avalanche of other stuff that’s online.) Anyway, there was something about the public nature of the project last year that really made me feel bad about the way it ended. I should have finished a little more gracefully, but so it goes.
I approached the process of writing a story like this very differently last year, too. In the past, I would start at word one on page one, and would try to build the story from there. It was sort of painstaking, as a friend of mine used to say, the “Ice Skating” approach to writing. (Get it right in the first pass, and that’s it.) If you don’t know what the next word is, well, you wait until you do. And you hope that inspiration will guide you. For my 2015 attempt, unlike all previous efforts at writing, I spent the first couple of days assembling a detailed outline. All of these outline words counted toward the total 50,000, and as the month progressed, I would highlight a couple of words from the outline, and flesh it out into the scene that was described.
On the whole, it worked, and it allowed me to do something that I’d never done before: write something out-of-sequence. Humorously enough, I almost never did. Usually, I would look at the outline and work on the next section. When I got stuck, I went back a couple of times to flesh out spots that seemed weak in hindsight. But I rarely went forward. I just had no idea how to do that.
For 2016, I more or less forgot that NANOWRIMO was coming, and really only decided to do it at the last minute. There are a number of personal factors that informed this, but when it looked like I had time on November 1st, and an idea occurred to me, I ran with it.
Like last time, I decided to start with an outline. Like last time, I set a goal of 2000 words a day. And like last year – and in previous years – I ran with a detective story, too.
But, when it came to the actual writing and day-to-day aspect of it, this year felt very different. There was a sort of confidence up front that I didn’t remember from last year. Having completed it before, it now seemed manageable. Like I’ve heard many people say about honing any skill, once they achieve something once, they know it is possible. Doing it again is just a formality. So even on days when I didn’t hit my goal, or even didn’t write anything, it never felt desperate. I’d already had the worst happen to me: complete computer crash in the middle of a novel. And in the end, we recovered. It wasn’t even mildly awful. If that’s the worst that can happen, then what did I have to fear this year?
Another first for me this time was that I wrote things well out of order. This was quite practical at first; sometimes, I just didn’t know how to flesh out a scene, and it made sense to write some bantering dialog. For a good part of the beginning, I wrote a ton of backstory, so I would have some reference material to inform the main plot. It wasn’t until I’d spent almost five or six days on the backstory that key plot points started to come together in my mind. Writing out of order also helped me realize that there were huge sections of my outline that were unnecessary when I reviewed everything, and now sections of the story have these weird dead-end sections that sort of go nowhere, because I realized that set-up was no longer necessary.
In fact, when I review the results of this year’s efforts, it is largely unreadable on December 1st, and this is very different from previous attempts. I will not be serializing this anytime soon, and I’m not sharing the link, either. But, there is a the seed of a story in there, somewhere. I could imagine, given a long enough timeline, that I could whip this into shape. But for now, the idea of returning to this monstrosity just seems inhumane. It is a huge, sprawling, messy and largely nonsensical detective yarn, and even by that standard, would be hard to enjoy, offers little closure, and is not a good example of what I can at my best.
To make matters worse, I actually got a writing gig in November of this year, which meant that I had to crank our three non-fiction stories during the bulk of NANOWRIMO. Not only did I have to put the brakes on my “novel” to do my newly-acquired job, but it sort of took over a lot of my brain-space, too. You don’t realize how many processes are working in the background to come up with words, that it is only when you need to split that time across two project that you realize how exhausting that process is. You are just wiped out. In this respect, and in this respect alone, I cheated; the work I had to write for this new job was added to the total word count for November writing. While I did come up with an in-story reason for this, and I don’t feel guilty in the slightest for doing it, I do feel like I need to mention this caveat. I absolutely wrote a ton in November. But not all of it was strictly for this novel. (But, you never know, considering one of the characters is a journalist / zine writer, it fits, right?)
Another difference this year was location; I wrote this novel in a number of places throughout the month. It’s sort of hard not to, what with the holidays and etc. But technology makes stuff like this so incredibly easy, and by using a Google Doc, I never lost a word, no matter where I was writing. However, this didn’t prevent me from experiencing writer’s block. When I was not in my two primary writing environments – the office or my home – it was so much more difficult to put my butt in the chair and start churning out words, that there were many days I wrote nothing. Never had the environmental factor become so apparent to me, and now I had evidence to back it up. I write better in my natural environments.
Because I missed a lot of days this year, even my 2000 words a day goal couldn’t cover for the days I wrote nothing. This led to something I had never done before, and turned out to the most exhausting thing I’ve ever done while writing: churning out 4000 words a day, or more, in order to catch up near the end. On no less than six occasions I wrote well over 2000 words, and three of those were in the 4000+ range. (One day was nearly 7000 words, even.) Those six days were… terrible. There’s just no way to sugar coat it. Not only did the words get worse as the day progressed, but those were tiring days. To my knowledge, I’ve never written that much in one day before, and to think that I did it this year still seems insane. I should know better. While I finished the projected goal by the end of the month, there were a few days where I felt physically exhausted, just from coming up with words.
On the whole, I had a great time this year, because I feel like I learned a lot of practical lessons about writing that, while perhaps obvious, are things I need to continue to keep in mind to continue this journey of becoming a writer. Never have I felt that there was so much to learn, and at the same time, never have I felt I have made such progress. While I’ve tried to condense this into a handful of tips to close out this reflection, I should preface this by saying that it has taken me 20 years of writing and 10 years of failing at NANOWRIMO to make these realizations about myself. While useful to me now, please don’t assume this is across-the-board advice that will work for everyone. Just a few observations about how I work when I’m writing.
Hopefully, this will help you find what works for you.
10 Writing Tips Learned From NANOWRIMO 2016
1.) It’s About Words; Nothing More. There is a time for making every sentence unique, making every simile perfect, and having continuity between the entire body of work. This is not that time. Just write. A lot. Let the words flow. Let your sentences be clunky. Let it all out. Much later, you can fix anything you don’t like. But for now, just get words down. Lots and lots of words.
2.) Set Very High Goals. To beat NANOWRIMO, you need to write at least 1667 words a day. Write 2000 a day. If you can, write even more. Over-shooting the goal early, when you’re just getting started and you’re excited, can save you when you have trouble later, and you need a cushion – for whatever reason. If you can write for a week straight hitting that higher goal, you’ll have plenty of wiggle room when Thanksgiving hits and you are too full to write.
3.) You Are Over-Thinking It. Usually, anyway. All of the best moments of my story are unplanned, and all the parts I want to save in future revisions are the things that I just threw in suddenly, without thinking about it. When I would agonize over something, it would get worse and worse, and the more I would work on it to get it “just right,” the more time I wasted not-writing, because I was “thinking.” You will have plenty of time to think about the story when it is done, and you can revise the hell out of it later. But right now, stop thinking. Start writing.
4.) Stop Being Precious. This is something we could all work on. In the end, this writing is not important. There is nothing special or unique about your ability to sit down and write for hours a day, except that it speaks to your privilege, in that you are able to do that. It isn’t true that you write better in one take, or when drunk, or whatever it is that you think makes you a better writer. What makes you a better writer is to write, a lot, and to take it as read that you will be revising it all in the future. What you write isn’t a perfect snowflake the first try. This is just a mess of words that could be something in the future, if you let it. But it can’t be anything if you aren’t able to just sit down and start writing. Stop making excuses. If you are a writer, then, by all means, write.
5.) Location, Location, Location. It has been said by people more well spoken than I, so I will merely repeat: it is worth it to spend some time creating an environment you want to write in BEFORE you have to start writing. My office and home are perfectly established places, where I can work and feel good about it. Unless you thrive in places that are unfamiliar to you, I suggest making sure you have a few places ready that are comfortable, inviting, and induce as much positive energy as you can muster. You will need it.
6.) Start Early, Work Late. If you can, start writing in the morning. Write as much as you can, and keep adding to that number as the day progresses. If you can, write as late into the day as you can. Every minute you are not writing are words that you can’t get back, so the sooner you start, the sooner you will get done.
7.) Track Your Numbers As You Go. Spend some time creating a document where you can track your progress, so you can see how much you have written, and how much more you have to go. I found that using a Spreadsheet offers the largest number of ways you can manipulate your data, and you can fine-tune it to give you exactly the kind of information you are looking for. Obviously you want the grand total, but I like being able to look at the work finished each day, and how much I have to write each remaining day to hit the goal. I recommend learning the key commands that offer your total word count, so you don’t have to use menus or look it up each time. Seeing your progress in real time can help motivate you to stay on top of your goals, and keep working when you are running out of steam.
8.) Learn To Accept Failure Early, And Often. There will be days when you just don’t write well. There will be days you don’t hit the goal. You might not even finish at the end of the month. Or, you might, but your story will be crap. Going into NANOWRIMO is ultimately an experience in coping with failure, because even if you finish, the story you have written will not be the breakthrough success that will make you a star. Most likely, you spent a lot of time on something that you will not be compensated for, in any way. That is fine. Like accepting criticism, or having to accept what you can’t do, writing is not always something you will succeed at, even if you are good. Learn to sit with that. Find a way to feel okay with it, and move on. You will need to if you want to hit 50,000.
9.) Take Breaks. It seems strange, but when you are in the zone, and you are writing well, the last thing you want to do is take a break. But after even an hour, writing can wear you out, and if you are hungry, or distracted, or tired, it will be harder and harder to write. Take as many breaks as you need, go for a walk, or whatever. You will find even a few minutes away will not only help you feel like you can write longer, but will often give you new ideas that don’t come to you while you are actively writing. Breaks are like the rest in a musical performance; learn to value them as much as the parts where you are writing at full steam.
10.) Get Ready For Post-Novel Depression. This sounds silly, but I absolutely get depressed when I finish a project. Nothing dramatic or even dangerous, but completing something is almost like giving birth. Afterward, you feel like you’ve lost something. And you have, in a way; a huge story has been created from words you put down. All of that is out of your head, and while it can be relieving to get things out, it can also make you feel a little empty, in a way. Fortunately, NANOWRIMO ends with the holiday season in full swing, and hopefully there’s enough going on to help give you some focus and purpose as you cope. (Or, conversely, this is the most depressing time of the year for you, and you might need some help staying upbeat as you enter it.) Either way, get ready for it. This is just a sign that you need to recharge your creative batteries, and do some non-writing things for a while. You’ve put in a lot of work in a short period of time. If you want to be able to do it again someday, you’ll need to give yourself the recovery necessary to get back to full strength. In the meantime, I suggest picking a new TV Show, letting yourself gain a few pounds, and re-doubling your efforts to spend time with friends (or, if you aren’t depressed by the holidays, with your family). Not only is it the right time of year for it, but you’ll find recovery is so much better with people you care about.