The November Chronicles: How to Lose in 30 Days

At the beginning of this month, I had intended to write a blog post every day. I wanted to talk about the process of writing during National Novel Writing Month, all the steps on the way to completing a fifty-thousand word challenge. I was going to have a grand time doing it.

Now, it’s almost midnight, very late in in the month. I’m losing the challenge by too large a margin to even dream of making it up in the next two days, and I wish more that I had posted every day.

As much as writers talk about how to win this contest, it might have been useful to see what it looks like to lose.

The Preparation

I spent the better part of two years mapping out the story I wanted to write. The entire plot is laid out on my wall in ten different colors of sticky notes, with a green piece of yarn connecting them all to remind me of the order. It’s a mess and it’s beautiful. I’ve looked at it every day, added to it in fits and starts, enjoyed just having it hanging there. When the first of November rolled around, I was sure I knew what to write.

The Beginning

I started at midnight on Halloween, as I always do.

I like midnights. There’s a brilliance to them that has less to do with starlight and the overnight chill and more to do with heartbeats and drumbeats and the things we do to fill the dark. I like the excitement of staying up too late, the space that I have to shape things before sunlight reveals the exact shape of them. It’s just a romantic notion, and I know other people would rather get up with the sun and revel in the daylight.

But this year, I had three thousand words before those people even woke up, and that’s how I like to kick off NaNoWriMo. (Yeah, I’m winking at you…)

It wasn’t until the second day that I started to feel how poorly I understood my characters. I had given them all names and ages and jobs, but I couldn’t say more about them, and within a few thousand words, I could feel it. I was trying to carve out a specific story with some very blunt tools.

I only stayed ahead of schedule for a third day, and then I started to fall behind a little at a time.

The Middle

My birthday was on the ninth. Being born in November is probably the original reason I love this month (and being born at midnight is probably the original reason I like it when the clock strikes twelve).

I took the day off from work with the idea that I would get my writing done and still have a lot of time to celebrate. I planned a girl’s day out with my sister and a dinner out with friends. Leading up to it, I kicked and fought to catch up with my word count as much as possible, so that I could relax. I did not plan on how much election day the day before would color everyone’s mood.

I voted. I don’t feel like this blog is the place to go into the details of who I voted for, but when I tell you the deep sense of alarm that settled in as I watched the election results, you’ll understand that I did not vote for our president elect. My friends didn’t either.

I didn’t write much the next day. I talked about the election with friends who needed to talk or else they would explode.

I did celebrate my birthday – got a pedicure, went shopping, ate a delicious lunch and a rowdy dinner, ate more ice cream than should have been allowed – and I ignored the election with the friends who needed to ignore it, at least for that day, or they would explode.

I wasn’t sure which one I needed – talking or ignoring – but I thought about my novel a lot.

There was a sticky note on my wall that just said, “Citizenship and Preservation of HOME” in Sharpie, because that was what I wanted my story to be about. I went home and I wrote “POLITICAL STRESS” on my wall, and couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought about it before.

I wrote “Rebellion = 18 years ago.” For two years, I had built this story inside a world that I had created when I was fourteen. Previously, I thought about how it fit into the magic system and the geography and the lives of a few characters I had worked with before. I never fit it into the history. I realized that all my characters had lived through a single event, something momentous and tenuous, and I had never thought about what that might do to them.

I wrote “Legality is a matter of power, NOT justice” on my wall, because I read it on the internet, and it was so very applicable to the moment that my main character was living.

And then I had a nice piece of panic because I was stressed and writing wasn’t going as well as I wanted. Because there were integral parts of my story I didn’t understand, and I couldn’t move forward. Because everything I had written so far was going to need slash-and-cut editing. Because I only had one paragraph, in hundreds of pages, which could honestly say I was excited about. Because I was very, very behind, even with all those other problems, and…

More Middle

I panicked for a week.

I didn’t write for a week.

I told a few people that I was throwing a “creative hissy fit.”

But I was panicking.

The End

I wrote ten thousand words in two days. I wrote things that did not belong anywhere in my novel, out of context, out of the time line, fleshing out things I needed to know about my fictional reality. I wrote about where my main character had been on one specific day in history. Where her best friend had been. How they reacted. How they grew beyond it.

I know a few people who can write ten thousand words in one day and be happy. For me, writing like that is just a neon sign that I’m eight kinds of desperate. At the end of those two days, I was still behind. I needed a deep breath and a bowl of ice cream.

I wrote a few more thousand, and a few more, because a friend had talked me out of quitting altogether. But I never had the steam to make it all the way to fifty-thousand words.

And I was okay with that for one reason: for the last decade, National Novel Writing month has always been about laying down a first draft that I was happy to spend several months editing, not about ram-rodding enough words down the barrel to reach an arbitrary goal.

Even if I had limped to the finish line, I wouldn’t have been happy. I wanted a raw draft out of this contest, and I was writing a character-less, panic-fueled jumble.

I’m not sure how I’m going to work my way forward, but I’m happy to do it outside the electrifying field of NaNoWriMo.

How to Lose:

Step 1: Start writing with all the good intentions you can muster.

Step 2: Learn about your story as you go. Wish that you had planned more thoroughly. Write slowly, because this is the kind of scenery you need to stare at a while.

Step 3: Stumble when real life stomps its way through your life. Slow down to see its reflection in your writing. Slow down more to take care of yourself and clean the bootprints off your back.

Step 4: Push to catch up, just in case it’s possible.

Step 5: Remember that every writer is different and uses different tools. Remember that every story is different and comes together in different ways. Not every novel can be written in a thirty day race.

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