When I decided to do NaNoWriMo this year, I was facing another surgery in October, almost a year to the date after the last one that still hasn’t healed *sigh*. It seemed like a perfect time to force myself to lay in bed, recover and get some words on the page. I’ve been rather remiss recently in writing and I was looking for some way to jumpstart my brain, to get out of the depressive rut of health issues, the state of the world and parent brain-drain.
Since my littlest started Kindergarten, my days are gloriously full of every possible thing that I cannot contemplate doing with children underfoot. All those projects, renovations, fighting with insurance for coverage, going to the doctor, doing the millions of things that keep the family running and moving. Kindergarten has been beautiful and one of my favorite transitions of childhood (slightly behind weaning and sleeping through the night, and slightly ahead of not having to buckle a child into a five point harness or open and close their car door any more). 7 whole hours, just for me.
Which means that I’m not making writing a priority. I’m playing catch up for years of parenting at home where I couldn’t reasonably count on long stretches of dependable time to get something done. I’m putting my feet up and reading a book. I’m archiving all of our photos, and wiping and reinstalling software on our computers. I’m repairing water damage in the utility room, and building out ceilings in the basement. The list is epic.
I’ve never been a quantity writer – I struggle frequently to write in any measureable amount. Which is understandable, I suppose, seeing as I usually have 15 minutes to write while waiting in the parking lot at school pick up, or 45 minutes of fractured time during Ballet or Tae Kwon Do. But even when I did have more time to write when my first was very little, I often edited as I wrote rather than focus on getting new first draft words down. It was an iterative process, and I enjoyed it. I would reread, edit, and add a little every time I sat down to work on a piece. It was a ritual, retuning my busy brain into writing mode by reading and editing first, before diving into creating.
I was intrigued by Nano. Could I do it? Did I have that word count in me? Would I be well enough post-surgery to push through and succeed? Would this process work for me? Well, the kids ended up bringing home virus after virus (damn contagion vectors) September to October and into November, so my surgery kept getting bumped and bumped, until the doc finally put me on medications that have seemed to help jumpstart healing that stalled after last year’s surgery. It’s been a strange fall of unknowns and under the weather kids, and a sword of Damocles hanging over me, just waiting for surgery that I didn’t want to have. Last Wednesday my surgeon finally said that we could delay until January, and I may not need it after all. *phew*
So I plodded ahead with Nano, not sure for most of the month whether I’d been down for the count and on heavy painkillers at any point in the future. And I focused on writing each day as though I wouldn’t be able to write again tomorrow. I’m pleased to say that two days early, 11/28/17, I hit 50,000 words on a novel I’ve been plotting in my head for years.
It was a completely new experience for me. I learned I can write with significant quantity, upwards of 2,000 words in an hour, if I’m in the right mindset and I have the plot and details held and shaped in my head. I also learned that some days several hundred words will barely come, no matter how much I try to force them.
But the biggest lesson for me is that it’s okay to write crap. And hoo boy, this stuff is really, really bad. But I structured and outlined and then wrote straight up plot for 50,000 words in one month and I got it on paper (using Scrivener) and I now officially have the outline of an interesting book. It has potential. It is the scrappiest, most embarrassing, terrible first draft ever. But I can work with it now. I can find those extraordinary moments that came out of nowhere as I was writing and cultivate them. Shape them and enliven them. I can take out the millions of “he shrugged,” “she blinked,” “he groaned,” and “she woke”-s and replace them with the expansiveness of setting and emotion that I love to write. The potential is there and without those words, I would have nothing to develop.
A few things that helped me during the process:
– I used a lot of place holders for names, places and foods – literally just XXXXXX or 1111111, things that are easy to scan the text for and replace as I edit. I plan to spend a huge amount of time working on naming conventions for cultures, mapping and structuring historical and geographical information for the world. But I didn’t have to do it all before writing – just enough to get started. I had the outline of how I wanted each character to act, who they were in relation to my heroine, etc, and that won’t change no matter what their names will end up being in the final version. But I didn’t want to waste the time doing too much world building up front. I had just enough to build my mental image. The rest can be enriched as I edit.
– I didn’t write the scenes in order. Because I had outlined the entire book ahead of time and knew where I was going, I often jumped between scenes and sections, making note of areas with placeholders where I would need to reference back to a plot point or something that previously occurred that I hadn’t written yet. It let me take advantage of being motivated to write a particular scene, rather than forcing myself through a slogging part that I wasn’t ready to attack yet.
– I used NaNoWriMo.org to track and added several friends as buddies. I hate to admit that I was shallowly competing against friends, but I would log on and check their word counts every day before settling in to write, knowing that I needed to step up my game and keep up with the pros (friends who have both been doing this for much longer than I). It was healthy motivation, and along with the emails and posting to Twitter about my plans and progress, I had just enough external support and validation to break out of any slumps. The website also has a phenomenal word tracking tool that will predict your completion date and average rate of writing.
– I brainstormed, a huge amount. We had two long car trips together as a family for Thanksgiving, and I had written myself into a corner and needed help. With my husband and kiddos as a captive audience, I talked through ideas and issues for hours. I really should have let my husband drive so I could write it all down though.
– And the #1 thing: I did not reread anything I wrote in November. I did not edit, proof-read or check. I would occasionally skim to get back into a mindset, but if I had changes I needed to make to previous scenes (even if they were HUGE changes), I kept a separate file and made notes there so I could follow up later. There was one time I rewrote a scene in its entirety, but it turned out to be a good decision that kept most of the original writing and just added a significant plot point that was helpful for moving forward with later scenes. This idea of not rereading or editing as I went was a huge struggle for me at first. Especially cringing with how bad the writing was, and knowing editing is going to take a heck of a long time to slog through. But it was worth it to stay strong and just keep moving forward.
Things that were challenging, both expected and unexpected:
– My days were variable and unpredictable. I would surprise myself each time I sat down with either how little or how much I was writing in each session. Sometimes I got lost in a great scene for an hour or two. Sometimes I couldn’t even scrape the barrel for a few hundred words all day.
– I took a day off mid-month. I had been struggling for several days with a plot hole and my motivation and desire to write were low. I had tried forcing it out, writing different parts of the story, world building, but nothing was working. So I tried taking the whole day off. And I found that I was less reluctant to come back to the page the following day – my motivation was great, but my mind wandered. I had great ideas, fresh creativity, but I kept wanting to get out of the chair and go do laundry, or dishes, or anything else but writing. I stuck with it and the next day was back into the swing of writing large quantity. But how interesting to know that one day off of a pattern was enough to throw a wrench in my mental focus.
– I was hella crabby. Partly because my surgery kept getting pushed out and the kids kept getting sick. Partly because there was an election in VA and I spent most of the first week of November terrified of what would happen. Partly because of the holiday and all the millions of things that were vying to fracture my time, and tempt me away from this goal that felt so unattainable when I started.
Overall, I’m immensely proud of myself for doing it. For placing a priority on doing something for myself that I enjoy and and passionate about. Something that feels like a real accomplishment. Mom’s don’t get external validation for doing a good job – no raises or awards, no merit badges or stock options. My job satisfaction is kiddo laughter and unabashed joy, cuddling up and reading together on the couch, being compassionate and empathetic with each other. When strangers tell you your child is delightful, when your kids do something kind for others, when you know they’re making good decisions on their own. The intangibles of life that keep you moving forward and trying harder as a parent.
So, cheers to you all Nanoers that were there along with me. This was a HUGE deal, and be proud. Pat yourself on the back. Get a virtual high five from me. Have a cupcake. Take a breath. Now…get back to it.