The seasons are turning; young ghosts and goblins will soon prowl the streets, looking for souls upon which to feast – or, failing that, a boatload of mini Snickers bars to sate their appetites… Countdowns are starting all over the world: to Hallowe’en, to Thanksgiving (or, if you’re in Canada, it’s Thanksgiving to Hallowe’en, but I digress), to Christmas (only 7 weeks away?!?), to summer holidays Down Under or winter getaways north of the equator.
And it’s this time of year when the internet is abuzz with the most exciting countdown of all. Facebook status updates are now rife with the circulation of cutesy/horrific/serious/pun-a-licious usernames. New laptops or iPads are being warmed up with gusto. Notes are being jotted willy-nilly. Ideas are percolating until, six days from now, they’ll be allowed to boil over.
Writers all over the world are now taking a series of deep breaths, cracking their knuckles, and getting ready to spew forth words – enough words, in fact, to write an entire novel in one month.
You guessed it: it’s less than a week until the onslaught of NaNoWriMo. Words will be unleashed, chapters will be flogged into shape, first drafts will be given a hit of speed quickly followed by a shot of Red Bull.
It’s exciting, it’s a frenzy, it’s a great opportunity to build a story and – what’s more – a sense of being part of a larger writing community. Great novels started life as NaNoWriMo projects – Mary Robinette Kowal’s Shades of Milk and Honey is a perfect example.
Sounds kinda fab, doesn’t it?
So why, you might ask, am I not joining in the fun?
There’s a simple answer, really.
I write slowly and that’s fine with me.
A couple of months ago, I participated in the wonderfully mad excursion of going “Down the Rabbit Hole” with a bunch of other writers, some based up at the Queensland Writers Centre, others (like me) taking part online. The mission: write 30,000 words in three days. Shut off your inner editor and just write. So I did. I didn’t make it anywhere near the 30,000 mark – I hit something like 12,500 words – but I did what I’d never done before: I opened the channel between my brain and my typing fingers and just let the words gush out. It was so much fun watching the word count rise, cheering the other writers on, being part of a community – if even for only a weekend. I wrote the first two chapters of my novel and a good chunk of a short story. So the experiment was, in terms of word count, extremely productive.
But I’m pretty sure I never want to do this sort of mad, word count counting, heedless dash to the finish line again.
Because, basically, at least 10,000 of those 12,500 words were complete and utter crap. And I realise that’s the point – I get it. “You can edit shit,” the old saying goes, “but you can’t edit nothing.” You have to get the ideas down; you have to give yourself something to work with. But for me, ditching all the crap (which is essentially what I have to do to those 10,000 words) and starting over is not the most productive use of my writing time. Writing any words – repetitive words – repetitive words – repetitive words – just to reach the daily quota is not going to get me any closer to the type of story I want to write; it will just give me extra words to delete.
I do get excited when I have a big word count day – most of the time, I write about 1,500 to 3,000 words in a long sitting (and, honestly, it’s more often on the shorter than the longer side of the count). But when I get those 1,500 words down, they’re keepers. If I get 4,000 words down it’s a thrill – and they’re keepers. If I have a 500 word session, there are usually at least 475 words that will make it to the final draft.
It can’t just be about churning out a high word count for me – the word count isn’t sufficient motivation. What keeps me writing is enjoying the experience, luxuriating in words, thinking about just the right way to express an idea, giving the characters time to grow, and then getting it all down on paper. And in the end, it does get down on paper. I continue to write because I am driven to do so – I need to do so. Waving a 50,000 word flag in front of my eyes only distracts me.
So heartfelt best wishes to all you NaNoWriMo hares, speeding to the end of the race. This tortoise will keep plodding forward, slow and steady, ever admiring your prowess and your zest for the journey, cheering you on from afar.