The first post I wrote about my NaNo experience, which I’ve thrown out, didn’t convey any of the points I thought worth mentioning. None. I wanted to tell you about my nearly-finished story, what excites me about it, what worries me. Not really the professional thing to do, though, is it? But that is where my head is. I would happily talk about any of my other stories, too, or my finished novel, The Long Last of Mary B. Tate: Waking the Witch, which I’m afraid I’m going to have to place on hold for a little while.
I started NaNo in a quandary about querying agents for Mary B. Tate. I’ve sent to a few, but only a few, with personal responses from some. Responses are not common, so that was kind of them. But if you aren’t aware, each try spoils my chances of ever querying that agent again for the same work—can’t do it, verboten—which means querying can be a terrible waste of a resource if they won’t even look at the novel simply because it’s large and I’m not yet an established author. 183,000 words is too long for a debut author, panelists say. Even if the work’s good, even if the blurb has a decent hook, no agent will ever read it, they say (laughing). So, the idea is, in order not to squander opportunities, I must first write another shorter novel (about 80,000 words), edit it, send off queries, get it published, and then try all over again with Mary B. Tate. On a positive note, by that time, I just might have Mary B. Tate‘s sequel finished. Maybe it’ll all work out.
Nothing wrong with a little optimism.
But I assure you, I did not write such a long work just because I fancied putting lots of words on lots of pages. I like complexity. I like to read it. I believe The Long Last of Mary B. Tate: Waking the Witch is every bit worthy of its length. A work of contemporary hard fantasy, it’s a story I craved during a difficult time in my life. I took a proud, rational middle-aged adult, placed her in humiliating circumstances, stole the respect of her years, but gave her youth, unexpected power, and an opportunity to reclaim her agency in a world that doesn’t want her. Things go hard for Mary.
Friends, I promise, I will keep this story alive. But I want to be clear: I’d definitely prefer to work with a talented agent—or editor. I value them and their expertise—and to be fair, it’s experience that makes them wary of longer works from debut authors. The marketplace has driven everyone to extreme efficiency! Extreme! The makers, the purveyors, and the consumers. Few have the time or the economic luxury to explore expansive manuscripts by new authors. Most need quick, safe bets. And so, sadly, we are often fed quick, safe bets.
Regardless, my job is to make sure that whatever I create and share with anyone is of the highest quality I can manage at the time. Even our most brilliant celebrated authors have aspects of their craft they might say ‘needs improvement.’ Though they may say it quietly and only to themselves.
In comes NaNoWriMo! I did not approach NaNo with the idea of creating something with pop appeal. Honestly, that’s usually not what I’m drawn to. I’m Your Goat (working title), my NaNo WIP (work-in-progress), is a futuristic social-sci-fi story with a significant dose of mysticism, and it’s a concept that has interested me for some time. But, given my recent experience, I wanted to write a large work that was less expansive, a smaller tighter world than Mary B. Tate‘s. And, I chose to see if I could generate such a story at speed.
Now I’ve gotten that off my chest, here’s my take on NaNoWriMo:
The time frame is strictly one month, the month of November. For you writers who have families who believe that you will always have plenty of time for your dalliances after tending to their needs first, NaNo can serve as a handy hard boundary. A ‘do not cross’ line. They’ll cross anyway, but not as much.
There’s support on Twitter if you need support. The website NaNoWriMo.org provides tools like word-count logs and graphics to help you track your progress over the month. There are coaches to help keep you focused. I didn’t participate in the social end all that much, but I did participate a little. I offered encouragement to an author whose family did not give her the time and space she needed, who had to give up, and I contributed to a thread answering an author’s questions concerning titles within a series he’s writing. Overall, the interaction was fun and good-natured. I was impressed.
For those who obsess with editing as they go along, you know, to the point of stagnation, NaNo is an excellent way to get beyond that trap while encouraging a regular writing habit. Sure, it’s a ridiculously intense experience to participate in NaNo itself, but afterwards, pushing your daily/weekly word count down to something more reasonable will feel like heaven, like a piece of cake.
By the end, if you complete NaNo’s official word count, you’ll have 50,000 words of rough draft to work with and maybe even a completed manuscript with a beginning, middle, and end. It won’t be pretty. Uh uh. But in a relatively short time, particularly if new to writing longer works, you’ll have had the pleasure of experiencing all the worries and pitfalls of tackling such a huge task in a nice tidy box of time, all tied up with a ribbon. As opposed to a number of angst-filled years. Good news: the experience will be contained and short. Bad news: it’ll be the Cliff’s Notes version. You may miss something useful. Honestly, I don’t know. I did it the long way first. As for my NaNo experience, my word-count goal was smaller than the official 50,000. Mine was only 40,000. After a couple of days into it, I decided that forcing myself to pace my story to fit an arbitrary 50K-word-mark would damage it conceptually. To me, the story is the prize. But, as it turned out, I wrote 44,300 words within the month and now have only about 10,000 words to go for a complete rough draft. Go figure! I have a new something to work with, and that’s just wonderful.
The time frame is one month, and that one month is jam-packed with high stress. Not too good for the health. In my life, I’ve written maybe five lengthy novelettes, a decent number of short stories, numerous poems, numerous journals, and one 183,000-word novel. I was an English major at the University of South Carolina’s Honors College with a creative writing thesis of approximately 20,000 words. I attended Georgia State University College of Law, graduating at age 35. When I started law school, I’d recently become a new stepmother to three small children, with no children of my own and having lived by myself for most of my twenties. After law school, I studied for and passed the bar exam in a different state and became a practicing attorney. As an attorney, I wrote professionally—with grave consequences should I get it wrong. Given those past stressful experiences, I’m here to tell you that writing for NaNo, writing that much content while still personally needing it to make some kind of sense, achieve some sort of beauty, and say something worth saying was extremely, extremely stressful! Yes! I ate, I ate, and I ate some more. My brain said ‘Give me fuel!’ all the time. I drank black tea until my throat hurt. I drank Tequila at night. My stomach ached. My back ached. I had strange ailments. To my shock and annoyance, I actually experienced panic attacks, mild ones. My heart raced and there was that awful feeling of dread—for no external reason, just sitting on my couch. So, is NaNo going to be right for everybody? Noooooo. No, sir. And I’m here to tell you that NaNo is not a test of whether you have what it takes to be a writer. It’s a test of whether you have the stamina and discipline it takes to write 50,000 words of whatever, good or bad, in one month. What do I have now at the end? Maybe because I can’t stand to waste my time (daydreaming, by the way, is time well spent), I may actually have forced something good out of the experience, by sheer willpower. Honestly, I was prepared to reach the end of NaNo and have to tell you the result was crap. That’s what I expected. Some of it is crap, but at core, this damn story actually has some sophistication. It has turned into something I very much want.
To be quite candid with you, though, after I’d started, it hit me that this story was the wrong, wrong type of story for a writing frenzy. It really needed careful construction. But I’d promised myself I’d do 40K in one month. It was torture to force my brain to stay on track and see the story ‘the right way.’ And yet, I may have managed it. I think so. We’ll see. Once I’ve set down the last 10,000 words, which is actually the part of the story I’d been thinking about for over a year, which I plan to do this month or next month—doesn’t matter which—I will sit on I’m Your Goat for a month or two, then take a fresh look and begin the long rewrite. It will not be easy. Nope. The final product may wind up a novella at around 35,000 words—that’s a possibility. I’m okay with that. Or, when I flesh out the sketched sections, the word count may go up. If the pacing and buildup is solid, it may grow to that vital sweet-spot length of about 80,000 words. That, folks, is a publishable length for a debut novelist. That would be lovely. But always, I say to myself, always, please, Dawn, serve the story. So, though this is the cons list, here’s that optimism again!
I did notice that near the middle of NaNo, some writers on Twitter drifted into preachy-mode with lots and lots of writerly advice. This may be typical. It makes sense that authors excited at having hit their mid-month word count might puff out their chests a little. It’s a common behavior in writers as they develop to want to issue proclamations about how all this stuff works—often extreme proclamations. Nothing to fear when you see it in yourself, and nothing to fear from others who do it. Decide for yourself what parts are useful. Share if you like. If you believe you’ve been given sage advice and yet feel you don’t fully “get it,” then maybe you’re not ready to fully get it. If you do not believe it’s sage advice, maybe it isn’t, and you don’t need it. You will grow at your own pace. As I do and everyone else does. My creative writing professor and college thesis director began his career as a wunderkind. At age twenty-three, I asked him whether I should get an MFA in creative writing. He said, “But what do you want to do with it? Do you plan to teach?” “No,” I said, “not especially. I want to write.” “Well,” he said, “if you want to write, then write. You don’t need an MFA for that.”
If you’re interested in how I got to this point, I could tell you, but it would be difficult for me to tell you about the stages I haven’t passed through. Those are yet to come. If you choose to be a first-time NaNo’er next year, I say, feel free to read whatever you like of what those authors have to say, see if any of it helps, some of it might, but take it with a grain of salt. Do not, I repeat, do not let it throw you. (If you’re new to writing, you might feel yourself thrown. Get up! Ignore them! Close down Twitter until it’s over.) Draconian warnings usually reflect insecurity. Most of those rules overstate the case. This is art. If you read the 1979 introduction to Strunk & White’s Elements of Style, you’ll see that even E.B. White believed rules of style and convention are a place to start, not necessarily an end point.
As you can probably tell, NaNoWriMo is a big to-do on Twitter. Our work’s a bit lonely. With all these quirks we have, we sit more or less outside of social norms. There were many friendly Tweeters who posted ad hoc surveys or whimsical questions to take our minds off our manuscripts for a few minutes, to help us decompress before diving back in. I participated, too, but only a little. I mostly read the comments and threads, but every once in a while, I did say something. I had to be careful, though, because as we all know, social media is a trap for the unwary. I could waste an hour just trying to make my comment small enough to fit and still say what I meant. Ça n’est pas bon! No good at all. I bet you can imagine me having that problem right… about… now.
To keep sane, I wrote my responses down and told myself I’d post them here when finished. So, for my finale today, I’ll include what I would have said in response to a couple of Tweets I remember wishing I’d had time for, just if anyone’s curious. A little fun. Nothing more.
An author asked authors to summarize their NaNoWriMo WIP in only five words, describe a favorite pair of shoes, and post a picture of their pet(s):
My #NaNoWriMo WIP: Somber sci-fi, futurist, pivotal point, esoteric philosophy, unlooked-for love between an INTJ and an INFP. 15 words. Sorry. But how’s that for quantum-level specificity? No? Both yes and no? #amwriting
My favorite shoes: A pair of floppy men’s boots that my actress cousin from NY once described as “a little too black and a little too motorcyclish” for her. Practically lived in them for 15 years, several re-soles. When I shook my foot, like I do, it thumped against the sides. #NaNoWriMo #amwriting
Some new authors (young or old) wrap themselves in such a tight cocoon of fearful untested superiority that they can’t move, can’t start, are too afraid of discovering they’re actually at that moment “not good,” as if there can only be two immutable qualities to a writer’s output: 1) good and 2) not good. Been there, lived that. But the fact is, if and when they start, they’ll fall somewhere between “good” and “not good”—along a spectrum—with room to grow. And there will always be room to grow. Always. It never stops; only the focal area changes. And they will grow, as I have, but IF and only IF they learn how to handle those roll-on-the-floor-in-agony-of-embarrassment moments after getting something wrong—very wrong… AND how to get up again and again, each time knowing ever-so-slightly… better. I think it’s fair to say that the hallmark of a successful writer as opposed to any other sort isn’t talent—though that’s a fine place to start. It’s resilience.
Whew. Glad it’s over. Happy Holidays! I wish you the best.