Thursday, 26 November 2009

Lost for words (Lessons from NaNoWriMo)

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) www.nanowrimo.org has become a worldwide phenomenon for writers of all levels of experience. The concept is simple, churn out 50,000 words of a new novel in the month of November.

I’d heard lots from writers who’d taken on the challenge, but never thought about doing it myself. On impulse, I registered. To my surprise, I discovered a NaNoWriMo-me. She taught me a lot. This is some of what I learned:

Meet the challenge: An eager novice, I gave myself an appropriate user name ‘whatamithinking’ and sat at my blank screen filled with a mix of trepidation, optimism and a good dash of caffeine. With one part of my brain singing my mantra ‘what am I thinking?’ NaNoWriMo-me argued, ‘This could be fun. Get to know me.’ So, I wrote.

Persistence pays: First day, I churned out two thousand words. I was on my way! Until Word crashed and consigned my document to an inaccessible part of the PC. I’d need the entire ‘Without a Trace’ team to have any chance of seeing it again. So, its only day one and I’m ready to chuck it in. But hey, at the time, I was on the Gold Coast and sunrise is around 4.30 am. I figured rising early would give me a chance to catch up. By day two, it was clear that holidays and dedicated writing don’t mix well. Sun, sand and surf, beat out the screen each time. ‘You’ll find time if it’s important,’ said NaNoWriMo-me. I found pockets of time during the day to write—five minutes here, ten minutes there. The word count climbed. I kept writing.

Carry a toolbox: The NaNoWriMo website provides lots of tools for the writing journey. Graphs and charts to measure your progress, a merchandise store (where, not surprisingly, the book ‘No Plot? No problem’ is the only ‘sold out’ item). There are regional groups you can link with, writing buddies, events to attend and regular ‘rah-rah’ emails from mentors. NaNoWriMo-me didn’t use all those resources, but it was good to know they were there. I kept writing.

Tell someone who cares: Each day I’d give my husband an update of the numbers popping up in my word count. ‘That’s great,’ he’d say not taking his eye off the news broadcast. Don't get me wrong, he loves the fact that I write, even though he doesn’t entirely get why id write all those words and not use them. A number of non-writers friends agreed, giving me a blank-faced ‘Why?’ when I told them of the 50,000-word aim. NaNoWriMo-me learned quickly who was on My Team. She didn’t talk much, instead she conserved her energy for the page. I kept writing.

You don't have to write well, you just have to write: Here’s the thing; I never had a plot to lose. I had one-dimensional characters, most of whom I decided I didn’t like. Don't ask me about landscape, setting, or theme. My timeline travelled more than the complete series of Dr Who. Dialogue, seemed to flow, but sensory detail was absent. My inner critic screams ‘Loser!’ in an amplified voice. NaNoWriMo-me ignored it. I kept writing.

Don’t look back: My tale started with a contemplative woman in her sixties, who though some convoluted story lines reflects on her days as an unwitting porn star. Don't ask. I didn't. Despite my lack of direction, I wasn’t tempted to edit, focussing on pouring the words onto the page. Would I get to the word count Holy Grail? I pushed on, like a desert explorer moving toward the oasis mirage. I kept writing.

You CAN be brave at your keyboard: our writing class was advised to write about what we’re afraid of writing. So I did. Prim and proper me wrote sex scenes. My inner critic tried talking me out of it. What if your kids see it? What if someone thinks that’s what YOU do? But NaNoWriMo-me did the cheerleader thing, ‘Go for it!’ Sometimes I’d laugh out loud at the sheer drivel I wrote; sometimes I was surprised by the eloquence of a line. I kept writing.

Enjoy your destination when you get there: my writing GPS may have been wonky, but I managed to hit 50,000 plus words on day 22. My progress bar on the official website turned from blue to green. I did a little jig and gave myself a round of applause. I’d be getting that PDF certificate in which I could write in my name and hang on my wall. I’d met my goal. I took a deep breath… and decided to stop writing.

Celebrate the surprises: The big surprise was how much NaNoWriMo-me taught me about my process as a writer. I know where I get stuck. I know what excuses I use to put off getting those words down on paper. I can tell you exactly at what point my brain will tell me its ‘tea and biscuit’ time. NaNoWriMo-me tells me it’s ok to write really badly without my perfectionism gene going into overdrive. She gives me permission to not have structure and plot all cemented in place before I start. She tells me that in their absence, I can still write.

Since NaNoWriMo ended, I’ve found new energy for my other writing projects. I don't know yet if I’m a better writer for the experience, but I’m okay with that. What I do know, is that I can commit and I can get a story onto the page.

Would I do it again? I don’t know, but I wouldn’t mind spending another month with NaNoWriMo-me. I quite like her. She’s never lost for words.

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