November 30th, 2021 7:12 PM
This November, my wife, kids, and I celebrated Thanksgiving and enjoyed the gathering of family in our lovely, tree-lit home. I had a marvelous holiday; the food was excellent, my family is doing well, and the countdown to Christmas has begun. I pray that the majority of people reading this blog post had a similarly joyous experience (if they celebrate Thanksgiving, that is).
What I’d like to focus on, mostly, with this month’s update is the journey that I undertook while participating in NaNoWriMo. Again, for those of you who are unfamiliar with the term, NaNoWriMo is a shortened version of the words National Novel Writing Month. Read about it here.
The challenge is simple to understand and brutally hard to complete (well, brutally hard for most people): write 50,000 words of a first draft in just 30 days. For most people, 50,000 words means you’ve finished a novel, or at least gotten to the point of no return. Anybody who’s invested so much time in writing that many words is unlikely to then turn around and ditch their project, right? And besides, this challenge instills in writers many of the skills that most writing pundits glorify: showing up everyday to write whether the writer is in the mood or not; developing the muscles to either plot a story or pull it out of thin air; and slaying the many pensive qualms of perfectionism to instead achieve word count (many people call this last skill “vomit drafting,” a term I heartily despise; it's simply poor self-talk).
So, how did I manage? Well, I failed the challenge, and I failed it just after the midway point. 25,123 words. That’s how far I got.
As with every failure, I think the best thing to do is to own it (see above), apologize for it (if an apology is owed), and learn from it.
In this case, I’m not sure an apology is owed to anybody—except perhaps to myself. This challenge was something I took on at the last minute, and I believed I’d be able to manage it, but as the days began to tick away, and my word count remained stagnant in the face of life’s mounting challenges, I realized that writing 50,000 words in one month’s time is not something one can passively achieve. No, this is a challenge that one will not surmount unless one works incredibly hard. To all those who did succeed in this year’s NaNoWriMo: congratulations. To myself: I’m sorry for not taking the challenge more seriously.
There is a point in everybody’s life when they realize their efforts are futile. Perhaps you can recall a scene from a movie (these kinds of scenes appear in lots of movies) in which a person is running after a moving car (they’re chasing a lover or a stolen treasure or a kidnapped child) and they, slowly, stop running, realizing that, no matter how hard they pump their legs, they’ll never be able to catch up to the the car. Its motor and wheels are awesome inventions, and they best by far the machinations of the human body. This sort of scene perfectly displays the sensation of futility. Sometimes we hit a point where we think, There’s just no way I can catch up.
I heartily felt that sensation of futility. Before I started the challenge, I’d half-expected to, as well. Historically, I’ve not been one who’s known for his consistency in building healthy or beneficial habits. Though I’ve finished two novels in the past, I didn’t do so with any level of consistency. The first novel took me a few years to complete while I attended college (I wrote it once and re-wrote it again; the final version wasn’t a second draft, but a completely new attempt at writing the same story). The second novel, The Illness of the Isle, took a few months at first, but the bulk of the book was completed in one week while my family went on a vacation that I couldn’t go on because I didn’t have vacation time accrued in a new professional role. Don’t worry; my family didn’t abandon me! My wife and I discussed it, and we decided it was best for me to stay behind so I could have the week to both acclimate to my new role and to write the rest of my book. Fortunately for anybody who happens to be a fan of Illness, my wife was gracious enough to take the kids to her parents’ house in North Carolina by herself.
So, what is there to learn from all this? One weakness I noted is that I’ve lacked consistency, which is something that many writing pundits elevate immensely. “Be consistent,” they say. “Show up every day and write even when you don’t want to. Set a timer and write for a full hour, and don’t get up until the timer goes off. You don’t have to write, but you do have to show up and sit there.” I’ve heard this and similar pieces of writing advice, and I think it’s plain to see why this mindset is so important. It’s like getting regular exercise (something with which I have very little experience, too; maybe there’s a dangerous pattern going on here): one doesn’t wait for an opportunity to exercise; she makes the time to exercise. In the words of the famous self-help guru Stephen R. Covey (whose book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, is exceptionally practical, despite its being a self-help book), “Be proactive. Put first things first.” Covey advocates for scheduling truly important things: schedule your time instead of letting your lack or surplus of time whimsically influence your schedule.
If we take a look at the following badges I earned while participating in NaNoWriMo, I think there are some important things we'll notice.
First, we can see that my longest streak was three days (row 2, badge 1). That means I only updated my word count three days in a row. Showing up for seven days in a row? Fourteen? Every day (row 3, badge 2)? Not for me. But maybe, if I had earned those impressive streaks and shown up every day, I would have succeeded in this challenge.
The second thing I’d like to consider is the importance of the first-day update badge (row 1, badge 3). As I’ve talked about before, I think there’s a lot of significance to the action of starting something. It takes a special kind of boldness to say to the world, “I believe I have a story to tell, and I think it’s important enough that I’m going to go for it. I’m going to spend valuable time writing this thing.” A lot of people look at the mountain of reasons not to do something, and they decide, either passively or deliberately, on inaction instead of pursuit. In writing, there is probably something more like an entire mountain range of reasons not to amble blindly after a dream. The market used to be saturated. Now, with self-publishing, the market is absolutely drenched. Competition is fierce, because, for every group of ten poorly edited self-published works, there is probably at least one author who’s got her brand figured out.
This author uses an editor or otherwise has a masterful grasp on editing; she can kill her darlings and embellish her manuscript in all the right places; she has enough of a disposable income (or enough discipline to save) that she can afford a marvelous cover artist. Her books sell well; they stick out from the crowd and the writing behind her every gorgeous cover often delivers a satisfying experience to readers. And even these self-published authors struggle, because they’re all up against the stigma that surrounds self-published work. They have to contend with traditionally published authors. Beyond all that, the odds of an author—whether they’ve published a novel with a big 5 publishing house or published a novel themselves—earning enough income from even the entirety of his bibliography to support his family are very low. The odds of having his work adapted into a film or series are very low. The odds of other forms of media/products appearing on the market as a result of the popularity of this author’s work are very low. In short, regardless of an author’s goals, the investment of time and attention that it takes to craft a novel is exceptionally high, and the likelihood that the author will attain his goals are probably pretty low.
And yet, many people begin a novel. I did. I know many others who have.
They venture into the depths of a blank Word document (or notebook or whatever), and they begin to craft something. Starting is a big deal, and so I take a lot of pride in having earned that badge. I wish I’d earned more of the badges, sure, but I think it’s important to reflect on both sides of a failure, to look at what was done well and what could’ve been done even better—to look at what will be done better next time. In my case, I think it’s great that I started my work. I think 25,123 words is a pretty strong start, and I’m certainly excited to keep pursuing this story. And next time I try to do a challenge like this, I’ll try to be more consistent.
Use my site’s contact form to let me know if you participated in this year’s NaNoWriMo challenge, and let me know how you did. I'll be happy to chat about your experience!
As always, thanks, endlessly, for reading this blog.