Friday, November 14, 2014

50,000 Pins and Needles

Last week I wrote about Storyist, a specialized Mac/iOS program for novelists, screenwriters, and short-story writers, and bloggers. (I use it for this blog, for example). The context was National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), a contest/group writing exercise started several years ago. You might think, as a result, that I take part in NaNo.

In fact, I do not. I tried it once, in 2010, and hated it. I did better with Script Frenzy, an offshoot of NaNo that seems to have fallen by the wayside since I tried it in 2009. So why do I no longer take part?


The main deterrent is not, as you might think, lack of time. To “win” at NaNo, you agree to produce 50,000 words in a month. That’s a tall order, unless you can ignore work, family, exercise, and sleep for thirty days. But I wrote the first draft of The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel in three weeks, and that totaled 55,000 words. So it can be done, and I’ve done it. That’s not the problem.

Of course, it helps to feel inspired. When I sat down to type out NESP, I’d played with the story in my head for months, working out every detail. That kind of story doesn’t roll past every day, but there’s no rule that stops participants from planning their story in advance. Work out a plot and characters who will experience conflicts that speak to you, ask questions for which you’d like to know the answers, or borrow someone else’s universe (understanding that you’re writing not for publication but for practice), and you may come up with a book that writes itself. And if you don’t, just keep on slogging. You can always scramble the text before you send it in.

So then, what’s the problem? I love to write; I know what I need to do to succeed; I have enough experience to develop plot, characters, and conflict. What’s holding me back?

It’s the deadlines. That relentless little chart that shows how close I am to the goal, how many words I need to write today, what I will need to produce every day to finish, and how far I’m likely to fall behind November 30 if I don’t pick up the pace. I detest these charts with a passion, and there’s no way to turn them off. It’s a contest, after all, with a distinct goal and time frame. Writing 50,000 words in 30 days is the point of the whole exercise.

I’m not proud of this reaction, but I have to acknowledge it. The deadlines turn writing my novels, a hobby that has always brought true joy, into the equivalent of being a kid forced to eat her broccoli (and for the record, when not forced, I love broccoli). That November in 2010 I couldn’t wait to leave my desk. I procrastinated like crazy. During the week, I watched the wretched charts shoot my completion date farther into January. At the weekends, I crammed to catch up, writing paragraphs that were little more than nonsense syllables just to fill the space. And none of it was fun. The minute I hit 50,000 words I stopped, vowing never to subject myself to that again. And I never have.

I still think NaNoWriMo is a great idea—for other people, less obsessed with charts and progress. I wish all this year’s participants well. May they enjoy exploring the highways and byways of their subconscious minds and the antics of their characters. May they relish the journey whether they reach the endpoint or not. I will wave to them from the sidelines, where I will be writing The Swan Princess, free of charts.





(For those others, not me!)


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