I’ll just come out and say it: the prospect of NaNoWriMo is still an intimidating one for me. You would think that the three successful NaNos under my belt would give me more confidence, but alas, that is not the case. November still looms as daunting as ever.
I’m a seasoned veteran by some accounts, though, and I’m slightly wiser than I was three years ago. As a wee lass on the eve of my first NaNoWriMo, way-back-when, I was hoping that NaNo would involve a magical transformation near the end of the month: insta-writer, just add NaNo! I believed I would enter the month with daydreams and a notebook full of occasional scrawlings, and leave as a Writer, penning epics and deftly conjuring novels from each idea crammed into my head.
Dear Sixteen-Year-Old Me,
NaNoWriMo will not make you a Writer.
I say Capital-W-Writer as distinct from just “writer,” because I didn’t believe that the writing I was already doing counted. Somehow my writing was unimportant and distinct from that of novelists, who had obviously been initiated as Writers and knew how this whole fiction thing worked.
Unfortunately, Sixteen-Year-Old Me:
NaNoWriMo won’t teach you to finish a novel. Not even a first draft. You’re going to reach your goal on November 30th without getting close to the climax of your story. NaNoWriMo will not teach you how to write during the months that aren’t November, either – four months will pass before you even look at that novel again. NaNoWriMo won’t teach you to edit, to rewrite, or to look critically at your work. It will carry you to 50,000 words. Quality is your problem.
It’s far too easy to step away from your story come November. To tell yourself that you get a few days off. A week. To tell yourself you’ll pick it up again in January or February. It’s easy to forget the most important idea that NaNoWriMo champions: write every day.
You may or may not finish the month with a novel, but you will not finish the month with the secret of how to write one.
Don’t despair, pre-NaNo me.
NaNoWriMo will make you write.
Anyone can imagine a story. Writers write them down. Neil Gaiman wrote, “The Ideas aren’t the hard bit. They’re a small component of the whole… hardest by far is the process of simply sitting down and putting one word after another to construct whatever it is you’re trying to build: making it interesting, making it new.”
Making it new and interesting is up to you. But putting one word after another… that is NaNo business.
There is no Writer initiation ceremony. Writers write. You will pick up that first draft again in March and complete it by July. NaNo doesn’t make Writers out of nonwriters; it challenges writers to stretch.
NaNoWriMo is tossing you a gauntlet. How important is this novel to you, really? What can you produce in this month? Will you choose to string words together instead of staring at your television for another hour? This is a writing exercise, a chance to strengthen your literary muscles. And like a flash fiction prompt limiting you to 50 words, NaNoWriMo elicits a certain creativity under pressure.
Last year, I found myself in the last 24 hours of November with 30,000 words still to write. Refusing to give in without a fight, I shut myself in my room and typed furiously in between bites of hastily-made sandwich. The ensuing day was made up of equal parts insanity and exhilaration. Characters’ secrets and backgrounds bloomed, subplots threaded themselves together, and the end of the story clicked into place while I raced against the clock, jittery from adrenaline.
This kind of pressurized, concentrated inspiration doesn’t come from blinking blearily at a blank page. The clock must be running out. It needs to be an emergency. Something has to be burning.
And while it’s not a strategy I intend to repeat, my 30k dash was shockingly fun.
Write everything, they tell you. Write poems and essays and short stories and blog posts and letters to your mother. Putting words together, any words together, is good exercise. So: write a NaNoWriMo novel. Learn what it feels like to shut down your internal editor. See what your writing looks like when something is burning and the words are urgent. Push your limits.
Dear Sixteen-Year-Old Me:
NaNoWriMo will not make you a Writer. Waiting until you know what you’re doing will not make you a Writer. This is Real Life. You figure it out as you go. You make you a writer – so get started.
Are you doing NaNo this November? Want to share your experiences? We’re always looking for more writers.