Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Let Us Now Sing the Praises of NaNoWriMo

I fear there are no fresh words about how wonderful NaNoWriMo is, and that this post will seem obligatory or tired or overdone, but I love National Novel Writing Month, and I have never written anything about it before, and dang it, I would like to.

Besides, NaNoWriMo changed my life.

I did NaNoWriMo for the first time in 2010. The novel I wrote that year currently resides in a drawer from which it will never emerge, but finishing that project gave me the confidence to start writing my next book.

2011 was about writing that book. 2012 was about getting an agent and selling that book. So far, 2013 has been about editing that book (and all three of those years involved many rounds of revisions). But 2010 laid the foundation for the whole thing.

My pre-2010 writing career is a long, desolate road strewn with the corpses of cool ideas, and murderous little highwaymen waving bayonets and shouting things like “your story is terrible” and “your story will never not be terrible.”

NaNoWriMo is great because it trains you to ignore, outwit, and outrun the highwaymen. It turns you into a finisher, not just a starter and abandoner of cool ideas.

However, If memory serves, at this point during the month of November, you probably do not feel like a finisher. In fact, there’s a very good chance you feel like quitting, or will feel like quitting over the next week or so.

I have a tip for this. I worry that this tip will seem obligatory or tired or overdone as well, but the moment I discovered it, I felt something shift entirely in the way I wrote. Not just during NaNo, but from that day forward.

Every night during NaNo, I would walk from work to the subway stop thinking about what I was going to write when I got home. This began with me thinking about what was up next in my outline, or where I’d left off the night before. And there were many nights when the idea of writing the scene that was up next filled me with boredom and dread.

And when I wrote that scene, guess what? It was boring and dreadful. And worse, it made writing boring and dreadful.

Then one night on my walk to the subway, I thought, “Well, then what would you like to write? What is a scene that would make you excited about going home and doing this?”

Stupid, right? Obvious.

And yet it made all the difference in the world. Sometimes I went with the outline, sometimes I scrapped it, but I always went home and tried to write a scene that would amuse, delight, and entertain…. me.

I wrote the last half of that troubled, flawed little book with a smile on my face as my heroine surprised me over and over again. You know when you get a new idea for a book, and it has that exciting new idea shininess? And then as the project drags on, the idea starts to look dingy and unlovable? When I started writing the scenes that I thought would be fun to write - not that would “serve the story” or follow the outline or whatever - I found I could keep that exciting new idea shininess the whole way through.

In a general way, NaNoWriMo changed the way I wrote, and gave me very good writing habits that I found not all that tricky to carry over into my post-November life. Self-discipline, showing up, muscling through whether it’s a good writing day or a bad writing day. That kind of stuff.

But it also taught me what it meant to write the kinds of books that you’d like to read yourself. It’s not just about having one exciting idea and following it through to the end. It’s about having lots of exciting ideas the whole way through.

Whether you're doing NaNoWriMo, or are working on another project, or are in the middle on line edits (as I am right now), you've got to delight yourself. That is always your job, and that is why writing is amazing and life-changing and a thing worth doing.

Good luck!

(Oh, and get yourself a copy of The Synonym Finder. It is a writer's tool worth its weight in gold, which is saying something because it's huge.)


Mary McCoy is a librarian at the Los Angeles Public Library, and has been a contributor to On Bunker Hill and the 1947project, where she wrote stories about Los Angeles's notorious past. Her debut novel, DEAD TO ME, will be published by Disney-Hyperion in 2015. It's a YA mystery set in Golden Age Hollywood about a teenage girl investigating the attempted murder of her aspiring film star sister.

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