NaNoWriMo is a Tool. Use it. Love it. Learn.

IMG_20171129_090726_063I won NaNoWriMo! 50,296 words in 30 days. Celebration mode activated.

To those who didn’t get to 50k this year, everyone wins if they play it right. And I don’t mean participation ribbons and a half-hearted hurrah. NaNoWriMo is like golf. (Didn’t see that one coming, did ya?) You’re a lone athlete, always trying to improve your swing and put under par. It’s a mental game and, no matter how much competition is around you, you’re still playing against yourself.

Even if you stop at 10k, you might get more out of the month than someone who wrote 75k. The difference is in how much you challenged yourself. I tried NaNoWriMo during a few of my college years and burned out between 20k and 30k. Each time I learned a little more about my writing process. With the help of a few big failures and many small victories, 50k doesn’t feel impossible anymore. As long as nothing drastic comes up in my life, surviving November is just a matter of focusing. This year especially, I won because I learned. November was my chance for introspection.

The Rogue Participant

Introspection isn’t something that many would link with NaNoWriMo, the month from hell, when you type until your fingers bleed. But this year I played the game differently. I was halfway through draft 2 of my WIP, so I didn’t have a new novel write. I held onto the key rule of the challenge, 50,000 new words, and went rogue in all else. I titled my novel “Experiments in Pantsing” and wrote this summary:

A variety of (hopefully dynamic) protagonists fight their limitations, traveling across genres the way high fantasy elves traverse forests and shivering through POV shifts as quickly as the weather changes in their imaginary land. Their pain is the writer’s gain. It’s time to storm through comfort zones and confront qualms, because why else would I force myself to write 50k in one month?

I had a number of inhibitions that I needed to break through. This was my chance. On day one I wasn’t sure where to start, because my project was so nebulous, but what ended up spilling into my document was most perfect mess I could ask for.

  • 24,000 went to a rewrite of my current novel’s act 3.
  • 10,000 went to short stories.
  • 16,000 went to brainstorming, analysis, research, and outlines.

Some out there will see this as a copout, because I did not write 50,000 words of one novel, but that’s okay. I usually over-prescribe shoulds and oughts, establishing rules that keep me linear, keep me focused, and keep me from the creative freedom that I would otherwise enjoy. This year I told myself to cut it out. I granted myself permission to write what I actually wanted to write. Stream of conscious pages led to character creation, plot formation, and, best of all, problem solving. My best ah-ha moments came from three realizations:

  1. Stream of consciousness helps silence your inner editor.

NaNoWriMo tells us not to edit as we go. However hard we try to follow that advice, most of us filter our thoughts even before our fingers tap the keys. When I wrote 50,000 last year, I was the perfect rule-following participant. I didn’t waste words on anything that wasn’t narrative, and that was my biggest mistake. I didn’t step aside from narrative to make room for brainstorming. My scenes were mushy and directionless. This year, I listened to those nagging questions. When they came up, I let stream of consciousness guide me. Once I even stopped half-way through a paragraph and yelled at myself in all caps:

WHY CAN’T I JUST GET ON WITH THIS SCENE? I’VE GOT THIS BLOCK AGAINST SUCH DEEP CONFLICT. HOW CAN I WRITE REAL TENSION? REAL CONSEQUENCES? REAL MISTAKES? REAL ANGER? REAL HURT?

Aren’t caps obnoxious? Somehow it felt necessary. I needed to knock something loose in my brain. This freedom let it rip came from Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. It’s hard to get to the heart of your issues if cloak them in narrative. Your characters can wait. Sometimes you’ve got to drop the act and see what comes out. Be honest with yourself. Your narrative, when you get back to it, will be so much better for it.

  1. Stop and ask for directions; your characters are happy to help.

Sometimes you’ve just got to write through the pain, but I couldn’t do that this year. It wasn’t helpful or productive. Instead of relying on intuition and sheer force of will to push me through the scene, I stopped—my intuition isn’t the greatest, anyway—and considered my options.

This is where the 16,000 words of brainstorming became very very helpful. I listed out all of my characters’ options, even the ones that seemed super duper dumb. (Dumb is kind of my favorite word right now. I don’t even know why.) I set every thought loose. I highlighted the ones that didn’t work and clicked strikethrough. Soon there was only one left. It felt right, even though it was toward the bottom of the list. I’ve heard someone give this type of advice before, maybe one of the Writing Excuses podcasts, but I’d never put it into practice before. About time, right? It was so very helpful.

  1. Short stories are good punching bags.

Apologies to short story and flash fiction writers everywhere, but I used your art form as rough-it-up training. It was a low-risk way for me to test out the story elements that scare me spitless.

My current WIP had a weak, soft-focus ending. It was a flabby first draft. I knew that it needed to change, but I was too afraid to get it wrong. So I wrote a little story. The story was okay, but for some reason I didn’t feel like finishing it. Instead of jumping ship, I asked myself why:

I’m getting bored with this. The set up does not match the fallout, and it’s still very internal. The threats are in the distance, rather than in her face. If she was just told the truth then it would be able to amp up more quickly. Here I am veiling the threat, and I really don’t have a true threat in mind. That is not enough. That is not enough.

As I wrote, I discovered an undercover habit, the elusive type that’s way too good at playing ding dong ditch. My storytelling needed a boost. My process needed to change. To fix these issues, I had to finish my WIP by the end of NaNoWriMo and punch my antagonist in the face. And so I did.

Are You a Rogue?

While I don’t want to encourage rule bending/breaking for its own sake, I want you to find the unnecessary shoulds and oughts that are weighing you down. Yours probably look different than mine, but we’ve all got them.

As you write over the next 11 months, be aware of the emotional barriers that hold you back from forming good stories, or the psychological disconnects between you and your characters. Consider why you avoid certain genres, personalities, conflicts, etc. Gather up all of those issues and use NaNoWriMo 2018 to help you process. 50,000 words is plenty of space to spill it all out and see what you can change. Be vulnerable, get introspective, and learn.

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Brilliance, Stupidity, and Lemons: It’s Time for Free Writing

20170624_091249I am raising a toddler. He switches from ABC to 123 to twinkle twinkle as stream of conscious ramblings lead to an ocean of discovery, and eventually a nap. He plays with sounds, saying “car, caaaar, cart,” just to feel the difference.

He has linguistic freedom that few adults still possess. It’s the freedom to make mistakes: moco-bicycle (motorcycle), gump (jump), and pintable (pineapple). In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg helped me realize the value of this exploration:

The aim is to burn through to first thoughts, to the place where energy is unobstructed by social politeness or the internal censor, to the place where you are writing what your mind actually sees and feels, not what it thinks it should see or feel…You are not carrying the burden of ego in your expression, but are riding for moments the waves of human consciousness and using your personal details to express the ride.

As a mom I get to widen my son’s field of discovery and gently correct his mistakes, but as a writer I get to learn from someone who is artless and experimental. I am relearning something I have long forgotten, to set aside personal, familial, societal, and even professional expectations, and explore without worrying whether or not it’s a ‘waste of time.’

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Goldberg has filled dozens of notebooks with blather and poetry. She lets herself write without destination. Most of those words are set aside and never looked at again, but they aren’t wasted. She encourages her readers to lower the bar.

If every time you sat down, you expected something great, writing would always be a great disappointment. Plus that expectation would also keep you from writing.

I tried to take her advice, but digging into my gut instincts meant fighting through layers of psyche. It it took time. I was uptight, grammatical, but I pushed through. My mind loosened up. Stress slipped onto the page and, when it ran dry, I turned a leaf and played.

Rest, and waiting for it to shatter. A little stiff, anticipating, but trying to taste the moments of silence.

Neck snapped for my health. Crackle-pop crick-crack geronimo.

Where is the in-between? I used to have it, but it got buried under a pile of toys. Balls, trains, dump trucks, and lemons. If I pull it out, rinse it off, will the wheels still turn?

The tidbits of thought got weirder as my my brain let go of its control-freak ways. Bizarre metaphors twisted through incomplete sentences and random words popped in just to see if they were welcome. With each page my writing got worse and worse but somehow became more true and more electric.

Free writing is the gateway to magical realism. It’s all the unexpected beauty that I want to create. Maybe the best way to find brilliance is to let yourself be a little stupid. Are you up for the challenge?