Seven Lessons Learned During Eleven Days in November
As promised, here are my lessons learned during National Novel Writing Month.
1. In creative endeavours, failing to plan is not necessarily planning to fail.
I started Nano with an idea, three characters, a vague structure of three acts, and a handful of scenes. About five years ago, when Peter first encouraged me to start writing I wouldn't have been happy with that sort of starting plan. I'd have wanted stacks of research, full character studies, and a complete plot outline. Guess how many words I managed when I started writing back then? A grand total of zero. I was so paralysed by planning that I couldn't get started. There's something to be said for just going with your characters and seeing where they take you.
2. Send Fussy Internal Editor and Mean Writing Teacher on cruise around the world.
Editing is extremely important in writing, but editing while you write is akin to throwing out seeds as you plant a garden, because the seeds just don't seem right to you. You end up with a sparse, uninteresting garden. You will need to weed and prune your garden but the more material you have to work with, the more options you will have. Not to worry, though, you haven't sent Fussy Internal Editor and Mean Writing Teacher away forever. You'll need them when you get to the editing stage and they are going to need to be well-rested and ready to work.
By the way, if you have the automatic grammar checker in Word turned on, turn it off! It's wrong at least 20% of the time and you don't need green squiggles to give you an excuse to second guessing yourself.
3. Find a routine and stick to it, but not to the point of burnout.
Hemingway wrote from 5 or 6 am until 11 am or noon every day. He wrote standing up because a war wound in his leg made it uncomfortable for him to sit for long periods of time. (He then spent the rest of the day drinking himself senseless, but I digress.) I think I read in one of the Sunday magazines that Frederick Forsyth spends up to two years researching a book, which he then writes over the course of several weeks, pounding out 10,000 words a day on an old-fashioned typewriter in a converted dairy barn. He doesn't even open the curtains – his whole life for that short period of time is about writing.
The point here is that different things work for different people and you have to find what works for you. I've learned for me, I work best when writing is the first thing I do in the morning and it requires a quiet room with the door closed, a comfy chair, and at least two cups of coffee (sequentially, not concurrently). This meant getting up at 4 am nearly every day. I did give myself the chance to sleep in on the weekends, although I still found myself waking up before 6 am.
4. Try to remain calm.
When you get to the point where you've exhausted your ideas, it's easy to slide into panic. This is crap. I've no idea what to write next. I have writer's block. What am I going to do?!?! No matter how tempting it is, you cannot give into the temptation to lose the run of yourself and plunge into an episode of plot panic.
5. When in doubt, pick a road, any road.
They key to avoiding writer's block is to keep writing,. even if it's just a huge digression that you end up throwing out in the editing phase. Marshaling letters into words and stringing them into sentences is essential. One morning, I found myself in my chair, with my laptop and coffe but without even a ghost of an idea for a scene.
I'd left my characters in Paris and although I knew they still had work to do there, I didn't know what that might be. I knew they'd have to come home eventually, so I let them have a little baggage trouble in the airport. I drove around in circles in a literary cul de sac, chronicling the minutiae of trying to sort out a lost bag in Dublin airport. 1600 words later inspiration struck.
“I want to talk to your manager.”
“Manager. Supervisor. Boss. Whatever.”
“You're going to be even more afraid if you don't get someone in here who can help me. You don't get paid enough to deal with me, so go find someone who does.”
The woman jumped out of her chair, blinking as though slapped. She stalked out of the room, cursing Americans and their bossy, over-confident natures.
“What was that?” Ciaran's voice was low with approval and surprise. He'd never seen Julia stand up for herself like that.
“That's the way my mother would have dealt with the situation. It's what grown-ups do, right? Deal with situations, make things happen, make things right.”
“I suppose so. But I've never seen you so forceful.”
She nearly said that if he wanted to see forceful, he should have come to Paris to see her handle Niamh's French boyfriend. But she'd promised Niamh that she wouldn't breathe a word to Ciaran and so she wouldn't.
Doesn't sound like much, but it suddenly gave me a real idea of what had happened in Paris and what I needed to go back and write.
6. Jump around.
I can be a bit of stickler with myself on finishing what I start. Which is Good, in general, but can be Bad at particular times. Writing requires a certain fluidity and ability to make decisions as you go. If one scene isn't working, there's no point in force-marching your characters through it. Moving on to something else is essential to keeping the project moving. As long as the project is completed in the end, it doesn't matter if you skipped around during the writing.
7. This is supposed to be fun.
Really. If it's not fun, then something is not right. Don't misunderstand me – editing is not fun. The painstaking process of polishing and refining your story is not fun. Trying to get an agent or publisher is not fun. But this bit – creating people and making them do your bidding, populating a whole alternate universe in which you are the Supreme Being and Decider of Everything. That's fun. I went to work every morning in a very good mood, having felt I'd accomplished something. I don't think I've been so cheerful at my job since....well, ever.
Overall, I found the process surprisingly similar to running my first marathon. Some days were hard and some days were easy. I spent a lot of time alone and was a little (okay, a lot) obsessed with achieving my goal. But all it took was dedication and a bit of graft. In a marathon, one foot in front of the other will get you through to the finish line. It might take you almost seven hours, but you'll get there eventually. In Novel Writing Month, the same rule applies, only it's one word after another and you don't have to worry about blisters or dehydration.