Every year in November, thousands of writers all over America jump into National Novel Writers Month, known in shorthand as NaNoWriMo. The object is to write like crazy for 30 days straight at a clip of 1,667 words per day to produce a (mostly unreadable) 50K-word novel in just one month. I tried it myself back in 2008 with Sea Legs, but set my word targets higher because I was aiming for a much longer novel. I reached only 47K words before I hit a wall with the story. After a month of backtracking and self-editing (in which barely a sentence was left standing), I plodded ahead to finish the first draft by the middle of February. I certainly saw the motivational appeal of setting daily word-count targets. It made me focus. But at the end of the month, I had to ask if all that focus was worth it when much of what I’d written had to be redone.
The answer, I decided, was yes. Just because the words were sloppy and the story slapped on the page in incoherent pieces didn’t mean my work was unusable. I found it helpful to have so much of the framework and setting in place, and especially to have the characters defined. By the end of November, I knew Natalie and Kelly well enough to finally tell their story.
I haven’t participated in NaNoWriMo since then, but I’ve found myself using bits of their get-it-done philosophy on a new project, a book called Playing With Fuego. It’s more local than national, hence the “Loco” part, plus it makes me just a little nuts to be so obsessed with word counts. The key for me is stretching out the process over a longer period of time. I still have my daily word targets, but I take more time choosing those words in hopes I won’t have to throw so many away. To me, that’s what it means to be productive.
Writers are often asked to describe their writing process, and I’ve never been able to say, “This is how I do it.” I don’t have a single process, because some stories seem to require outlines and details, while others are more organic (i.e., dropping a few characters into a setting to see what they’ll do). One thing they’ve all had in common is that I’ve worked on them all the way up to the moment they’re due to the editor, and occasionally beyond. I know if I sit at my desk with my only goal being To Write This Book, it can be paralyzing. It’s like standing at the tee box on a Par 5 and saying, “I have to hit this stupid little golf ball into the cup.” I don’t. I just have to hope I hit it closer with every stroke.
I can’t say for certain that I’ve found a new way to write. It’s certainly working so far with this book, but the next set of characters who take up residence in my head may clamour to have their story told more quickly; or they may clam up and force me to finesse their tale. What I like about LocoWriMos is knowing that every word beyond my daily average goes toward my weekly goal, which means Time Off for Good Behavior. Or a round of 18.