Intro, or TL; DR

I didn’t write 50,000 words of a novel in a month for Camp NaNoWriMo in July of 2014, one of the alternate months of the National Novel Writing Month challenge.

I wrote 100,000 words.

Then I promptly flamed out and could barely write for months at a time, in a writing slump that lasted for years.

Spoiler alert, there’s an eventual happy ending, or happy ongoing: I came back from the burnout after some years and now have a stable writing routine, making progress on the story. Still, boy was that experience a crash course, emphasis on “crash,” in what does and does not work for me.

In which we start out with great expectations

I’d been meaning for some time to work on the story idea I’d been sporadically working on and researching for since around 2008. I found the idea of National Novel-Writing Month attractive as a way of getting a first draft–no matter how shitty–in hand quickly. Between grad school and a job, it was hard to get the time and energy to write and I thought forcing myself to write a Ridiculous Amount every day might be a way to do it. You can probably glimpse the seeds of failure already in my line of thinking.

As I often do when I start something new, I read a whole book on the subject: No Plot? No Problem! by the founder of NaNo himself. I thought I had the idea down and liked the thought of getting words out in a gush from the subconscious, silencing the inner critic by making myself meet a word count threshold no matter what.

Already familiar with the technique from freewriting which I had used in journaling, I was ready to apply it to my first draft. I also had an outline ready ahead of time, since I was used to writing by outline.

In which our hero does everything right, or so she thought

Come July, I wrote every single day. I wrote on subways and buses on commute; I wrote at home, I wrote riding on the exercise bike. About 50,000 words into my original outline and with time left in the month, I decided the direction I was taking the story didn’t work and outlined again. The second outline was a bust, too, and so was the short-lived third outline.

Still, I kept writing no matter how crappy the output, trusting in the process and trying to soar on the wings of my subconscious through a maelstrom of terrible writing. By the end of the month I had blown past the original 50,000-word goal and pushed out 100,000 words on three different drafts. Progress, right?

Well… no. Not in a straight line, anyway. None of the drafts I had written ultimately worked, and I couldn’t even bear to look back on them, not only because they were awful and no longer usable for my evolving conception of the story, but because they were associated with the memory of pushing myself to write beyond my own comfort.

My problems didn’t stop with the unusable drafts: I also burned out on writing and couldn’t work on the story for months. I’d work on it for a few days and then put it on hold for months, even over a year at a time, not helped by the continuing rush of school and work. It would be a while and some life changes before I found a workable direction and a settled routine that let me make steady progress with the story.

In which we reflect on lessons learned

Maybe NaNoWriMo did help me in the sense that I needed to run down those dead ends to get to where I am in the story, and NaNo let me get the trial-and-error out of the way on fast forward. Even more valuable, though, was that I learned about my own process as a writer, both what works and doesn’t work for me.

First, the freewriting-style “let your subconscious take over” school of writing does not work for me when writing fiction. I’d gotten some mileage out of it for journaling, as discussed, but it’s just not how I work on story drafts, even first drafts. I certainly don’t need or want a perfect, or even good, first draft, but I do need to put some thought into making things at least coherent if I want to make the draft a meaningful basis for future work.

Second, for me, forcing a large word count is a recipe for burnout. It’s too painful, and ultimately unsustainable. I’m very much a “slow and steady” kind of writer, and in a way I owe that self-knowledge to NaNo. Live and learn, though the lesson may be painful.

Third, my experience with NaNo may also have been when I started to let go of the fantasy of having it all, and realized I couldn’t fill up all my time with work and then somehow cram writing in there as well. I would have to make room in my life for a writing practice, and that would entail real life changes, scary as they were. There were no shortcuts. I had to put in the time, effort, and commitment. Actually acting on this realization would take more time and effort, and is a story for another time.

Conclusion: Don’t look back in anger

NaNo might not have worked for me and I will never do it in its full form again, but I learned from it and I wish good luck and good fun to the many thousands of writers who will be undertaking the challenge this coming November and afterward. I’ll be cheering from the sidelines, continuing in my own way and at my own pace.