Thursday, November 17, 2011

NaNoWriMo: 15 Things I Learned From My First 50K

Somehow, incredibly, I did it. At somewhere around 10:30 PM EST on November 14, 2011 I had written my 50,000th word in my NaNoWriMo novel. Was it the story complete? No. Is it done now? Of course not. But I have "won" the NaNoWriMo Challenge on my first try within fourteen days.

The prize? An education.

Here are the fifteen things I learned from writing my first 50,000 words:

1. I can write.
I don't mean this one in the sense of, "Oooo everyone! Look at me! I'm so cool! I can totally write!" I mean I can actually, physically do it. My diseases did not take a sudden vacation during November - I definitely got my butt kicked a number of times, but I wrote around it. On the 14th, the day I passed 50K, I was stuck in bed up until about 4pm, maybe even five. It was not what anyone would consider a "good day," but I still got words in. I wrote after dinner. I stayed up a little later than my husband. I worked around my symptoms... writing is flexible like that. That's what I mean when I say I can write.
2. Characters honestly and truly come to life.
This completely and utterly freaked me out. I have heard authors say this before, but I kind of thought this was some broad strokes way of describing some inexplicable thing that all writers understood. I did not realize it meant that these crazy, fictitious creations would start making decisions for themselves, develop their own personalities and be so damn stubborn. It did not happen right away, but when it did, when my protagonist became Rachel and started to play out her own story in my head before the words were typed on the screen, or before I had a chance to feel as though I consciously conjured up such actions, that's when the writing became a brand new experience for me. It was like some sort of reading/movie-watching experience happening for just me in my head and it became my job to try to describe it for everyone else. THAT WAS SO COOL!
3. Write-Ins are fun.
I didn't think I was gong to be able to participate in any write-ins this year. With my health, inability to drive and lack of funding I had too many reasons (more like excuses...) not to trek out to Manhattan for a write-in. However, when a group of Staten Islanders got together in the NaNoWriMo forum to organize one UP THE BLOCK from me at the Barnes & Noble, I was fresh out of excuses. We have a small group and everyone's writing something dramatically different, but it's neat to take five in between writing spurts to just chat about books, writing, name choices or just plain old "regular people" talk. I anticipate going to all the write-ins throughout November even though I have passed my 50K (I still have to finish this book!).
4. Plot outlines are disposable.
Remember a little while ago when I told you I learned that characters really do come to life? Well, I believe one of their hobbies is to chew up any plot designs you may have thought were good ideas and spit them out. On the Monday of week 2 in NaNoWriMo, I was completely stymied. I had no idea what to do. I looked at what was coming up next in my plot outline (I think it was something sadly early on like PLOT POINT 3 out of 46!!) and I realized there was simply no way my character was going down that path. I looked at the rest of the outline and discovered I was doomed. You have to remember, this is my first time doing NaNoWriMo, my first time ever writing anything so long and I thought having a plot outline (and sticking to it) was the only way to find my way to the end. Luckily, I was wrong. I haven't looked at the plot outline since and I don't know if I would write such a detailed one again. I was terrified to chuck the outline, but once I did, I was liberated and my story came back to life.
5. Chocolate is awesome.
Brownies (gluten-free, of course), dark chocolate from Trader Joe's, Lindt Dark Chocolate Bar with a Touch of Sea Salt, and chocolate almond milk... I consumed more of this food group than any other. Add a dash of Coca-Cola to my typically soda-free body and you'll understand how I stayed up for well over 30 hours on Day 3 into Day 4 writing. Chocolate is awesome. I think some sort of caffeine is necessary at some point and, in my case, a nice boost of sugary goodness with it. I just don't do coffee, for many WriMos that is the answer.
6. Headphones are indispensable.
I have these super fancy Shure Sound Isolating Earphones (a worthy investment made years ago) that are incredible. Not only do they provide me with musical accompaniment, but even when the tunes become too distracting, the headphones themselves do a great job of blocking out the ambient sounds of the room around me - like the suddenly deafening snoring of my dogs on the couch, or the cacophony coming from the ticking grandfather clock! Some days I needed them, some days I didn't. For some reason, on Sunday I was able to write with ears unblocked in the Barnes & Noble Cafe even with the hustle and bustle of the weekend crowd and the endless looping music from Frank Sinatra, Elvis Prestley, and some other greats that I typically sing along to.
7. Scrivener is so much more than I imagined.
Before starting NaNoWriMo I had never looked into program designed for writers. I pretty much thought it would be MS Word, Pages on my MacBook or, my old faithful, Google Docs. Then one fellow blogger recommended OmmWriter and my eyes were opened! The program was created for writers and helped me tune out the world. It was simple, served it's purpose of tuning out all screen distractions and left me with nothing but my words. It intrigued me. When I got to the NaNoWriMo site I saw more programs geared not just for word processing, but for creative writers. Scrivener was one and it was being offered as a free trial during November. I figured I'd give it a shot to see if it was worth the December investment. It has been amazing and I'm still learning new things every day! By Day 3, my major motivator to finishing the 50K before November 30th was getting my discount on Scrivener (50% off for those who pass 50K, 20% for any NaNoWriMo participants)! I've been able to write in scenes, organize them into chapters, make notes, keep files on all of characters, places and research all in one place and then Scrivener "Compile"s the whole manuscript in the end making it the one huge connected piece it is! Love it!!
8. Holding back my inner editor can lead to massive productivity.
When I blog, which has consumed most of my writing consciousness in the past couple of years, I edit as I go. I write with a critical eye and I slowly select the words that I present. I write, then reread and reread again. One of the unwritten rules of NaNoWriMo is "November is not for editing." This frightened me at first. I hadn't written like that since I wrote volumes of poetry in high school and college. I'm not going to say it's been easy. In fact, not editing might be part of the catalyst that is driving me through the story so quickly - I need to get to the end so I can go back to the beginning! In addition, letting go of my critic/my editor, opened the flood gates of creativity - I allowed myself to write as quickly as the characters dictated, no slowing down for pretty word choices, rewriting dialogue, finding all my missing "e"s (I still haven't had my sticky key fixed!). This is a first draft, all that fun rewriting and editing stuff can come later! It's a whole new way of writing for me and it was productive (I mentioned I wrote 50K words in 14 days, didn't I?!).
9. My sticky "e" key is incredibly annoying.
I think I just alluded to this, but I feel it should get it's own spotlight here as well. Having any keyboard issues when trying to write like a maniac is annoying, but when that key happens to represent the letter that is so common the good folks at Wheel of Fortune just give it away in their bonus round, then it can be maddening. When you think you typed the word "were" and instead see "wr" or every "the" becomes a "th"you can imagin, I mean you can imagine how that can get to you! So, I did edit sometimes, but mostly just when I was in between word sprints and the little red lines of word processor confusion called my attention to the non-words I had typed. I imagine, when I get to edits/rewrites I will find hundreds more!
10. Twitter can actually help me focus and be inspiring!
In the days leading up to November I started crawling around the NaNoWriMo site collecting twitter handles and following everyone I could find, then I created a NaNoWriMo stream on my HootSuite account. I had three streams open at once, never my "Home Feed" just NaNoWriMo, my list of NaNoWriMo friends and Mentions (so I could see if anyone wrote directly to me). This was incredible. Everyone was talking about writing 90% of the time. The NaNoWordSprints were running seemingly 24/7 from all over the place. And, while I did not actually follow along with the sprints I read them and their challenges, often hilarious, actually inspired me to add some interesting details to my characters, story and settings.
11. Naming characters can be both fun and frustrating.
I don't have any kids of my own, so before this the only experience I've had in naming things has been in naming pets (Chewy, Meow, Buffy, Geek... these are pet names I can claim credit for). Giving a name to a character - a first and last name is something that, perhaps, I take entirely too seriously. I researched name meanings, thought about what these things said about my characters before I even got to know them, and even examined initials. I enjoyed it, but I was frustrated when some names just didn't click right away. Some were easier than others, and, who knows, maybe some will still change!
12. I owe my dogs some extra attention.
My two dogs are lazy lumps. I didn't think they would really notice if I was writing all day instead of hanging out next to them, petting them and talking to them (yep. I talk to my dogs... it's just us all day, every day, what do you expect?). Well, I think they noticed. I got a couple of leg scratches, lots of sad eyes and cries of desperate joy on our less frequent walks. I also had two escape attempts from the backyard while I was writing. I suppose they figured they could go out on the town without me noticing! (They were almost right!).
13. I have an understanding and supportive husband.
This is cheating. I knew this long before NaNoWriMo, but it was a lesson that was reinforced. I wrote all day when my husband was at work and then I continued, many days, even after he got home. I plugged in my headphones and tuned him out. I rambled on to him about fictitious characters and how they were driving me crazy, how they wouldn't listen to me anymore. I attacked him with questions he couldn't possibly know the answers to and, on a couple of nights, stayed up writing sending him to an empty bed. His response to all of these things? "I am so proud of you." Really? Am I that lucky? Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I'm that lucky and more so!
14. Writing can be good company.
Last weekend my husband did a favor for a coworker... a really big favor... he gave up his three day weekend to chaperone an out of town school trip. This left me alone for three whole days, not just during the work hours, but over night as well. That can get super lonely, but I learned this past weekend I had a whole slew of characters to keep me company. We had a lot to discuss, do and transcribe over the three days. I won't say I didn't miss my hubby, but I wasn't desperately awaiting calls all day and night!
15. I am still a work-a-holic.
When I was hospitalized in June 2009, I was positive I had put myself there. After eleven years of being so obsessed with my work and unable to find an appropriate balance between work and life, I believed I had finally unhinged all the functions of my system. The thing is, I count myself as lucky that I truly loved my work - while working it always seemed worth all of the time, effort and expense (whether financial or physical). A huge part of my recovery at home has been trying to find a way to live without it. Writing has filled in this hole for me. I feel productive again, not in the same way, of course, but productive all the same. Taking my writing to this *new* level reawakened that love of work inside me. It feels good. I know my limitations now, but I can't deny that I love to work. I've been reading Stephen King's On Writing, and early in the day on November 14th, I read my own thoughts in his book, "For me, not working is the real work." So, so true, Mr. King. And so I feel life might get a little bit easier now, because I found work I can do. Just as when I was teaching I could distract myself in the in betweens with thinking about what to teach next, how to teach it, what questions to ask and what problems to pose, now, in between my writing I can be thinking about what to write next, who to write next and what situations they'll be in. And while there is no joy in being a starving artist (or a starving anything!), at this point, the work itself is a personal compensation I am grateful for.
I'm sure there have been more lessons learned on this journey, and many, many more to come, but these are the ones that stand out and demand an audience. If you are a fellow WriMo, I wish you well, or, as they say May the words be with you! If you are not a fellow WriMo, but are curious about the adventure, nervous to take part and came here wondering what could be gained from it, then I say: WRITE. Start your own National Novel Writing Month right now - challenge yourself and wonder at what it wakes inside you. You have nothing to lose - no one has to read your words until you choose to let them see them!

Have you ever participated in NaNoWriMo?
If so, what did you learn?
As a reader, what makes a character come to life for you?
What snacks, settings and people help you to be productive?

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