A few days ago, I had a wisp of an idea take root in my mind. A little snippet of a character and a world that just flitted into my brain. “This would make a great novel,” I thought. And maybe it would. I just don’t think I’m the one who should write it. Once a year for three years now, I’ve written a novel. Well, I’ve tried to write a novel. Well, I’ve started writing a novel. Some of you may be familiar with NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. NaNoWriMo challenges writers to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November. For those doing the math at home, that’s about 1667 words a day. Which is really quite a lot of words, even for someone who loves words.
The first year I did NaNo, I did it for a number of reasons: because I was about ten years post-college and hadn’t done any real writing that wasn’t part of my job since then; to see if I had gotten any better at writing fiction over the years; and to prove to myself that I could. And I did. I wrote my 50,000 words, and even went over by a few thousand words. Once the month was over, I stopped writing, closed the document, and didn’t look at it for several months. When I finally opened it back up to see what my word frenzy had actually resulted in, I was embarrassed. 50,000 words is a huge feat; why would I possibly be embarrassed? Because it was awful, that’s why. I put so much effort into meeting that goal that what ended up on the page was total dreck. My characters were poorly fleshed out, I had plot holes you could drive a Winnebago through, and, I realized, I never really wrote an ending.
The NaNoWriMo website assured me that all of those things were OK. The point of the exercise was to meet your goal, and all of the refining and fine tuning could take place in the editing process. I edited about half of my novel before I gave up, and I haven’t looked at it since.
My second year of NaNo, I also met my word goal. Working off of the experience of my first year, I tried harder to make my first draft a little more well-constructed. I had an outline. I had character bios. I had a plot. So when November 30th rolled around, and I had pushed myself over the 50k mark, I was ecstatic. This was my masterpiece! It just needed some tweaking, and who knows, maybe I could self-publish or something. Hell, Water for Elephants was a NaNo book, surely my book would at least be good enough for a handful of friends and family to read. I let it sit for a month or so, and then attacked it enthusiastically in the new year. And, much to my surprise, that novel was pretty much garbage, too. I got frustrated and gave up.
Last year, I only made it about a third of the way through my book before I threw in the towel. My attempt at world-building had spun way out of my control, and there was no getting back on track; at least, not that I could do while still maintaining a full-time job and life.
Even though by any logical standard, my attempts at writing a novel have been catastrophic failures, I still think that it’s an experience I’m glad I went through. For one, sometimes you have to make a few serious attempts at something like long-form fiction to realize, “Hey, I’m not really cut out for long-form fiction.” I’m also glad I did it because for most of my academic and post-academic career, I’ve viewed fiction through an analytic eye. As a reader, you’re quick to notice when plot points don’t work, or when characters don’t quite come through. As a would-be author, I realized how difficult it really is to do those things, and to do them well. I’m not any less critical when I’m reading other authors’ works, but I do have a newfound appreciation for how much skill really goes into crafting a novel. And, if nothing else, trying to bang out a novel in a month got me to start exercising the parts of my brain that had atrophied due to not writing anything creative in a very long time. Since I’ve done this, I find it much easier to do other forms of writing; probably because fiction is so hard for me that I’m grateful for how much easier everything else is.
Will I do NaNoWriMo again this year? I’ll probably try if for no other reason than the fact that I didn’t finish last year. I hate not meeting a goal I’ve set for myself. This year, though, I’ll go into it with my eyes a little more open. I’ll keep my expectations low and just try to have fun with it. Who knows, that could be the recipe for a bestseller. Or not.