Thank You #NaNoWriMo 2018

NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. Every November, writers across the globe shoot to get 50,000 words of a new novel down before 11:59pm, November 30th.

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I first heard about it in 2015. That year I wrote the first draft of a middle-grade novel called Land of the Golden Raindrops. In 2017, I wrote the first draft of a YA novel His Brother’s Keeper. This year I took some old notes I’d written back in High School and decided I’d rework them into an adult fantasy novel.

I knew November would be busy, so I tried to plan ahead. I started my outline and made some character notes. I felt confident that I had a vision of where the story would go, at least, enough of one to be getting on with.

About a week in, I was stumped. The characters weren’t speaking to me, and even with all my old notes, I was beginning to realize that the story just had no point.

I spent a few days trying to digest what this meant. I recalled reading about bestselling authors who gave up on projects, things they’d started then realized just weren’t going anywhere. Or an early novel they’d tried desperately to publish, then put aside to write something new, only to discover it was their subsequent novels that people wanted to read.

I shrugged and said to myself, maybe this is just one of the projects I’m going to have to walk away from.

Since pregnancy, my writing time has been minimal. I decided to do NaNoWriMo 2018 because I thought it might help me work writing time back into my schedule. Now I was staring at a novel that I thought I needed to trash.

I didn’t want to quit. I wanted my 50,000 words.

I toyed with switching to another project, but I’d squeezed out a meandering 18k, and I was losing days. If I started over I might never finish.

I’d read before about the work part of writing. The “just get it on the page” days. I’d read a million quotes about how you can edit a crappy sentence but you can’t edit a blank page.

So, I sat myself down and turned my narrowed eyed stare into the heat of my glowing laptop screen. Get it on the page, I told myself. Just get something on the page.

I rambled for an hour. Asking myself questions about the setting and my characters and what the story was about. After two hours of writing, I had my first real scene. Not just a jumble of conversation or an explanation of setting, a whole scene with characters interacting and purpose and movement forward towards a potential plot.

The next night, I put the baby to bed, booted up my laptop, and did it again. Night after night I plugged away. I’d start by typing jibberish and end with full scenes. My characters woke up. My plot and story arch came into focus.

I realized what I was writing about.

I’ve heard some writers make fun of NaNoWriMo as a silly sort of exercise. That you could just be working on your novel at your own speed and don’t need to drop everything for a brand new project every November.

Personally, I love NaNoWriMo, because every time I do it, I find myself learning something new about writing. And even if this year’s novel does end up as an unused file on my hard drive, I can’t wait to see what I’ll learn from NaNoWriMo 2019.

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Reflections on NaNoWriMo

It was not my intention to dive into the sea of National Novel Writing Month. I watched swarms of writers on social media, flexing and stretching along the dock, waiting for November 1st, the starting pistol shot that would send them all plunging downward in a desperate race against themselves for 50,000 words and a brand new novel manuscript.

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I wasn’t wholly against the idea, but not wholly for it either. I have a rhythm to my writing. I put in about four hours of work every day on my manuscripts. Sometimes those hours are so beautiful and perfect that I write past my allotted time, in a fever of words and inspiration. Sometimes those hours are spent angrily poking the keyboard, writing anything, even if I know it sucks, just to stretch my brain. Other times it’s all spent in research or editing or outlining. I divide the rest of the day between query letters, reading books and articles, or performing necessary household duties.

I like my schedule. It suits me. I added more structure to it in September, when I started setting myself monthly goals. My goals for November were to finish the first drafts of two of my half-finished novels and keep working on querying agents.

Then my writing buddy Chandler, emailed me and asked me if I wanted to buddy up on NaNoWriMo’s website so we could encourage each other towards the goal. I thought about it for a few days. It isn’t like I was devoid of new ideas. I have notebooks full of stuff for new projects, but I also have 7 other novels at varying stages of development, that’s not including the 2 completed ones that need more love and proofreading, in preparation for (crosses fingers) a possible manuscript request.

But on a whim, I decided to slip into my bathing suit, and on November 1st, about 6 hours after everyone else was in the water, I held my nose with one hand and cannonballed in after them.

I started a middle grade fantasy novel called, “The Land of the Golden Raindrops.”

Here’s some of my thoughts and reflections, on what the whole NaNoWriMo process taught me:

1. Setting Goals for Your Writing is Key to Progress

I was beginning to figure this out on my own, but NaNoWriMo reenforced the lesson. I knew part way in that it was unlikely I would have an organized and readable first draft ere time had stolen sweet November from my grasp, but I was determined to get those 50,000 words. It gave me something to shoot for and I loved watching that graph tick slowly upward as my word count approached its goal.

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2. Plug in and Build a writing community

Usually if I need history help, I shoot a text to my history teacher friend, Steve. So when my Google searches brought up useless information on the burial customs of the poor in 19th century London, I sent Steve a text but also posted in the forum. In less than an hour, a fellow writer had posted links to 4 great articles for me to peruse.

It wasn’t just about how fast the response came, it was that another writer, a stranger under the same deadline as me, took the time to copy and paste those links into the forum for me.

We know how to commiserate and encourage each other in a way that a non-writers can’t. We know how it feels when your brain is constipated and you can see your thoughts leaking from your ears in tendrils of wispy pale steam like a fresh cup of tea. We know how confusing it is to wander the internet, in search of fact, to find nothing but opinion. It was nice to know that if I ever got discouraged, I could email one of my three NaNoWriMo buddies or tweet out my progress, and immediately get love in the form of a thumbs up emoji. Sometimes that’s all you need. It’s something I hope to retain now that this is all over.

3. Do What’s Best for Your Progress

I got a lot of good out of this, so I’m glad I did it. However, if next year rolls around and I have to choose between my personal goals and starting a brand new project, I will probably watch the swimmers from a safe seat on the dock.

Life ate up a lot of my spare writing time this month making NaNoWriMo the only thing I accomplished. Don’t get me wrong, I love the result. I love my new characters, Lilly and Rascal, and had a blast making new worlds for them to play in, but they would still have come in time. Then it wouldn’t have cost me a whole month of spending time with Rory, Graham, Renaud, and Kaeli. It wouldn’t have set back my query letters and copy editing of “Us”, things that I consider more important.

You have to do what’s best for your art. If that means that you have your own personal NaNoWriMo in December, then you do so with a nod and smile. Or, perhaps…

4. Sometimes It’s Okay to Miss the Mark

If I had been a little smarter, I might have just shrugged and said, “Well today I’m not going to increase my word count on NaNoWriMo. Today I am going to work on the first draft of ‘The Channeller.'” But there were those badges that you could earn if you updated your word count every day, and that cool graph that told you how many words you added, and, basically, I got a little carried away with the fever of the thing.

I did it. I finished. On November 25th, I verified my 50,078 words and immediately dropped the project. My first draft is a chronologically disorganized mess, with bits and pieces from every end and corner of the story all mashed together. This is usually how my first drafts end up. I could have spent the next 5 days in November putting it in order, knowing full well that this draft would be thrown to the back of the queue for the next project I attack. It’s there. It’s a first draft. That’s it. I immediately printed out a new copy of “Us” and spent the rest of the day editing.

But what if I hadn’t finished? What if I had decided to drop the project entirely in favor of my previous list of goals for November? There is no shame in that. There is never any shame in setting a high goal for yourself and missing the mark. Do the work and do it with all you have. If you get to the end of the month and your word count isn’t 50,000 or you haven’t sent out those 10 query letters, it’s okay. Don’t batter yourself bloody. Just try again tomorrow. It’s about the journey. It’s about the climb. It’s about the effort. If you keep trying every day, eventually you’ll get there.

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© Rachel Svendsen 2015

 

A Road Trip with Neil and Charlotte

A few weeks ago, I posted about my struggle with anxiety disorder and depression. After which, I mentioned how I’ve been  pushing my boundaries, forcing myself to stand against the things that most frighten me

On this list is the gradual expansion of my forty-five minute radius safety bubble. I was sitting at about two and a half hours when my in-laws invited us to ride with them to Williamsburg, Virginia, six hours from home.

I’ve always wanted to see Colonial Williamsburg. I love history and museums and I’ve heard that it is super pretty. Another bonus incentive was that the first days’ drive ended after 4 hours, in an overnight at my brother-in-law Ben’s house, to visit with him, Chelsea, and the kids. They have invited Timothy and me down to see them many times, but I was wasn’t ready for the drive. I hated myself each time I said no, especially since I could see how badly Timothy wanted to go. So this time, I took a deep breath, swallowed, and said, “Sure, why not.”

Driving through Pennsylvania
Driving through Pennsylvania

I spent the next few days just blocking the whole thing out of my mind. And on Friday morning, I hopped into the car with my laptop and sat there tapping away on my project for NaNoWriMo, knowing that I would probably only manage a few hundred words for the next 3 to 4 days. The ride was fairly easy, simply because I refused to think about it. I listened to Walter Isaacson’s biography on Steve Jobs in my earbuds and before I knew it, we were sitting in front of Ben and Chelsea’s beautiful Yellow house.

Then I exploded.

I feel bad, because we were only there overnight, and I was like a zombie. I felt like Bilbo Baggins when he said, “I feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.” I hardly interacted with anyone and spent much of the time alone in our room. I stole away my husband for a while and wet his teeshirt with my tears of exhaustion. He kissed my forehead and whispered to me about how brave I was. I was so gone I barely heard him; all I could think about was the 2 to 3 hour drive we had tomorrow.

Though numb and frightened, I managed to begin a chronicle of my journey. That night, my journal entry began with this quote from Neil Gaiman’s, “Coraline.”

Because, she said. when you’re scared but you still do it anyway, that’s brave.

I was not relaxed when I got in the car Saturday morning. I managed to reject Ben and Chelsea’s sweet offer to end my journey there, and wait until Mom and Dad came back through on their way home. I dropped deep down inside my head, to that place where I didn’t think about what was happening. It was harder to find it this time. I held to Tim with my right hand and had my friend Steve in my left, who I texted on and off the whole trip discussing distracting nonsense like what edicts he would pass as the first global dictator. Mom and Dad were off to a wedding, so they left us at the hotel. Tim and I dropped our things and walked a half mile to Colonial Williamsburg.

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Path from the hotel to Colonial Williamsburg

I lived in each individual second, busying myself with the joy of being in a place I’d never seen before. We had a lovely walk together and ate at one of the pubs, before we went back to the hotel room. That was when it got hard. Honestly, that nice little room was the hardest place to be the whole trip. It felt like I was in the waiting room of a hospital, cold and half naked in my dressing gown, waiting for the beginning of major surgery; that surgery being the six hour ride home on Monday.

That night I opened my journal entry with another Neil Gaiman quote. This time from, “The Graveyard Book.”

Face your life, its pain, its pleasure, Leave no path untaken.”

Sunday was the hardest day. I didn’t sleep Saturday night. I was too anxious. And this is not meant to imply that Sunday wasn’t fun; it was lovely. But once daylight faded to nighttime, I fell into pieces in that hotel bed. I cried and shook and paced the floor. Timothy held me and my friend Steve threw me occasional texts, asking me if I was okay. I wasn’t okay. I just wasn’t. What little sleep I got was filled with nightmares about car accidents and eternal loneliness. That night I was too screwed up to write anything in my journal.

Monday morning came. I made my journal entry early that morning, mixing quotes from Neil Gaiman and Charlotte Brontë. A fitting mixture of past and present. I read Neil Gaiman’s “Neverwhere” about a year ago, and since then my love for his writing has bordered precariously on obsession (Not in a creepy stalker way, but in a buy-all-the-books-in-multiple-copies kind of way. The way most authors want to be loved. 😉 ). I can’t help it really. He’s a genius. He has a way of making me laugh and cry and want to be brave all at once. I’ve had that experience with other books, but he is one of the only authors that gives me that experience so consistently. And as for dear Charlotte, I often attribute my love of fiction and literature back to when she blew open my literary world at 9 years old with, “Jane Eyre.”

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Page from my journal

I did not know when we drove away at 10:45 that I we would not get home until 8:30. And it wasn’t until Tuesday that I really had the energy to fully comprehend what I’d done. I’d driven further from home than I’ve been since I was fourteen. I finally saw Colonial Williamsburg. I’d finally seen Ben and Chelsea’s house. It made me feel strong, like a warrior who cleared a battlefield of the enemy and now, weak and bloodied from the effort, silently absorbs her victory from a distant hilltop. I survived and I feel more alive than ever.

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Text Timothy sent me on Monday after I fell asleep in the car. It was a nice thing to wake up to.

© Rachel Svendsen 2015