The NaNoWriMo Conundrum
I’m participating in NaNoWriMo this year, and this time, I’m totally sure I’ll win.
I was also sure that I’d win last year, but at exactly 9,999 words, I threw in the towel and abandoned my project. And I was totally baffled when it happened.
Before I had joined NaNo last year, I had been chugging away at a series I had started in 2016; Camp NaNo April 2016 had seen the completion of my first draft of my first story ever, and since then I had established a writing habit of drafting one scene every day. I had that habit down; NaNo November was a sure thing.
And then it was not. It was a pain, a struggle, I didn’t feel the characters, and I had no idea what to do with my plot. And although I know that some people hate NaNoWriMo with a passion, I’m absolutely sure that NaNo itself had nothing to do with it. I had done this all to myself.
I just couldn’t figure out how.
I returned to my series – outside of NaNo – and lo and behold, the story machine came back to life and began to churn out scenes like before. Maybe it had been the story, I figured, maybe the idea just hadn’t been good enough (but it was a good idea, and I still liked it, so what had really happened?).
When the next NaNo Camp came around, I didn’t participate. I was writing the series again – or still – and figured I didn’t need the extra boost. Still, writer friends did participate, and sometimes invited me for word sprints. Write as many words as you can in x minutes. The writer with the most words has “won.”
I always declined. I can’t write under time pressure – I freeze up, I can’t think of anything, let alone write.
And then it dawned on me: maybe I just couldn’t write under external deadlines. Maybe the secret to my steady output was that I had determined my own quota – one scene per day – and didn’t have to check it against a clock or a calendar.
Those poor trad published authors – always slaving away under those deadlines, getting impatient phone calls and letters from their publishers the closer that deadlines approaches. Right?
When You Are That Boss from Hell
As self-published authors, we have no stinkin’ publishers telling us what to do, and when to be finished with it, because we are the boss, and we make the rules. We have all the power, nobody’s cracking the whip across our laptop.
(Insert wolf howl or similar displays of power).
Unless, of course, you’re one of those overachievers (not looking at anyone in particular). You put in the work, and you want to succeed. You don’t play, you play to win. You want to do this self-publishing thing right from the beginning, probably have a head start on all the bumbling fools that happily type away without ever having watched a single authortube video, or attended a course on self-marketing your book, or at least read about how to market your novel.
If they had done their research, they’d know by now that you need to write a series, and that you need to chuck a new book at your fans every six months (every three months is even better). For years and years.
And since you’re a conscientious author and not a hack, you want to produce good quality at that breakneck speed, and so you stress out and buckle down and work hard…
… and you lose the joy somewhere along the way. And you burn out.
Don’t believe everything you see on the Internet
I’m not making fun of this type of author – actually, I admire folks who possess such unrelenting willpower, discipline, and energy to make this work, at least for a time. But it pains me to see how they crack the whip over their own backs, and how they exhaust themselves.
So let’s back up for a moment, okay? Let’s look at these “rules” with our trusty bullshit detector.
There may be people who produce a publishable book (a book! Not a first draft! Not even a third draft that your best friend beta’d!) every three months that is high quality. But the probability that either the book is low quality, or the writer is done for after the third forced birth is really, really high.
There is an industry of writers who churn out books as if they were working in a story factory. These people are called pulp writers, and they manage to keep up this pace because they write after very strict formulas. They don’t have to be creative – they just have to know how the formula works. It’s a perfectly honorable way to earn your money, and those stories do sell. The question is just if you want to write like that.
If that’s not how you envision your stories, if you love to experiment, and explore your story world and your characters, and combine genres, and whatever else – then don’t believe that you can do all that and still love your stories and keep your passion about writing when you follow that “pump and dump” philosophy.
Working From a Place of Fear
Hidden under all those admonishments is the threat that if you don’t do it this way, if you’re seeking potential readers’ attention with NEW! and EXCITING! content all the effing time, you “won’t make it.” That you’ll vanish in a sea of mountebanks waving their 17th installment of their series in people’s faces. That speed-writing a book in three (or six) months is the only way to keep your fans engaged, as if your author website wouldn’t be the ideal platform for interacting with them outside your publishing announcements. As if you couldn’t let them know what weird piece of information you’ve stumbled upon in your research for your current book, or give them a flash fiction on one of your character’s backstory, or doi mock interviews with them, or whatever fun way you can think of to entertain your readers while you craft that new story in the time it needs, even if that time is twelve months, or fifteen.
I freely admit that maybe I’m not the best person to ask if you should stick to what the internet gurus told you, or give my suggestion for your author blog a try – I’m not published yet. But I do know that if I plan to devote the rest of my life to telling stories, I want to do it from a place of passion and joy, and not a place of pressure and fear. I do want to tell my stories – and I also do want to sell my stories. And I dream to make millions of bucks with them, and have Hollywood turn them into blockbusters.
But I won’t sacrifice my peace of mind for that dream. I’ll live that dream, every day when I sit down at my desk to write that one, complete scene.