(As part of my 2013 effort to try new things, this week will be the first of a series of “theme weeks” wherein every post will be related to the same overarching topic. This week: Applying what we learned from NaNoWriMo)
We’ve all forgotten about NaNoWriMo 2012 by now, right? We’ve either buried the embarrassment that was our novel attempt in a lock box and sealed its tomb with ancient curses or moved on to other projects that are more practical and packed with pitching potential. Some of you might just be waking up with a pretty killer NaNo hangover, asking yourself, “what the hell did I just write?”
Win or lose, we’ve probably all taken a writing breather through the nog-drunken haze of the holidays, resolute on our promises to do more with a new year.
It seems like NaNoWriMo scurries off into the dark recesses of the imagination just as quickly as it flies in when you realize it’s October 25 and you have no idea what you want to write come November 1. In January, the Google traffic for “NaNoWriMo” tapers off to nearly nothing after a huge seasonal spike.The hours and words so passionately spent on those short November days become nothing but another abandoned Word doc in your “Current Projects” folder.
But now is not the time to forget NaNoWriMo. Ever smash your brain against a textbook/piece of music/mathematical formula for hours in a last-ditch, “holy-shit-the-test-is-tomorrow” attempt to memorize it? Ever notice that when you come back to study it after a break, suddenly it seems like you’ve known it your whole life?
The cognitive approach to the psychology of learning suggests that you will more easily commit things to memory (and thus improve your long-term skill set) after you’ve taken a break from whatever it is you are trying to learn.
If you want to take that stuff you learned about writing and merge it with your mortal soul so that it becomes your very nature to be a writer, now is the time to revisit what you learned in November.
So what did I learn about my own writing? Mainly stuff about how much I can write when I really make writing my focus. There were tons of other little lessons hidden in nutritional nuggets of writing-chicken, but NaNoWriMo 2012, for me, was an exercise in spewing out lots and lots and lots of words.
1. Write or write not, there is no muse
When I was a mewling undergrad, I was convinced that I could only write anything of substance when the moon was in my house, the date was numerologically significant, and Mercury was in retrograde. I’d sit and waste time doing anything other than writing, passively waiting for that moment of spontaneous writing zen to hit me. It rarely came, if ever, when I needed it.
Now that I’ve been writing a lot more (and I think being a little older/maturer helps, too) I realize there is no magical, semi-divine fate watching over the collective flock of writers. It’s just me and my keyboard and you and your keyboard and them and their keyboards. Acknowledging that you are actively responsible for your work will lead to you actually writing, not sitting around waiting to be ready to write.
I’ve used this analogy before, but writing is like working out. Some days you’ll be so amped and well rested that you want to go out and run 30 miles or lift all the weights in the gym so many times that you won’t be able to put a shirt on the next day. Other days you might embody an exceptionally lethargic sloth, and would rather sit around in your pajama pants eating an entire block of Stilton blue cheese rather than move. The same goes for your writing. You’ll have good days and bad. Discipline keeps you writing, even when you’re not feeling it.
When you finally get over the idea of waiting for inspiration, you should see your productivity leap dramatically, like some sort of pole vaulter on crystal meth.
2. Proper prior planning…
…prevents writer’s block or any other crippling afflictions. If I find myself struggling to write something, it’s probably because I haven’t thought it through. The short stories I wrote for NaNoWriMo were all at least roughly outlined, so that I knew where I was going, if only on a basic level. If I started to write a story and the words just wouldn’t come zooming out of my fingers, I moved onto another story that did come naturally.
I took that slamming of the mind-brakes as a clue that whatever idea I had wasn’t fully baked. Gooey, choclately proto-story came out on the toothpick I shoved it into the middle of the idea. It needed more time in the oven. It needed some love and attention from me before it would be something I could write without a period of painful labor.
It is really easy to come up with an idea that is so exciting and packed to the veritable brim with potential that you think it will just write itself. And that does happen, sometimes. But for the vast majority of your work, be it fiction or nonfiction, time to grow and evolve and develop naturally will result in a much more compelling, easier to write product.
The next time you face the wall of a white blank page or an unjumpable hurdle in your story, stop and think if you’ve thought enough. There is a reason you’re struggling, and that reason could be that your mind isn’t ready for that part of the story. Move to a different part of the story, or another project all together. No one said you had to write the story in chronological order, after all (Alice McDermott wrote the National Book Award winning Charming Billy in a pretty random order, if that gives you hope).
When you plan ahead and have fresh from the oven idea-brownies, you’ll find that you can write a lot more, more quickly, and with greater ease.
3. Another time and place
Many successful authors describe their schedules as these perfect things with perfect crystalline structure, that they have perfected to the point of…perfection. Wake up at 6:00, drink 8 ounces of French press brewed espresso blend, write for three hours on the current book project before moving on to social media and smaller projects. Spend the afternoon editing and researching.
My schedule, in comparison, is about as consistent as paranoid schizophrenia. Wake up at 6:28? 7:14? 7:30? 8:03? Try to write, realize I’m barely conscious without caffeine. Go into the office. Drink a lot of bad, free coffee. Power through the jitters. Write something random; probably whatever I left open on my laptop the night before. Make it through the day without dying.
But the point is I try to have a schedule. I make writing a priority in my day, even if my day itself is a mess of incoherent events that are loosely glued into the shape of a life/job. Even on my busiest days in the office, I carve out thirty minutes to write something, if only a part of a blog post or notes on an idea I had that day.
I see a lot of people say they want to do something, but then they never make it a priority. They will talk about doing that thing a lot, but then let it get lost in the maze of TV, work stress, and other sundry distractions. Talking is not doing. If you really want to start seeing an increase in the amount you create, make creating one of the most important things you do in the day.
Other things in your life may suffer, initially. But as you get better at managing your time, you also get better at realizing just how much time you waste on things that don’t bring you any satisfaction. I’m not advocating some sort of Utopian life free of all distractions. I’m advocating making the best of the 745,094 hours you’re given on this planet (on average).
Bump writing up your list of things you need to do today, and you’ll start seeing just how much you can write.