National Novel Writing Month is over. I’m sure you’re wondering if I made my 50 000 words this year.
Spoiler: no. I super didn’t.
I thought I had a streak going. I did two NaNos successfully in a row. I did a couple of Camps in there too. Each time, I was very successful.
But… it turns out that this was not that year.
For 14 000 words I did great. I was in that beautiful, dizzying place where you know exactly where you’re going and you get in your groove and even if you only carve out a tiny bit of time, you still meet your word count goals.
But then I hit a wall.
I knew where I had to get. I knew what I needed to do. But I had no idea how to do it.
See, my book is, in a nutshell, The Martian by way of the high Arctic. My hero is stuck on an abandoned icebreaker, trying to figure out what happened to the crew and find a way to escape back to civilization. The part I’m bumping on, 107 000 words into the story, is the escape part.
I could just write it. I could just tell the story, hit the couple of beats I had planned for that section. Just tell the story.
But it’s not enough for me to just make stuff up. Part of the joy of The Martian for me was to research things as I went along so that I could see how things were unfolding. The best mysteries are always more or less solvable by the audience. The best travel stories make people learn something and want to learn more about the places they go. The best castaway stories give you a clear sense of how and why the castaway does what they do to survive, and makes you feel what it feels like to push yourself outside your comfort zone to survive. I want those things for my story.
Unfortunately, I was getting into territory that I was unfamiliar with, and the authenticity I was going for just wasn’t there. I couldn’t see the story.
See, my process is one that relies on research. My mantra has become good input makes good output. Whether I’m working my novel, writing one of the sci-fi or post-apocalyptic short films I’ve written in the last year, putzing around with some Star Trek thing, whatever, I need to find the story and that’s always grounded in research. Even if the story itself isn’t about the research, it always is informed by the research.
But I hadn’t done the work yet. So I couldn’t see the story.
I didn’t have enough input for such an output-heavy part of the story.
So, after putting 14 000 words into my novel, I stopped. I put down my novel and made a calendar, opened up a bunch of maps and Environment Canada datasets, printed out PDF schematics of Bombardier snowcats, and started to work. I did a bunch of math, made Excel spreadsheets, and made a bunch of notes.
Then, about halfway through the month, I stopped.
In my post 5 Lessons Learned from NaNoWriMo, the very first lesson I write about is writing doesn’t always mean typing. A lot of writing happens at the keyboard, of course, but I would argue that more of it happens between your ears when you’re not at the keyboard at all. And I needed time for that.
See, my job involves a lot of writing. I basically do a NaNo every month in developing course materials, e-learning, and other resources. And after working with words all day I struggled – really struggled this month – to put more words on paper.
I should say here that I credit the amount of writing I do for my day job with my capacity as a writer now. I’m a better, more careful, more purposeful writer than I’ve ever been, and part of it is the tens of thousands of words I work on every month.
But now, I think it’s time. Time to start writing my own things again more seriously. I think I’ve done the writing between my ears enough now that I can start putting my own words on paper. My own words, for me, instead of words for the organization or for clients.
Getting back to this, to Love Make Share, is a good step in that. Finding my voice again after spending so many words on other work.
If I could go back and add to 5 Lessons Learned from NaNoWriMo, I would add this:
Writing Begets Writing
If you’re struggling with writing, with producing words on your story, then… write something else. Write in some other way. Make a calendar. Make a spreadsheet. Make research notes. Write something else. Do a side story. Think about things that are totally unrelated. Come at it from another perspective. Write a couple blog posts. Writing makes you a better writer. Writing is addictive. It makes you want to write more. So do it. Do any of it. Because not doing writing is withdrawal – and why put yourself through that?
And as always, until next time, paddle your own canoe.