NaNoWriMo 2018 and the Novels that were inside us the whole time
This guy made it. Made it to the end of NaNoWriMo, I mean. I’m typing this after my final draft on the 30th of November 2018, having hit 60,092 words on my untitled novel.
I am free.
My personal goal is over. I could’ve stopped at 50,000 words as the official website for the event states is the target, but after doing the maths, I thought that with proper commitment I reach 60k. Somehow, I did.
That’s not to say this novel is done. So far, it’s about a third of the entire story I planned, it doesn’t have an ending and the thing has a hell of a big edit coming its way. Proper cutting out of unneeded scenes, reduced descriptions, all that bloat sheared right off. For now, I’m not sure if I’ll pick it up again to finish it off. I like the characters I’ve started creating and I feel like I want to finish off their stories, but I also want to have a break. Get back to my freelance and look for a permanent writing job properly again. Time will tell.
In the meantime, I needed to write something critically, and what better thing than share a perspective on this art of kicking out a novel (or part of one) from your guts and onto a word document in only a month, and what value I think it has for people.
I never expected to NaNoWriMo this year. I got a DM from a friend on Twitter who had been gearing up to do it and he asked me if I was. I tried doing it before, years back, and it made me hate writing so I saw no reason to change that, and yet here I am. The whole experience of National Novel writing is a good barometer, if nothing else, for finding out the type of writer you are. Some people have these ideas that flow out like they’re meant to be on the page, that their whole life has led up to writing their novel. I’m the type who wants to scream every so often, it made me hate everything that came from my fingers. My fingers were a soulless machine, trying to write whatever came to mind rather than carefully and neatly planning it all out. When I edit it, I’ll be able to tell how true my thoughts on it were, but from a friend’s initial read through, it seems to be a good first draft.
To say the least, NaNoWriMo is a blunt tool for encouraging people to write. The key is quantity over quality, because that comes in later drafts. This is about splurging out, unfiltered and uncut. This never felt like it could be sustainable in the first few weeks. I was getting headaches, losing sleep, worrying about hitting my daily goal of 2,000 words. These things still seem to persist in December, annoyingly. I kept writing more in hope that I could eventually bank a day off than proper passion. Not to say that it wasn’t there, some days I was excited about the scenes I’d write next or go well beyond my average. Often thought, it felt like work. And that’s when the breakthrough came.
I started treating it like a job. As I’m a freelance writer, my days can vary immensely, from utter emptiness or not getting a moment to breath. Adapting to each day of writing wasn’t entirely new to me. Waking up and writing in bed, hitting 1000 words, hitting the gym, doing jobs around the house, chatting with family then going back to write the next 1000. Or writing 2000 in a couple of hours and then having the rest of the day free. Or, worse, barely getting over 1000 words, and having a mini emotional crisis. It had become easier to manage, but like everyone, I needed a real break for my life to fill more fulfilled and complete.
The time pressure of NaNoWriMo has its benefits and drawbacks. Having a set time meant I grafted every day in some way or another to get to my goal, there was no excuse, and I pursued it to its conclusion (more or less). I never thought I could do it on day one, but I did and that’s what seems amazing about it. However, had the privilege of a flexible schedule to work around my writing, but I know people this year who ‘gave up’ because trying to work a full-time job whilst writing a novel was too much. If you miss one day, that time cascades, you start to lose yourself and get discouraged from trying to catch up. Closing that gap feels impossible, and sometimes truly is. Whether people end with a novel or not, doesn’t really matter. What’s key is the writing. Even participating for a day means you started something, and the hardest thing for most is filling that blank void of a page for the first time. Even doing that is an achievement. It’s the start of something now, or even sometime much later in life.
This wasn’t technically my first attempt at writing in a novel-length piece in a month. During a summer holiday break at university, I spent five or so weeks making an interactive fiction game called “You’re Killing It! – A Stand-up Comedy experience” using the interactive fiction software, Twine. It came as a result of my experience doing a stand-up comedy module, where I ended up performing a set to about 40 or so people and preparing myself for a video games writing module in the following months. I married the two because ‘write what you know’, I guess. Truthfully the stand-up comedy was ‘life-changing’, in that I felt like I achieved something. Comparing that game writing to this year’s NaNoWriMo experience, I was surprised how inexplicably similar they were.
I hated how I felt like I was desperately trying to write something I didn’t really believe in because I knew that the key rule in writing wasn’t the quality of writing but getting something on the page. It had been drilled into me and I know now, having tried to present my work to employers, that my lecturers were right. A catalogue of mediocre work is much better than a half-finished masterpiece. I pummelled out something that was equally awkward and full of errors, but at least was out there and I still use it as a reference on my CV.
Though I never thought the two could be comparable, it made me curious how applicable this NaNoWriMo style of a stark deadline of a month could be used for other writing mediums if it worked for a video game. It was a few years later that I learned game jams, where game creators set a time limit to make a basic video game idea a reality. The set amount of time to make them varies wildly, from a couple of hours or days to months at a time. The whole process can feel aimless but is a great way to create a proof of concept for an idea, with the process as ambitious or reserved as the creators like. Eventually, I participated in one specifically for writing a game. I’m starting to realise maybe I can never escape these events.
Anyway, in late 2017 I was working at a company where the creative director and a few of the designers there put out an email inviting the studio to join in a sort of game jam for NaNoWriMo in November. Our task, to make a game using Twine in the month. This was the first time I was part of a writing workshop outside of university, so it was interesting in seeing the different types of people and works out there, and the writing ability. Most of the stereotypes were real. The coders were most comfortable in customising the ‘Twine code’, but struggled with their confidence in writing creatively, whilst the more creative types were struggling to learn to use Twine’s tools but were writing lots. With my experience, I felt like I was in a perfect position to do something great in this game jam. That hope quickly faltered.
The worst part, as I’ve mentioned before, was not having the free time to pursue it. A full-time job coupled with trying to search for a new job and hours of travelling to and from home, I was continually tired whenever I had spare time. My idea was also awful. I was doing some sort of campy, deadly quiz show format where players would have to answer absurd questions or be killed and start again as a new contestant. I never intended to make it a full game, I was only using it as framework to relearn a much newer version of Twine I didn’t understand (all my previous knowledge meant very little) and comedy is a tough thing to write. It felt like it was never meant to work. I handed in a shadow of an idea. But I learnt a lot about the limitations of writing in a time limit whilst having other pressures on top of me. The process of it can be crushing. Still, when it was done I started thinking about what I wanted to write next. Even if you make a stinker, there’s always next time if you feel like you can do it.
In some ways, building up a catalogue of work can help a creator’s confidence. That Twine game jam may have ended haphazardly but I remember the other work I’ve done that I’ve finished with some pride. My earliest writing memory is creating a Mr. Men book of about five story book pages in primary. One of the first finished works I wrote as a teenager was a short, three-man play of about 20 pages or so. In between have been countless short stories and poems. I was quite proud of all these milestones of work when I finished them, because by those points in time, I’d done more than I’d ever done before then. It’s difficult to think now how I could’ve finished my stand-up game or meet this 2018 NaNoWriMo goal without me writing those stories first. Each of them taught me lessons that I still use for my writing today. Every creator has projects behind them, both successes and failures, that act as the foundation for what they make next.
What I wanted to end this NaNoWriMo month on was pure happiness, to tell you that this is something that changed me as a writer and maybe as a person. In reflection, what’s striking is how much of it is a microcosm for my experience in writing for years. There are ups and downs, good days and bad, clichés and new twists. It has not fundamentally changed my view on writing. I’d like to think the tens of thousands of pounds I have in student debt (and the words written then, as well) would’ve been the wake up call I needed if that was the case. It’s instead helped me prove something to myself.
I am a writer.
Even if the imposter syndrome and doubt will creep in again soon. For right now, I’ll enjoy this feeling.