Lessons Learned by a First Time NaNoWriMo Participant

I admit it. Until two years ago, I lived under a rock. I’d never heard of NaNoWriMO until after I became involved with my critique group, and when I did, I was horrified. Write an entire 50,000-word novel during the month of November? Oh, HELL no!

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And that remained my opinion—until about two months ago, when one of my critique partners (possibly the one whom I suspect of writing half a novel before breakfast every morning and two on the weekend) asked if anyone else was thinking about NaNo this year. And everyone said yes except for me.

Lesson 1: Peer Pressure Is a Fantastic Motivator.

After an awkward silence, I said, “Maybe?” Because I had realized that if there ever was a time for me to try to write 50,000 words in 30 days, this was it. Over the summer, I had come up with a new story idea that I was excited about. I had drawn up a rough outline, done a dozen or so hours’ worth of research, and written a beginning. And then life happened and my idea languished. I needed a kick-start, and NaNo seemed like a pretty good one. So I told my group I was in, wrote a more detailed outline, and revised my beginning. By October 31, I was ready to go.

Lesson 2: Butt in Chair, Fingers on Keyboard, or, If It Were Easy, Everyone Would Be Doing It.

Working at a steady pace, you need to average 1,667 words a day to finish NaNo. However, I wanted the option of taking a weekend or two off, as well as Thanksgiving Day, so I set myself a daily goal of 2,000 words. And on the first of November, I began slogging away.

I won’t lie—Day One was awful. That first 2,000 words took me about four hours to write. Solar systems form, grow old, and die faster than I generally write chapters. But that first night, I dreamed about my characters. It gave me enough impetus to keep going, and I vomited up 10,000 words the first week. Did I cringe every time I looked back over it? Yes. Yes, I did.

Lesson 3: Writing Produces Highs and Lows.

Then, during Week Two, my story took off. “This is easy!” I thought. “Why have I never tried this before?” Suddenly I was an addict. The plot twists were coming fast. The characters demanded my attention, keeping me awake at night. I felt as if I were trying to close the lid on a box full of snakes. I’d push one in, and two others would wriggle out. What are we going to do about the gold coin? And the little sister? How does the garden figure in? And when did my MC and I develop a crush on our villain? 20,000 words gushed out of me.

And then Day Fourteen hit me like a semi-truck.

Lesson 4: Keep Your Drafting and Revising Separate.

In a recent TTOF post (Drafting, November 25), Todd Petersen says, “The trick of drafting is keeping myself from meddling in my own business.” Well, I meddled. I started reading over what I’d written. Ordinarily, this is what I do. I tend to write a few pages, revise, write a few more pages, revise, and so on. But revising requires a completely different mindset than drafting. From a NaNo perspective, it just doesn’t get the words written.

“Is this it?” I asked, rereading my awful mess. “Really? But—but—this is LAME! My characters whine. My plot stinks. Nothing connects—I have a big mess of disjointed conversations between selfish, unmotivated characters. I’ve been wasting my time.”

This is where the slogging resumed. With my eyes on the 40,000 word badge, I plodded along, hating everything about my story. I fantasized about typing, “This sucks!” 7,000 times and then sending an asteroid crashing down on all my characters to put them out of their misery.

Lesson 5: GPA Can Also Be a Motivator

When I finally reached 40,000 words, I thought, “Eighty percent done. I now have a B minus in NaNo. A passing grade—not so bad. But if I make it to 45,000, then I’ll earn an A minus.” (Yeah, I was one of those students. I also give myself grades when I’m working out—85% of a mile, 90% of a mile…don’t laugh. It works for me.) So my characters jerked along, puppet-like, trying for that A, and every once in awhile, someone said something clever.  Or two unrelated events fell together as if I’d planned it that way. And I started to get back into the zone

I was almost reluctant to write my final 1,900 words (an A grade, thanks). Because my excitement was rising again. Just a little, but enough to make me think that someday I might find a few nuggets of gold in this muck.

Lesson 6: Any Way that Works for You Is the Right Way.

Now, two weeks later, I’m older and wiser. I don’t have a shining new novel, but I do have a skeleton on which I can begin to hang a story. Not one of those clean, elegant anatomy lab skeletons, mind you, but rather something I might have assembled while sleepwalking and blindfolded. The feet are on backwards. There’s a humerus where one of the femurs should go. The phalanges are sticking out of the eye sockets, and there are a few extra bones still lying in the box. But hey, it’s a start.

My final takeaway from NaNo is the most important one. Whatever motivates you to write—to sit down, grit your teeth, and pry the words out of your head, even if they’re not perfect, is good. I’m proud of myself for finishing NaNo. I may do it again someday, or I may not. This year, it was the push I needed, but I may not always be in the same place, and that’s all right, too. Any trick that works, on any given day, is the right one.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a lot of revising to do.

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Kristina Starmer lives in Southern Utah with her husband, son, dog, and more cats than she likes to admit. When not working as a university chemistry lab manager, she can most likely be found rereading one of her favorite books. She is passionate about traveling to new places, ice cream with lots of mix-ins, and the peaches from her garden. Her favorite children’s book is The Owl and the Pussycat and her favorite element is copper. She writes renaissance-era historical fiction topped with a generous scoop of magic.

Introverts Unite! – No, Wait…

 

“I’m such an introvert!” shouts my friend at a party. “I’d much rather be home watching TV.” Not that I doubt her, but this would be easier to believe if my friend had not just (pick two): jumped off a makeshift karaoke stage to thunderous applause, organized an impromptu game of charades, dived off a boat with a whoop and splashed into the middle of half a dozen sunbathers lounging on floats, or planned the entire party, complete with party favors and silly hats. (Disclaimer: both the friend and the party are composites. I promise—the parties I attend are not that exciting.)

As a classic introvert, my party experience usually conforms to stereotype—sitting in a quiet corner with a handful of chips, getting to know the local dog or cat. (A dog named Pepper lives across the street from us. I cannot for the life of me remember the names of any of her humans.)

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I have so many early memories of my family saying, “Oh, she’s just shy,” that it became an enormous part of my self-identify—as defining as my name or sex. I was that child who was always being exhorted to “come out of my shell,” as if I were a hermit crab curled up in a stolen seashell with my carapace turned to the world.

So my gut response to my friend is to explain that she has no idea what introversion is—it’s not possible. Or is it?

Introversion, it turns out, comes in all shapes and sizes. It is possible to be an introvert without being shy, and to be shy without being an introvert, although they often go hand in hand. Susan Cain, in her book Quiet, a marvelous owner’s manual for the introverted personality, talks about the relationship between introversion and shyness. “Many shy people turn inward, partly as a refuge from the socializing that causes them such anxiety. And many introverts are shy, partly as a result of receiving the message that there’s something wrong with their preference for reflection….”

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Okay, but what does this all have to do with writing? Well, writing is a solitary activity, and writers are, in general, an introverted group of people. We enjoy living in our minds—we know where all the cozy nooks are, there, and the fluffiest pillows, and where to get the best coffee. We are a sensitive bunch who tend to feel emotions strongly. We are often happy sitting on the sidelines, observing people and empathizing with them. It goes without saying that these traits are a great advantage to a writer.

Perhaps, if you call yourself an introvert, you’re similar to my party-loving friend, who is very social, but needs some downtime after an activity-filled day. Or perhaps you relate more to my stepdad, whose idea of a good time is spending the day alone in the desert, collecting rocks, and who once changed gyms just so he wouldn’t have to make small talk with his next door neighbor. But whatever part of the spectrum you fall on, you probably feel the world a little more intensely than most, and need solitude to recharge.

This is great, because solitude is a breeding ground for creativity. We think better when left to our own devices. “Introverts prefer to work independently,” says Cain, “and solitude can be a catalyst to innovation…in other words, if you’re in the backyard sitting under a tree while everyone else is clinking glasses on the patio, you’re more likely to have an apple fall on your head.”

As writers, we live for the days when the ideas are ripe and low-hanging, ready for harvest. This can happen in the middle of a crowded room, of course. But more often you have to cultivate your apples carefully. To non-writerly types, this hard work can look like doing nothing at all (another good reason to choose solitude—it saves you from the puzzled looks people give you). I was grateful to hear a writer friend extoll the joys of just being able to sit and stare at a wall for an hour. And here I was thinking it was just me.

So maybe you’ve been harvesting for a while, and now you have this heaping, shiny bushel of apples—a story. And stories, like apples, are better when shared with a friend. Yet, this is where many of us, myself included, stumble, decide the road is too difficult, and consider not going any further.

If writing is an introvert’s activity, then the act of sharing your work with a reader is a supreme act of extroversion. It’s shouting to the universe, “Look at me! I have something important to say!” Exposing your thoughts to friends, family members, and critique partners is only the beginning. After that, you begin to think agents. Writing query letters. Maintaining a web presence. Promotions launches interviews reviews, where does it all end?

You bare yourself to public criticism in a way that many extroverts can only have nightmares about. Am I the only one whose palms are sweaty? Whose insides are shriveling up like a collapsible garden hose at the very thought of the word pitch?

This is my challenge. To push myself past my comfort zone. To tell the world that yes, I am a writer. And to brave the huge, terrifying world out there. And perhaps, like me, you wonder if you’re even capable of taking that next step.

I was that terrified kindergartner who anguished over a homework assignment requiring her to use a class phone book to call a classmate. But I was also the regional science fair director who somehow managed to stand on a stage and address four hundred people without breaking a sweat. Because—and this is the encouraging thing—one’s personality is flexible, and can be trained.

Research indicates, says Cain, that “we are born with and culturally endowed with certain personality traits—introversion for example—but we can and do act out of character in the service of ‘core personal projects.’ In other words, introverts are capable of acting like extroverts for the sake of work they consider important, people they love, or anything they value highly.”

Such as writing a book.

So here’s to those who are breaking out of their comfort zones to do something they believe in. Here’s to those who are nervous but willing to begin the daunting process of sharing their darlings with the world. I’m in. Let’s do it together.

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Kristina Starmer lives in Southern Utah with her husband, son, dog, and more cats than she likes to admit. When not working as a university chemistry lab manager, she can most likely be found rereading one of her favorite books. She is passionate about traveling to new places, ice cream with lots of mix-ins, and the peaches from her garden. Her favorite children’s book is The Owl and the Pussycat and her favorite element is copper. She writes renaissance-era historical fiction topped with a generous scoop of magic.