Anyone who knows me well knows that I turn a bit… odd in November. For the last six years I have committed to National Novel Writing Month and spent the 30 days of November furiously writing a first draft of a new novel and having conversations with imaginary people who I just created out of thin air. So, on November 1st, 2017, I sat down with the same intention: write a first draft of a totally new novel — no plan, no built world, no character studies, just pure pantser creativity and fun. This time around, though, something is different. I’m failing NaNoWriMo this year and that’s OK.
What’s so different about 2017? Don’t worry, I haven’t been attacked by flying monkeys, or succumbed to an infectious disease long buried under the Siberian tundra until revealed by climate change. There was, admittedly, a much-needed flurry of freelancing work early in the month that derailed me a little, but while that’s a handy excuse, it’s not why I’m calling it quits on NaNo.
The real reason why I’m failing at NaNoWriMo 2017 is that I need to grow as a writer and the process that has worked for me for six years is no longer helping me to do that. While this sounds scary, it’s OK because I’ve been here before.
Writing Methodologies — Finding what works for you
Prior to discovering the magic of NaNo, I had tried unsuccessfully to write novel after novel. I would map out my plot, draw character studies, do buckets of research, and… never produce a finished draft. I’d barely even get 10,000 words down, in fact, before I’d be beset by crippling doubt and a terror of having moved away from my carefully laid out plot. Or, I’d already have told the story so thoroughly in my head that I had no motivation to write the thing down.
The other problem with my writing method in my early to mid twenties was simply carving out time to write. Studying, working full-time, and carrying the lion’s share of household management meant that there was little brain space devoted to the quiet contemplation needed for real creativity to burble through the morass of everyday thought.
NaNo offered a chance to change all that. I found a joy and safety in allocating one month each year to a specific, contained project that was easily understood by my then spouse and others around me and thus easier to excuse and protect when time was precious. In essence, for the last seven years I’ve been a copywriter all year round but allowed myself to be a ‘real’ writer/novelist for just 30 days each year. Any more verged on irresponsibility and hubris. And the defined schedule was just the motivation I needed to get down that all-important first draft.
So what has changed this year?
Well, for one, I have already proven to myself that I am a novelist. I came, I wrote, I published, and people have read the novels and thrown plenty of five-star reviews my way (plus some rather wonderful one-star reviews!). I had a plan to have a novel in print by the time I was thirty. I ended up with three books in print (two novels and one work of non-fiction). Achievement unlocked. What next? How about writing a sequel? Why not try the 3-day novel challenge? How about switching genres entirely and writing speculative fiction? Done, done, and done. What next?
Somewhere in the racking up of novels, I have come to realise that I want to be more than just prolific. Sure, I can bang out 30,000 words in a weekend, but will anything I write in such a flurry of fingers on keyboard be meaningful or memorable? Will this kind of writing make a reader pause and take stock? Will it get more than a cheap laugh or some other quick emotional response? Is this the kind of writer I want to be, or how I want to be remembered?
Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t written fluffy, throwaway novels. From my first novel, The Old Arbutus Tree, to my latest, Colony, I’ve dealt with difficult subject matter including institutionalised and systemic racism and oppression, murder, suicide, sexual assault, homophobia, and more. And I’m sure, in amongst all that there are a few sentences that hang together in a pleasing way, but it’s not enough for me any more and I want to offer my readers something more.
I want to write a novel that sings. I want to write a novel that people say they can’t put down, but that they actually have to put down so as to savour the words, to really think about what they’ve just read. I want to write the kind of novel that sparks conversations and creativity. And I don’t think, for me, that I can do that in just 30 days a year.
I don’t know what this means for my writing going forward. I barely scrape by as a freelancer living in one of the most expensive cities in the world. With vet bills and a mortgage to pay, volunteer gigs, community, friends, and family to support, there’s little to no chance of focusing solely on novel writing. Taking a year to immerse myself in a single novel is entirely unrealistic, with no guarantee of recouping the cost of lost earnings. My relatively passive income streams don’t come close to covering a week’s expenses, let alone a whole year. And, if I’m honest, the idea of doing little but writing about fictitious people and things terrifies me a little with its potential for a slide into psychosis.
So, while I’m failing NaNoWrimo this time around, it’s OK because I can use the spare time figure out a new plan. Something sustainable that allows me to support myself and others as needed. A writing method that doesn’t risk my mental health but allows me the cognitive freedom to form a novel of substance, a novel that I can be proud of in a whole new way. They say that a good writer needs to learn to kill their darlings. I need to learn how to call my darlings, to let them in, then kill ‘em.
How are you other NaNoWriMoers doing this year? Any strategies or revelations to share? I’d love to hear if anyone has had a similar experience or shift in methodologies over the years.