NaNoWriMo 101: Another November Is Over... Now What?
I was never prone to asking for help. Generally, I just struggle and rage out all on my own until giving up with a flustered huff. This applies to anything. Growing up, it was homework, usually of the algebraic variety. In high school, it was learning to drive (although in that case, my dad was in the passenger seat, watching with a strained kind of amusement as I came very close to totaling his Honda Pilot... several times). Now that I’m almost thirty, it’s putting together my kids’ toys at birthdays and Christmas. (As we get closer and closer to that joyous time of year once again, I’ve already got my screwdrivers and Allen wrenches at the ready.)
My point is that no matter what the circumstances, I am stubbornly persistent. This goes for writing as well. I lock myself away inside the confines of my own imagination, carefully whittling at whatever project I’m working on, word by word. I keep pushing through, even in those times of uncertainty when something just doesn’t jive, when the words don’t flow the way I want them to, when that cursor is blinking at me, judging me. You know what I’m talking about. And whenever that happens, I don’t speak up. Not to my wife, not to my family, not to my writer friends. People who are all qualified to read the pages I have and offer valuable feedback. It’s part of the reason why, last year, I wrote an entire novel that will probably never see bookshelves as a real, published book. Because I knew it was out of harmony, I knew it was super clunky, and I knew it needed more time to fully incubate. But I had already taken longer than I wanted to write it. I kept on trudging to The End, behind on my own self-inflicted deadlines and feeling, deep down in my gut, that almost everything about the book was just... off.
Looking back on it, when I hit that moment in the writing process, instead of taking more time to keep writing, I should have taken a step back, reached out to someone who I trust and respect to look at the work and help me diagnose the problems. If every book you write is a baby, then this particular baby had a fever, and I needed a doctor to help me figure out what was going on. But I wasn’t interested in calling one.
NaNoWriMo is a time when many writers put that same level of pressure on themselves. Personally, I don’t usually participate in NaNoWriMo because as soon as I give myself too rigid of a word count goal, my lizard brain shuts down and I can’t even spell my own name. But there have been a ton of bestselling novels that started out as NaNoWriMo projects. And the beauty of NaNoWriMo is that it’s a nationwide writing workshop. Thousands of writers across the country come together in solidarity around the process of writing a novel. It’s a community, just like the small circle of family and friends that surrounds each individual writer is its own community. If you don’t tap into that resource by asking for help, advice, feedback, a bottle of whiskey, a bag of donuts, whatever, then your book is probably going to suffer as a result. Mine did.
I’m not saying that you have to share your entire book with a hundred people right away. Start with one, the person you trust most to give you the best, most honest feedback. Then give it to three more people. Then five. Keep doing that until you’ve gotten as much constructive criticism from as many different perspectives as you think you’ll need. And while you wait for feedback from those friends/family/mail carrier/Starbucks barista who always spells your name wrong but reads lots of books, you have a wealth of resources that you can tap into for extra support and encouragement, like the NaNoWriMo website, or the Swoon Reads blog (which we happen to be on right now, in case you didn’t notice), or go out to your local indie bookstore and ask for recommendations for books on writing (although, for the love of all things holy, do not ask for recommendations for books that are similar to the one you’re writing—that’s a whole other blog post for a different day).
Part of writing a book is loving the work, the words, the story, the characters. It’s about being whisked away on the journey in the same way you want your readers to be. But the other part is making sure those words connect to those readers on a level that I’m not sure can even be described. Those books that we all love—and I mean, love—all have this strange effect on us. We’d defend those words to the death, even though we didn’t write them, and whenever somebody says, “Oh, it’s just a book,” that somebody is immediately dead to us. Why? I like to think it’s because the authors of those cherished books had that same deep-gut, magical, fluttery feeling while writing them. And there’s no better way to see if your words evoke that same reaction than by letting other people read them.
This is the most crucial part to your post-NaNoWriMo work: getting support sharing your words. You have to be willing to open the creaky, dusty, cobweb-covered door of your writing room and emerge into the world with a fresh manuscript under your arm and a desire to let those closest to you read it. That’s one of the biggest reasons why they’re always telling you to follow this dream of yours, because they’re hoping that they’ll get a first glimpse at what could be a groundbreaking new novel. Or at least, groundbreaking to them. And now that November has come and gone, most of your manuscripts should be close to, if not at completion, which means that over the next couple of months you have two tasks: 1. Revise that thing. Then revise it again. Then have a cup of coffee, catch a good movie on Netflix, enjoy the holidays with your family... and then revise it again! 2. Get feedback. That one should be easy because, as we’ve already discussed, you’re part of a community now, and that community wants to read that beautiful, fragile thing you just created. Let them.
Thanks for reading and happy holidays!