Reflections of a Camp Nanowrimo Loser.
On the first day of April I signed up to Camp Nanowrimo, an internet based creative writing project where participants try to write 50,000 words of a novel in a month. On April 30th I posted my final count. I only managed 30,000 words.
I knew I wasn’t going to make it from quite early on. The colourful, super friendly Nanowrimo website gave me a graph showing me day by day exactly how much I was falling behind; just how much lower my average words per day was than the rapidly increasing target needed to finish on time; the glaring little endnote that if I continued at this rate I would finish some time in late May.
In the last week the near impossibility of reaching my goal haunted me. In theory, sure, I could rattle out 5000 words a day. But when I sat in front of the keyboard the words would come so slowly. I would look up, two hours would have passed, and the word count would only be 600 words up. What was I doing wrong?
Maybe I need to learn to write faster. There was a lot of talk about amongst the staff and participants. Nanowrimo has excellent forums, as well as surprisingly encouraging message boards where you can exchange tweet sized notes with your cabin mates. There were also inspirational messages sent by writers and ex-Nanowrimo winners about how to keep on going, tips to improve your writing and ways to keep the slog up towards 50,000 words.
Their consensus seemed to be that writing fast was the key: get the words on the page and you can edit them later. Writing faster helps you overcome editing paralysis, it keeps you in touch with your passion for the idea and keeps you encouraged as you see the word count mount and your objective getting closer. Many even suggested that writing faster resulted in texts that were of the same or even better quality than when they took their time over every word.
But I don’t write fast. I find I have to stop and think. A lot. Why is X doing that to Y? Why does that piece of dialogue not sound right? I pace around the room (or café or library) in which I’m writing. I can spend a morning on a couple of lines of text. If something doesn’t feel the way I want it to feel, I find it virtually impossible to leave alone.
Maybe part of the reason for this is that I love the process of thinking (as deeply as I can manage) about my writing. I enjoy the engagement, the personal voyage with my characters and my scenarios. I don’t want to leave a scene before I’m done with it. I like to pretend I’m a mini-Flaubert, but without the living in his mother’s house or the constant crippling anxiety.
I found quite an encouraging post by another Nanowrimo veteran that argues for the importance of taking time to think. I’ve talked about the same idea with research students. If you are engaging with complex ideas then you need to spend the time walking in the park, or staring in to space, or watching crappy movies, because if you write without the necessary thought you rarely end up with something worth reading.
That being said, I’m not sure this always carries over to fiction. Maybe some people think faster than me. Maybe I needed to get as much of my thinking out of the way as possible before I started, although that seems to me to be at odds with the ways in which characters can present you with new problems as you get to know them through writing. But it’s clearly the case that there are people writing wonderful work much faster than I write, well, whatever I write.
So for all that I like taking my time to think about things, I can’t escape another important fact. Worrying about not hitting the word target slowed me down. The days when I would solve a real satisfying problem, or write a piece of dialogue that pleased me, were somehow diminished if it meant I was falling further behind the curve. And that made getting the words out, or even more often getting started getting the words out, a little bit harder.
So was my Nanowrimo experience a failure? Am I a Nanowrimo washout – simply ill-suited to writing fast? The day after participants received an email from Grant Faulkner, the executive director of Nanowrimo. I don’t know what the email to the winners looked like. But the email for the rest of us reminded us of the value of having engaged in any sort of creative endeavour; that managing to get any amount of words on the page is a victory; and that the most important thing was to keep on writing.
That sort of positive attitude is an exemplar of what is so good about Nanowrimo. Writing is what makes you a writer, and most anything that gets you writing is a good thing. I learned a lot about how I write by participating in Nanowrimo, and I got to meet some interesting people who showed me that the way people think about and produce their writing is as individual as the people themselves. I have a very good idea of how long it takes me to produce 1000 words, which is useful from a project management perspective. I also got 30,000 words written, which is nothing to sniff at, and, when you think about it, could easily mean two to three books a year.
The proof of the pudding is that I intend to sign up for the next camp in July. The only difference this time is that I shall be substantially less worried about hitting my word target because in the end, when I look at the progress I made with the work, it just doesn’t feel like the most important part. I know how many hours I need to do 50,000 words – I’ll set aside the time and see what happens. I suspect that as my confidence grows so will my word rate. But I finally realised that you don’t need 50,000 words to be a Nanowrimo winner.
You can choose people to be with you in the cabin, so if anybody fancies joining in with me in July pop a comment below or send me an email and I’ll see you there.