I cut my novel-writing teeth on NaNoWriMo, as I’m sure a lot of us have. Before that, I’d written short stories and poems galore, but had never actually attempted to finish a whole novel. (Starts, though … starts I had down pat. I’d started plenty of novels.)
NaNo taught me how to write 50,000 words in 30 days. It taught me that no matter how busy the day got, I’d better put my butt in that chair and crank out some words — any words — or I could kiss my 50k goal goodbye. It taught me various and creative ways to triumph over my supernaturally strong Internal Editor and just get words on paper. I failed a lot. I won a few years, and those were some kick-ass moments, I tell ya, when you see the winner’s bar light up on your profile.
But the one lesson NaNo didn’t teach me was how to write to “The End”. That’s not NaNo’s fault, of course. That’s my fault.
You see, 50k words is only halfway to a sellable novel. And after 30 days of wrestling with my internal editor, on Dec. 1 of every year, I would just give up the fight. I was so damn tired from fighting to get words out every day that I welcomed the break. Cherished it, even. But one day would roll into two, into three weeks, and inevitably, I’d fallen out of the writing habit again and would have to start all over the next November … with a brand, spankin’ new project, of course. It’s NaNo, after all. You’re supposed to start with a fresh project.
After 15+ years of doing NaNo, I really only had 1 “finished” novel (in the sense that it had a beginning, middle, and end) that’d been restarted/rewritten a half-dozen times, and a handful of other novels who’d undergone the same restart/revise treatment. None had been subjected to editing, much less rigorous revision. One had been beta-read, and the comment from the reviewer that is still emblazoned in my memory today is, “This feels like a NaNoWriMo novel.”
Last week, I finished a writing a novel that I’d been working on for over a year. Like before, I’d revised the beginning over and over again, and kept getting to a point in the story where I hated it and rebooted the whole damn project. I probably have about 10 trashed scenes for this novel that were all, at various points, supposed to be the first chapter.
By the time fall rolled around again (with NaNoWriMo looming on the horizon), I looked at my progress and thought, I will never publish anything if I don’t finish something. And I vowed to write this story through to the end, no matter what. No more massive revisions. No more trashing everything and starting over with a blank page. I put my butt in that chair and I kept cranking out scene after scene, according to the story outline I’d completed earlier in the summer (a HUGE accomplishment for this hardcore discovery writer, let me tell ya). Inevitably, I’d deviate from the outline, but instead of trying to revise the outline, I nudged the characters back onto their planned story arc.
I went to a writing workshop with 81k written, and got feedback on my pitch that made me think about how much they wanted me to revise the story. (Answer: Significantly.) I almost hit the “reboot” button then, but … I didn’t. I spent Thanksgiving with my in-laws, then fell sick with the Worst Flu of All Time that’s going around this season. I hosted my brother for an early Christmas visit.
Finally, one day, I booted up my Scrivener and printed out my 81k to get back into the flow of the story, refamiliarized myself with the outline … and wrote the last 20k of the novel.
Reader, I followed the damn plan and wrote the damn novel to “the end.”
I can’t tell you how amazing it felt to be able to finally review all 100,000+ words of the novel and see, finally, all of the pieces on the page. Sure, the story had been in my head for over a year, but it looked and felt different finally reading it as a cohesive story. For one thing, it wasn’t — cohesive, that is. There were plot holes galore. So I went back in and fixed them. But the feeling of fixing a hole that’s actually there instead of a hole that could be there if I kept writing down the path I was going was MUCH, much different. It felt almost tangibly real. And once I was done fixing the hole, the overall story was better. There’s no improving a story that’s only in your head — there’s nothing to improve until it’s written.
Now that it’s done, I’m lining up beta readers and editors, and there’s a whole newfound, real sense of purpose behind it all. Before, I’d gone through the motions with the vague idea of “well, it’s done in my head, I just need to get it written”, and always with the panicked thought of “please don’t anyone ask me when it’s going to be done”. Because I had no idea. Because I hadn’t committed myself to writing it all the way through yet. Because it had to be perfect from the beginning, which meant the beginning had to be revised and revised and revised before I could keep going. Then I’d get stuck in this vicious loop of revision/rewriting without … well, an end.
This is how you wind up spending a year+ writing one. damn. novel.
I look back with the reluctant acceptance of someone who had to do it all the hard way before agreeing with hordes of other successful writers who came before her:
- nothing will ever be perfect written the first time;
- you won’t know where to start the story until you’ve ended it;
- “the end” is only the beginning of the next stage of revisions/editing;
- … but at least it’s a damn good start.
Don’t be me, grasshopper. Don’t go chasing the butterfly dream of getting off to the perfect start and spilling your story beautifully on the page the first time, every time. It won’t get you anywhere fast.