Geetanjali Mukherjee

Friday, November 15, 2013

My First NanoWrimo: Lessons From the First Two Weeks

This month I finally decided to make use of my dormant Nano registration. For those of you who haven’t come across this annual craziness, NanoWrimo is an event where every November hordes of would-be writers from all corners of the world attempt to write a 50,000 word minimum novel from the 1st to 30th of November.

Every year since 2007, I have wanted to participate in Nano but two things held me back: November was always the month with exams and papers due, and more importantly, I never had any story ideas. Which is code for: I didn’t think I had the stamina to write 50,000 words of fiction.
This year something changed, not sure what. Perhaps the fact that I have been keeping track of how many words I have written since the beginning of the year (excluding emails), and its almost reached 350,000, which is a personal best I'm sure. At least I know I can type a lot of words, but none of it was fiction. Most of it was for a non-fiction book that I’ve completed the first draft of, and set aside till I am done with Nano. Perhaps it was also because this year, for the first time ever, I have had numerous ideas for novels over the years, and have actually managed to write them down somewhere I can retrieve them, instead of jotting them on the nearest napkin, and chucking into a cardboard box, which has been my system for keeping track of writing ideas in the past.
Thus I decided, with a lot of enthusiasm, that I would undertake Nano this year, and win. And then a short vacation was planned during the first week of Nano, which meant I started a week late. Bummer. And I couldn’t decide between my various story ideas which would be the one I could stretch for 50,000 words without a lot of research. All of this took away precious writing time, and I toyed with the idea of doing what I do every year, gearing up to write, and never actually writing even the first word.
Miraculously, I managed to start typing, and the after the first two or three pages, it got easier. I am at 7,000 plus words, which means I'm hopelessly behind. However, this is the most fiction I have ever written, and I am proud of that fact. Even though most of it is drivel. Despite that fact, I have learnt more about novel writing in the past week or so than from all the books I’ve read over the years.

I have learnt more about novel writing in the past week or so than from all the books I’ve read over the years.
And that’s my first lesson. That sometimes, even when a project we want to undertake seems daunting and impossible, and we are tempted to first research the hell out of it so we are prepared for what’s coming, don’t. As useful as research can be, and who doesn’t love a long session on Google, jumping from one interesting fact to another, it’s easy to not only get side-tracked into spending a lot of time researching, sometimes it can be a detractor. You may feel so overwhelmed by all the things you feel you need to know before you start, that you may postpone starting indefinitely. I know without the big Nano clock ticking away, I wouldn’t have written even one out of the 7,087 words that I have written so far.
Simply diving in and writing, I have learnt a lot about what I don’t know, and what I need to learn before I revise my current draft; it turns out I could get by on the first draft without knowing any of that. Sure at times I have wanted to tear my hair out, but it’s the only real way to grow as a writer. By just writing. By trying to reach for a goal that is just out of my reach. Apparently that is the way to improve at any skill – the way our brains learn is by creating something called myelin, which only happens when we are constantly uncomfortable, constantly trying to do something that we aren’t good enough to do, yet. [This is actually fascinating stuff, how our brains help up form new skills. If you want to know more, read Daniel Coyle’s excellent book, The Talent Code.]
The other lesson I learnt during this period, is that while taking breaks to get up and stretch are required, I don’t really need another cup of tea, or to watch another episode of ­---. Even if my eyes are shutting on their own accord, I can still write another few hundred words, and they aren’t too different in quality from the words I wrote whilst wide awake. In fact, I have found that being half-asleep improves my writing.
Now it is completely possible that I am in fact a terrible writer, so that awake or asleep I write badly. But I actually think there is another explanation for this. Tom Bird’s book, The Call of the Writer, actually advises writing just after waking up, when our conscious mind hasn’t quite kicked in, and the inner editor isn’t fighting us on every word. I have actually discovered this to be quite true. And this is a revelation to me, as previously I have always wasted valuable writing time, by thinking that since I was tired, I couldn’t write, and would have to resume the next day when I was less tired. But inevitably life and real work get in the way, and often the only time available for writing is the half-hour before going to bed. I have realized over the past week or so, that simply by writing every day, even for short bursts, the word count can pile up.
So I suggest to all creatives reading this, what project have you set aside to return to when you have more time? Maybe you have a half-hour today, even just before bed, which you can use. Check this space for an update on whether or not I complete my 50,000 words. Fingers crossed…

Update: I did not complete 50,000 words in 2013, but in 2015 Nano I did. 
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