Geetanjali Mukherjee

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Lessons Learnt Writing A Novel in November For Nanowrimo


I won Nanowrimo for the first time this year, even though I have been a member for the past 9 years. Most years I just watched from the sidelines, too afraid to even dip my toe in. I have wanted to be a writer most of my life, and although usually that means writing fiction, with the exception of school writing assignments, and a play that I co-wrote which wasn’t entirely fictional, I never managed to complete a single piece of fiction writing, not even a short story. I started many things, but gave up after a few pages.

Even though I signed up for Nanowrimo several times, by the time the first of November rolled around, I had given myself enough viable excuses and chickened out. My story wasn’t complex enough. It was too complex. I had t do a ton of research first. One year I started, wrote around 8,000 words, and then went home for the festival season and basically gave up because I got behind on my word count.

This year, I decided, would be different. I chose a story that I had already roughed out. I gave notice to friends and family and made a strong internal commitment. I carved out extra time, and reduced some of the other things on my plate. I was going to do this, I was excited about my book and the characters, and I couldn’t wait to spend a month going on an adventure with them. When November 1st arrived, I started off with enthusiasm, and started hitting near my word count targets the first few days. But then I started to hit snags, was having trouble with the story, and also decided at the last minute to travel home to New Delhi for Diwali. Uh oh, trouble for the book right? Given what happened the last time Diwali and Nanowrimo collided, and Diwali won, I was apprehensive. But then I convinced myself that I could keep going – even if I fell behind, as long as I wrote around 500 words a day, I could catch up eventually. Except when I was home, I had less free time than I thought, and what little time I had I couldn’t motivate myself to spend that writing about characters who were boring me. I hated them and I hated the book. But I couldn’t exactly give up, I had proudly told many people I was participating in Nano this year, and had even mentioned it on an interview I gave about my published books.

I got back to Singapore, and I had barely written around 6,000 words and I had about 11 days in which to get to 50,000 words. Not to mention I hated my book, the characters were flat, and I was considering starting over with a new project. Seeing the reality of how much I already had to write, and given the lack of any other ideas that I could take to novel length, I decided to stick to my story, and stick it out somehow. I wrote in coffee shops, restaurants, even on the bus. I became crabby, and abruptly ended conversations. I was barely present in conversations, and almost everything else took a backseat. But my word count slowly edged up. I got to 10,000 words, then 15,000 and then 20K. As I inched closer to my target, my writing seemed to improve. Most days however, all I could see were the glaring flaws in my manuscript. At least once a day I wanted to quit, and several times a day I said out loud, "I hate this book!" But I kept going, sheer stubbornness fueling me at this point.

Yesterday, with a few hours to go, I finally crossed the finish line, with 50,500 words. This was despite the fact that I battled fever for the last few days, and this morning I felt so ill, I contemplated cancelling everything and just crawling back into bed. By early evening I still had almost 6,000 words to go, and no idea what to even write for the final scenes (I am a pantser, not a plotter). And yet, somehow, the ideas were flowing, and my characters were finally saying and doing interesting things and before I knew it, I had done it.

Before the euphoria of this moment wears off, I want to capture the lessons that I learned through this process:

1. Be grateful for every bit of support you get from the people in your life. I was very grumpy and generally unpleasant to be around some days, especially when the writing was going slower than I had hoped. My family put up with that version of me, knowing it wasn’t personal, it was just the stress of not writing enough. Plus, I got meals made and dishes washed, which helped, not only physically, but psychologically.

2. Doing one tough thing is like doing other tough things. It occurred to me at least once every day, that there were some people who found it relatively easy to sit down and get their word quota in every day, probably those same people who passed by cookies and doughnuts and didn’t give in. Or those that went for a run even when it was raining or too hot or there was a Harry Potter marathon on TV. I wasn’t one of those people, and this exercise taught me that I would like to change that fact. I am hoping that winning in Nano means that I will finally win the war against cookies. Here's hoping!

3. Work stretches to fill the time you give it. Most days at the coffee shop I hit a wall after a certain number of words. I couldn’t stare at the screen anymore, my mind was beginning to shut down, and I just figured I could make up the difference at home after dinner. And sometimes I did, by staying late. I always managed to just be shy of my target though, whether it was word count or time. I always took the entire time allotted. Today I didn’t have that luxury, I had a lot more words to complete than on other days, and I wanted to do it early enough to validate before the crush of last-minute validaters slowed down the servers. I wrote the remainder of my word count, just under 6,000 words, in 4 hours, including breaks to make tea and eat snacks. This past week on many occasions I spent that amount of time in a coffee-shop writing, and still only managed 1,800 to 2,000 words. Each individual writes at a different pace, but my point is that when I gave myself more time, I used every minute. On those days when I was pressed for time, my fingers miraculously speeded up and I got my quota done in time.

4. Doing something seemingly crazy actually makes you feel more sane. Although in the online world it sometimes feels like everyone is a writer, and everyone is doing Nano, in the real world I don’t know a single person who is doing this. Which makes me feel slightly crazy when I try to explain my endeavor to friends and family who look at me like I am slightly nuts, but in a good way. Taking the time to do this thing, which meant a lot to me, has paradoxically helped me to become a far more 'normal' and nice person to be around. Sure while I was racing headlong towards my deadline I was like a bear with a sore head, but now that that part is over, I suddenly find myself inclined to be far more patient, more caring of others' feelings, and just feel generally more empathetic.

5. You can achieve a lot, given a deadline and support. The main reason that Nano works so well is that you have a tight deadline and a clear goal, and a supportive community. In my case though, I was too shy to take advantage of the built-in support, to reach out to others in the forums or to attend any local write-ins. I substituted that for the anonymous support of coffee shops and libraries, and typed furiously whilst others did homework on tables near me. I am hoping now to apply this same formula to other goals that I have previously thought were too hairy and audacious to attempt.

Whether you participated in Nanowrimo (and therefore know the unique and crazy nature of this challenge) or not, I hope you get to experience the adrenaline-fueled adventure of setting a huge goal (whatever seems appropriate to you) and going all out towards it. Whether you ultimately "win" your goal or not, just the attempt is sure to teach you many lessons.

Please share your stories in the comments – have you ever set a crazy impossible goal, and how did you go for it?
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