Thursday, November 1, 2007

Work in Progress: NaNoWriMo

Today is the first day of NaNoWriMo—how many words have you written? For those unfamiliar with National Novel Writing Month, the DCist provides a nice background article along with some motivating tips from area writers. Basically, the idea is to write the first draft of a novel (or 50,000 words) during the month of November (guess Thanksgiving’s not at your house when you sign on for this!). To be official, you register at the NaNoWriMo web site—which offers two important factors I feel are necessary to many writing and artistic undertakings, guilt and pressure. Now everyone knows you’ve committed to completing that draft…but on the plus side, now you have a community of support that can help you reach your goal. You get support, motivating tips, a chance to meet others who are suffering the same wicked writing pace you are. (FYI—50,00 words = 1,667 words per day if you write every single day of November, or about 5-6 pages depending on your font.)

I’ve never participated in NaNoWriMo myself, but I like the underlying principle, which is simply to KEEP WRITING. Under this plan, there is no time to revise, no time to worry that your sentences aren’t perfect (they aren’t; they never are and never will be). The goal is to produce the draft—and then, once you know your story, that’s when you get to go back and revise. To me, that’s the most fun part of the writing process: shaping the story, getting it, well, not perfect, but as perfect as you can.

I’m always advocating to students that they write forward in their novels. After a workshop critiques a chapter, yes, it’s tempting to go home and fix everything and incorporate the new ideas you have. But I really wish these students wouldn’t do that…. First of all, you don’t know what your story is—how do you know that somewhere down the line you might turn Ann into Andy and change that scene you’ve so beautifully crafted from an airport to the bar? Or, maybe you’ll cut that chapter altogether? It doesn’t make sense to work and work and work on one chapter when you have a story of 20 chapters ahead of you. Get it all out on paper and then go back and worry about that first chapter. You’ll have a much clearer idea of how to fix it then.

It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen to those critiques. My writing group has been reading my novel-in-progress, and as we go along, I reflect on their comments and make adjustments as I write forward. It can be a bit confusing—“Remember how the mother was an alcoholic in Chapter 2? Now she isn’t.”—but it’s the best way for me to get my book out. By the end of the book, I’ll know for sure that she isn’t alcoholic—and I’ll also know a thousand more things about her that I didn’t know in Chapter 2, that I can now return to and revise, letting my new knowledge inform and shape the work.

The first draft is the “let it loose” stage—and you have to accept that you, the writer, don’t even know what “it” is or will be. But you will by the end, whether your last day of writing is November 30, or however long it takes. Write forward—trust that your pages will accumulate into your story. Once the story’s there, you can revise and shape and, okay, make it perfect!

(Hey—if anyone is participating in NaNoWriMo, let me know. I’d love to hear a dispatch from someone down in the trenches…you know, in your spare writing time, after you’ve put in your 1667 words!)


DC-area author Leslie Pietrzyk explores the creative process and all things literary.