National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, is about to draw to a close. But this particular November, after a fractious and often devastating campaign season concluded, many folks had a difficult time writing anything at all. The stress, the sadness, the fear for the rights of many Americans in marginalized or oppressed groups to openly express themselves without being harassed and abused—these are very real concerns that have gotten in the way for many talented writers.
I’ve come to offer some good news. The truth is, no one really writes a great book during NaNoWriMo anyway. Don’t feel bad if you didn’t hit [arbitrary word count] in November 2016. A month spent processing real feelings and living a real life is far more valuable than churning out words just for the sake of doing it.
If you start to get down on yourself for not writing enough in November, remember that NaNoWriMo is meant to encourage you to begin a novel. If you wrote 59,000 sh*tty words and 1,000 good ones, you’re ahead of the game and you’ve won! You’ve still not got an entire great novel, but it’s a fine start. If you wrote zero sh*tty words and ten good ones, congratzel tov! If you wrote no words at all, that’s fine too! Please don’t treat yourself poorly because you committed the crime of being human and having a life.
I already said that no one writes a great novel in a month. Well, guess who writes a good novel in a month? No one. And guess who writes a terrible novel in a month? The answer is “quite a lot of people who then ship these piles of pages off to cringing agents and terrified publishers in December.” Pity their assistants, the hardworking folks who have to wade through piles of words by authors too egotistical to realize that revision is the most important part of the writing process. This isn’t supposed to take a month. This isn’t supposed to be easy. If you wanted easy, you should’ve stuck to messing around with your friend’s refrigerator magnet poetry. That’s easy. (And very fun, incidentally.)
My advice is to take what you wrote during NaNoWriMo—if indeed you wrote anything at all—and put it away for a month. Really. Put it aside completely. Ignore it. Do December things. Build a snowman. Talk to your family, whether you take that to mean your family of origin or your family of choice. Or avoid them all entirely, if that’s healthier for you! Take a walk. Take six walks. You probably spent too much time in December at your desk, and we don’t want you to expire early of heart failure. I wrote five books in five years and my doctor has politely informed me that we’re going to take real action to deal with the effects on my heart, immune system, brain, overall mood, flexibility, and wrists (oh, my hard-typin’ wrists). Go visit your doctor and then, with that medical professional’s permission, start a gentle little exercise routine. If a walk isn’t possible, take a swim! Do very tiny calisthenics. Do something physical within the appropriate boundaries of your abilities, desires, and social and emotional boundaries. Get out of your mind a bit where possible. And take out the garbage that’s likely been piling up while you’ve been so focused on rampant unchecked wordsmithery.
Then in January, look back at what you wrote in November. I’d recommend scrapping most of it and focusing on the beautiful jewels embedded therein, but it’s possible you are one of the rare few who took only one month to write something lengthy that’s actually in pretty decent shape, all told. In that case, congratulations! It still needs to go through at least five drafts before the publisher ships it off to the printer.
Have you heard the phrase “kill your darlings?” It’s not literal. Leave your family, lovers, pets and friends alone! But get rid of every single sentence that isn’t necessary to the beautiful story you have inside you. If you’ve written a kickass paragraph that you really love but that you know in your heart doesn’t make sense in your story, put it in a separate draft entitled “The Darlings I Did Not Want To Kill Forever Because They Deserve To Live Eventually, Probably.” Or, you know, be more succinct than that.
Ask a trusted friend with good taste (aka your taste) to have a look at a chapter you like. Maybe it’s your first chapter. If this kind friend agrees, ask that friend to give you notes, thoughts or edits but be very specific. If you want incredibly harsh and nasty criticism because that satisfies some need you have based in childhood or if you just like the sound of yelling, ask for that. Otherwise, simply say, “Thanks so much for agreeing to read this, Thomas. If you could hand it back to me by the Tuesday after next, I’d be delighted. Please tell me the parts you really like and one part that needs work. I’m not very good with harsh criticism but if you could be honest and kind, I’d appreciate it so much and I’ll definitely buy you rice pudding.” (This is only a good idea if Thomas likes rice pudding. If Thomas hates rice pudding, you really oughtn’t offer Thomas any rice pudding.)
While Thomas has a look at your words, think of one more person you trust and who has fun opinions. Ask that person to do the same as Thomas. Then after two weeks, you’ll see what Thomas has to say and what this other person has to say. Thank them and provide pudding, cake, a kind assessment of their latest whittling project, or whatever you’ve promised them. Then read what they have to say, and see what sticks with you and what doesn’t. Remember, the novel you eventually submit to an agent or publisher will be entirely of your own invention and is entirely under your control.
If Thomas and this other pal are willing to look at another chapter, cool. If they are willing to read the whole damn thing when you’re finished, that’s good too. If you need to start a writers group and read each other’s work, great! You can do that in person or online. Most of your work as a writer will be done in solitude. It can be enormously helpful to have the social stimulation of engagement with other writers on a regular basis. Take everyone’s opinion—yes, even that of wonderful Thomas—with a grain of salt. In the end, the only opinion that truly matters here is your own.
No one can tell you when your novel is truly done, it indeed any work of art is in fact ever done. I can say, as I recently wrote in a letter to a worried writer, “It never ends, the process of getting better… But eventually, you’ve got to abandon one child to the wilderness, hoping he’s well-enough prepared for it, and then go off and make a new baby.” But if your words are good—and I believe that they are—you’ll care for them enough to present them in the best possible manner at the best possible moment.
So keep going, a little at a time or a lot at a time, and remember that this is a marathon, not a sprint. If you love writing, you’re in this for the long haul. November 2016 is just one month in a life of months. Keep writing. Keep doing. Rest where necessary, and then get back to work. And please be gentle with your lovely heart along the way.
Did you partake in NaNoWriMo? Are you slogging away on a writing project?