"Write Dammit!" or How NaNoWriMo Got My Ass Writing Again

nanowrimo winner

I used to love writing.

Scratch that- I still love writing. I had just forgotten how much. From the time I was a kid, I wanted to tell stories; I was doodling comics and making up adventure stories from the earliest years of elementary school. The first “real” story I ever wrote was “Godzilla vs. America,” a fanfic so trippy that only a third-grader could have written it, ending with the Big G using wrestling moves on invading kaiju menace King Ghidorah in the heart of New York City, because of course it had to happen in New York. It was written on wide-rule notebook paper torn from one of my school notebooks and stapled together, with a cover hand-drawn by yours truly. It may not have been pretty, but it was an early indicator that I was getting serious about my dream of one day becoming a novelist.

Life steamrolls you sometimes, squishes you flat beneath the weight of work, travel, social needs, and entertainment- and if we’re not careful, our dreams can get crushed along with us. Over the last decade I’ve played at catching up with the wayward dream that scampered away from me when the burdens of adult life stole my attentions away. I wrote a few short stories, and a few dozen first chapters or first halves of first drafts, but so little of any real note ever materialized that eventually I lost faith in myself and my ability to fulfill that dream. So many nights spent with my fingers hovering over the keys, eyes locked onto a Word document with nothing more than a working title and a “by Budd R. Williams” without ever really getting anywhere might have had something to do with that.

Work and my poor time management, partnered with formidable distractions such as socializing, video games, and Netflix (not to mention more than one bout with depression) whittled away at my drive. Before long, months would pass without a single word written. The stories were there in my head, characters forming, entire scenes and dialogues playing out vividly in my mind, but when it came to actually committing these things to the page, I failed again and again. There were times when I thought that I had missed my shot, let too many years slip by without practicing my would-be trade, that the storytelling abilities I had once taken so much pride in had rusted before they ever saw any sufficient use.

This year- last month, actually- that changed, and I couldn’t be happier with myself.

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) has been around for ages now, and while I’ve been aware of it for a few years, I had never actually thought about trying it. The gist of NaNoWriMo is to try to complete a 50,000-word-long novel- just rough, first draft stuff- over the course of the month of November. It averages out to about 1,600+ words per night, every night, for one month- doable in theory, but that plan tends to fall apart quickly in most cases. Every year, thousands of people participate, but only a handful actually complete the challenge.

I’m not normally one for taking part in these kinds of things, particularly monthly ones (I’ve never quite made it through No-Shave November successfully). Why trying it never occurred to me in the past, I’ll never know for sure, but I’m sure it had something to do with my ever-growing self-doubt and my generally crappy track record when it comes to keeping a schedule.

But, as they say, things change- and sometimes life provides you the kick in the ass you need to get your stuff together and start creating.

Celeste has always been incredibly encouraging and supportive of my writing, and knowing that I needed something drastic to get me back on track, suggested that I give NaNoWriMo a shot, and promised to keep me motivated throughout. I had gone so long without achieving anything meaningful with my writing that, for me, this had become a put-up-or-shut-up situation. I had something to prove, to myself more than anyone else. Challenge accepted.

My game plan went as follows: for the last few days of October, put together my concept and crank out a skeletal outline. During November, try to write at least a little every night after or before work, but don’t panic if I have to miss a night. Instead, on my off days, try to crank out as much as possible to make up for lost time and/or get ahead a bit. Keep the writing simply, don’t self-edit, keep in mind that it’s only a first draft, focus on telling the story and creating a strong, likable cast. To my surprise, I kept to that plan, dammit!

The first struggle I faced was settling on a premise. I had three big ideas going into that last week in October, all in the fantasy genre somehow or another. In the end, the opportunity to step back into the dreamy, wuxia-fantasy world of Xianjing, a setting I’ve been building for more than a decade, proved too tempting to pass up. The project, tentatively titled Thousand Scrolls, started coming together quickly, especially since the world building was already done, but there were a lot of small details that took a while to iron out. I wanted Scrolls to feel kind of like a wuxia Harry Potter with a supernatural horror element, but figuring out exactly how the academic setting would work, and finding the right compromise between the school setting and the martial arts clan intrigue element from wuxia took some work. Hell, I even had a rough time figuring out the class schedule the characters would be following!

Nonetheless, I stuffed my fears and got to writing. For the first few days, I worried whether what I was writing actually had any potential, if I had chosen the wrong story, and if I really had what it took to hit that 50,000 word goal in just thirty days… but I hung in there. On my first off day of the month, I knocked out close to 8,000 words, carving a huge chunk out of the timeline and giving myself a ton of wiggle room. That was about six hours’ worth of writing, sitting at the table with either music playing or a TV show going for background noise. Clearly, with a few more days like that, 50,000 words was not nearly the ferocious opponent it had appeared to be.

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As I pushed forward, the story finally hit that point where I finally “fell in love” with the story. Allowing it to develop organically and treating the outline as more of a loose guide than anything strict helped a great deal in that, and I only gained speed as the month drew on. About 2 in the morning, on November 30th, I hit 50,450 words, updated my progress on the NaNoWriMo website, and validated the word count. I won NaNoWriMo. True, the story was only about halfway finished and in desperate need of trimming down (I had a little too much fun with some of the dialogue sequences), but dammit, I hit 50k in the time allotted, and according to official records, my goal had been achieved! There really are no words for the sense of elation I felt; I could still write. Heck, some of what I had cranked out on that hard-pressed schedule I was actually pretty proud of, and with a few revised drafts, this thing could really go somewhere! All in all, a pretty resounding success that restored my faith in myself.

But was it just a flash in the pan? With November behind me and that hard deadline no more, would I still be able to write? A few days ago, I sat down with my laptop to find out. At the end of the day, after about six hours (not all in a row), I had cranked out another 10,000 words and passed the halfway mark of the story. It’s still early, but so far… it’s still in me. That fire NaNoWriMo relit is still burning.

The most important thing that I got out of the month of November was that I’ve learned- well and truly learned- that I still want to tell stories, and that if I put my mind to it, I can tell them. Maybe I can even tell them well. Life kicked me around and made me doubt myself, but this experience proved to me that I can still pick myself up, dust off, and sit back down at the keyboard for another go as long as I have a little faith in myself and a little emotional support, and that’s worth more to me than anything.

Suffice it to say, I’ll be doing NaNoWriMo again next year.