NaNoWriMo 2015: the end is the beginning

NaNo-2015-Winner-Badge-Large-SquareWell, I have crossed the finish line and then some. As of today, my word count stands a little more than 57,500. Of course, as I said in my previous NaNoWriMo post, a lot of those words I’ll wind up throwing out, and I also know a lot of those words might stay but become drastically different words. There’s a lot of work left to do on this book. But something interesting has happened with this one: I’m looking forward to that work.

When I finished Hagridden, I was aware of the work still to come but was so elated to have finished the draft (and also so eager to head off for vacation) that it was pretty easy to set the book aside for a few months. But with this new book, I don’t want to set the work aside. I’m still fired up about this story — the characters, the structure, the arc the story takes. I still see clearly the work I have left to do, and I’m eager to keep doing it. Fortunately, I only have a couple of weeks left of school and then I’m on winter break, which I very much intend to use writing and rewriting this novel.

I’m also learning a lot from this book. I’m fond of the adage that with each new story, a writer has to learn all over again how to write. That can feel daunting sometimes, because it’s so much easier to go into a familiar routine, to think we have it all figured out; it’s comforting to think that writing is a skill that you can practice and perfect. But outside a handful of strictly formulaic genres, writing rarely works that way. Each story, each book, is its own entity with its own process, and each time you sit down to write something, you learn something from that act.

One interesting thing I have discovered in the writing of this book is the permission to change my writing style. The prose on this book is a bit sparer, the sentences a bit shorter, than I usually like to write. I had thought this was simply a product of rushing through a draft, but the more I think about it, the more I realize it’s a stylistically appropriate move. With Hagridden, the landscape was so lush and sometimes impenetrable that a florid, dense language, focused on landscape, felt appropriate. And in my previous in-progress book, the language had been tied to the dense woods and marshy bottomlands of Northeast Texas, and I was riding on the coattails of Hagridden, so the style felt not only right but also familiar.

But this book is set in flat, dry Oklahoma in the spare years leading up to the Depression and the Dust Bowl. So — I realized recently — of course the language would settle down, of course the sentences would flatten out. That realization is one of the things that keeps me coming back to the page even after NaNoWriMo is finished.

Another discovery is the emotional heart of this story. The book I set aside so I could draft this one was much more action-driven, much more concerned with plot and structure. There’s a strong sense of structure in this Oklahoma novel, too, but this story is driven by emotion rather than action, which makes it a pleasure to sit with and ruminate on instead of worrying over every turn in the story or every plot point on a graph.

That’s something else I have learned writing this book: I spend too much time obsessing over the details of plot and structure. Yes, I do need those things, and knowing them up front can help me organize such a lengthy, complex project as a novel. But one thing this year’s NaNoWriMo experience has reminded me of is the importance of getting out of my head and just putting words on the page.

One problem I’d been having with my previous novel is that I gave myself permission to slow down and think my way through that story, and all that extra time allowed me to second-guess every turn, every motivation, every outcome. I not only talked myself out of whole chapters, I even threw out the entire first draft.

On my current novel, because I haven’t given myself time to second-guess the direction of things or the ending I have in mind, I’ve been much more successful at plowing ahead with the book.  But because I had at least an organizing principle to guide the story if I ever got lost, I was able to keep writing no matter how many side paths I took in my meandering, fast-paced drafting.

Maybe it won’t always work this way for me. But I’m seeing now how necessary this particular process, this balance or plan and structure with heart and organicism, has been for my writing. When people claim that you can’t teach creative writing, I think this is what they mean: not that you can’t teach skill sets, or that you can’t share experiences, because you can and I do. It’s why I teach the classes I do, and it’s why I’m writing this now, to share. But I think there are certainly some lessons about one’s own writing and one’s own process that one can only learn through the practice of it. If even then.

And this is the main thing I’ve learned in these past thirty days: that for a first draft to work, I somehow have to know where I’m going and then no worry about how I get there; that I have to keep a momentum going so I stay out of my head and stay inside the story; and that, most importantly, sometimes the stories just come to you. I’ve forced my way through six NaNoWriMos now; only one other year has been as successful as this one. I couldn’t have predicted that. It just happened. But if I hadn’t continued showing up — if I hadn’t pounded out tens of thousands of words, if I hadn’t failed or nearly failed at four other books — maybe I wouldn’t have found this one. So I keep coming back to the page, week after week, year after year, and once in a while, something amazing happens.

How fun that, twice now, it’s happened in a November. And now the real work begins.

Happy revising, y’all!

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