What Nanowrimo Taught Me

What Nanowrimo Taught Me

posted in: Essays | 14

Recently, I considered buying Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project.

Amazon’s “most helpful” critical review of the book stated, “For me, I’ve read it all before— maybe I already did my own project and didn’t realize it.”

Dear most helpful critic: If you’d actually done it, you’d know it.

I thought I’d learned all about writing from my shelf full of writing books, my UCLA Extension instructors, and the numerous online gurus who generously share their knowledge.

But I’d never really, truly done the thing until Nanowrimo.

My earth-shattering insights (let the eye rolling commence!) include:

1. Soak up basic story structure. Even if you love writing by the seat of your pants, milestones will keep you from getting blocked and keep your inner critic at bay (more on that below).

In preparing for Nano, I focused on the teachings of Larry Brooks and Alexandra Sokoloff. I can’t recommend them enough.

2. Vomit onto the page. A successful screenwriter friend once told me: “You’ve got to vomit onto the page. It’s not pretty, but it’s cathartic and you can clean it up later.” In other words, write your first draft without censorship. In order to do this, you’ve got to…

3. Distract that troll.  Devise ruthless tactics to contain your inner critic. In fact, give it a name. (I got this from Fi Bowman.) My inner critic is Citirc (pronounced Sit-Irk) the Troll. Not very original, but it sums him up and sounds vaguely Anglo-Saxon.

To keep Citirc quiet during Nano, I left an asterisk where an idea needed research or a hash mark where the plot needed work. Then I vaulted over that area and kept writing, promising I’d come back later.

In short, Nanowrimo taught me how to write—not edit, not rewrite, not research.

Before Nano, I’d tried to do all those things while creating a first draft. That’s like hanging a gorgeous pair of silk curtains before you’ve installed window frames. It can be done, but what’s the point?

Back to The Happiness ProjectI’m glad I ignored that review and read the book. Gretchen’s whole point is to take her experiences as a starting point and devise your own Happiness Project. A living, breathing project that’s yours and yours alone.

And, bless her nerdy scholar’s heart, she lists her sources, just in caseunlike the Amazon’s helpful criticyou haven’t read them all. But she does that at the end, so you don’t get bogged down in research while creating.

Gretchen also suggests writing “personal commandments.” Nano has inspired me to create this one: “Morning starts with tea and 250 words.”

I tumble out of bed, brew a pot of tea, and while drinking it, pound out 250 words (about one double-spaced page) on my novel, instead of using that time for email and Twitter. As we’ve read a thousand times, one page per day equals a book in a year.

So why are we afraid of actually doing the thing? Is there something you’ve finally done after analyzing it to death? What made you finally get off your duff? I’d especially love to hear from late bloomers who’ve tackled this problem.

By the way, I didn’t “win” NanowrimoI only made it to 35,000 words. But now I’ve got Citirc so well trained, he barely grunted.

14 Responses

  1. Bob F.
    | Reply

    Good for you! Look forward to reading the finished project!

    As for me, another trick I use is to never stop when I’m stuck. Power through the problem, and then stop once I know where I’m going. When I’ve done my self-imposed quota for the day I usually stop mid-sentence, clearly knowing what the end of the sentence will be and the next one beyond. Then when I sit down again the next day, I have a “running start” that makes it much easier to get into the groove.

    • Debra Eve

      Thanks, Bob! Great idea about mid-sentence. Boy, does having a word count quota help. For Nanowrimo, it was 1666 a day, which is beyond me with the office job, etc. But I’m finding 250-750 very doable. What are you working on these days?

    • Bob F.

      Mostly spec screenplays, though I just finished an edit/collaboration on my sister’s novel in the hopes it would get me back into the novel-writing game. It’s gone back to her for finalization. We’re considering putting it up as an online serial.

    • Debra Eve

      Cool! I’m completely fascinated by this idea of online serials. I’m no Luddite, but I think it’s fantastic that stories are going the way of Dickens again, being released a chapter at a time. Seriously, contact me if you need WordPress setup help with that. I can also refer you to a few designers I’ve met through the blogging community (Lisa Firke at http://www.hitthosekeys.com is especially good).

  2. Julie Jordan Scott
    | Reply

    A-ha! I see the Viking connection now! The Bakersfield Viking Chorus had our debut performance last Friday night. We are hoping to have a long, abundant, harmonious creative journey together.

    Our “Formative Artist” is Cameron Brian, who is a dear friend of mine who is very intrigued by Vikings. He feels it is even funnier because there is nothing even related to Viking about Bakersfield. We are inland, about 100 miles from the coast and even our river runs dry most of the time.

    We are actually singing choral music right now, primarily, stunning our first audience with a goofy rendering of “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” followed with a madrigal (in Italian) “Madonna Mia Fa”and then the always popular “Carol of the Bells”. We have another performance on Saturday and are learning some more songs this week.

    The singers are PASSIONATE… only 7 of us so far and we sound so good together we don’t feel the need to expand, yet. Cameron has spent a lot of time on our very authentic helmets and garb, so growth will be slow and perhaps steady.


    So there, you have it!

    Glad to know of this synchronicity.

    • Debra Eve

      I’m just tickled by the whole thing, Julie. You folks really know how to have fun in Bakersfield!

  3. Joanna Paterson
    | Reply

    Thanks for sharing your experience… vomit bits and all 😉

    I think that’s one of the reasons Nanowrimo is so popular and works for so many people – as a way to blast through those barriers and get doing it

    • Debra Eve

      Yeah, it took me a long time to get over my ewww! reaction to that comment and realize it was one of the greatest bits of advice I’ve ever received!

  4. Tessa Zeng
    | Reply

    That morning commandment sounds AWESOME. Wow. Inspiring.

    What I’m finally doing: Leaving a college program that doesn’t serve my needs anymore, to become a digital entrepreneur & pursue my own vision. I might not be a “late bloomer” when it comes to work (maybe the opposite? it has its own issues) but it’s taken a ridiculous amount of analyzing to get to this point!

    In the end, I stumbled into the truth of what I knew all along: What exactly do I want, and what is it going to take to make that happen right now? Opening my mouth to answer was the hardest part – it was all liberating from there 🙂

  5. Debra Eve
    | Reply

    Good for you, Tessa! Leaving college is hard, but so many people major in subjects that don’t match their vision, because they don’t take the time to discover what that vision is (can’t tell you how many late bloomers started out as attorneys and hated law school!)

    You’ve got a gorgeous site, and I find your mission to meld style, writing and activism original and inspiring!

  6. Clar Bowman-Jahn
    | Reply

    Thank you for this post. I came on it via the Alist Blogging Club and am glad I did.l am definitely a late bloomer and starting my writing career late. My best time is early morning, also. I usually write while still under the covers and rewrite later. I missed Nanowrimo this year but am waiting for it next year.

    • Debra Eve

      Hey Clar, thanks for stopping by! So many authors are late bloomers, we’re right on schedule. P.S. I put one of your son’s quotes in the “Wit and Wisdom” section on the sidebar…

  7. Bev
    | Reply

    Great advice!

Leave a Reply