I hear a lot of excuses for not participating in National Novel Writing Month, more commonly known as NaNoWriMo. That sounds like something a tired novelist says at the end of a month-long, novel-writing marathon: “Naaah, no wri’ mo’…” just before conking out over the keyboard.
The only valid excuses, really, are “I have no desire to write a novel right now,” and being quadriplegic. With today’s assistive technologies, even the latter is questionable in its validity, provided you really want to write a novel.
In fact, this year marks my tenth NaNoWriMo. I’ve only “won” once, and that’s fine by me. I had something to prove – to myself. Until then, the longest story I’d ever written fell just short of 6000 words. I was still making excuses – “I’m busy” being one of the big ones. It was true, too. I had a full-time job, and the company I work for had just gone through a major merger. My kids were thirteen and five, and though loathe to admit in public, needed me. My mom was critically ill, in the hospital, a thousand miles from her home or mine. I traveled a lot that year. And then, there was September. 9/11. Need I say more?
They tell us, “Write what you know.” And we have to live, to experience, to get out into the world to have things to write about. But sometimes, it all seems too too real and somehow taboo to write about our own experiences or to say out loud the things we know.
I’d suggest that you edit “Write what you know” to “Write from what you know” – draw from the well of reality to craft fiction. You don’t have to know and certainly don’t have to understand everything. Sometimes, by writing from what you know, a new sort of clarity begins to emerge and it starts to make more sense to you and, if you’re lucky, to your readers. It’s all grist for the mill; the trick to writing entertaining fiction, I think, lies in the ability to lie like a rug and be scrupulously honest, all at the same time.
I’m the first to debunk the notion that artists’ and writers’ creativity demands the infertile soil of hardship and deprivation to thrive. I don’t write well at all when I’m worried about things like paying the bills or feeding my kids. But the truth is, we writers do seem to have two gears: procrastination mode and deadline mode. And at no time is the old adage “If you want something done quickly, ask a busy person to do it” truer than during November and NaNoWriMo.
Besides the artificial deadline pressure, there was another factor driving me: A desperate need to escape reality. Most people would read a book, watch a movie, or veg out in front of the TV. But all of those activities were too passive to still the small, panicked voices in my head. We writers have learned to sublimate our craziness and call those clamoring cranial voices “characters.” It’s both frightening and exhilarating to realize, when you’re really in the writing groove, that you have given up trying to control those characters and have begun to simply take dictation as they tell you their stories.
There are other characters who must be silenced. I’m not talking about the victims in our murder mysteries – I’m talking about our inner critics.
Those insidious demons left over from our insecure, prepubescent years when we began to realize writing was work that involved skills we didn’t yet possess and somehow got the notion that our fantasies weren’t good enough to pass literary muster. The whole premise behind NaNoWriMo is to write so fast those characters can’t get a word in edgewise. But what if they do? What if, somehow, they manage to harangue us into believing their petty-minded nonsense? What else – we torment them on the page for fun and profit. One year, my half-finished NaNoNovel, Eradicating Edna, featured the inner critic as a character. Try it, if you feel your well of inspiration’s all tapped out. It’s wicked fun – and it might just serve as free therapy.
Eradicating Edna (Prologue)
“What was I thinking, to put such expectations on myself at a time like this, when all the world’s gone mad around me?” I cried, throwing a forearm dramatically over my forehead and letting out a piteous wail. “I’ll do it!” I sprang to my feet, energized. It took less than a NaNoSecond forreality to sink in. “But I’m so far behind. All I have so far is three death scenes and an aborted suicide.”
You can imagine the withering look my Muse gave me. “That’s the spirit.”
My Inner Editor foamed at the mouth. Only, the foam came out her nose, since my Muse had had the foresight to bind up her mouth with duct tape.
“Look, you’re an overachiever, but you’re a burnt-out overachiever seriously in danger of looking like she’s got a bug up her butt. So write this one just for fun. And if you must compete, consider it your entry into the Bulwer-Lytton fiction contest next year.” The Muse shrugged.
“That’s just supposed to be one sentence,” I said. I was pouting. I had my heart set on writing great lit-rah-chure.
“So write a novel that gives you nothing but hard choices as to which sentence you should enter.”
“There are multiple categories,” I said, warming to the idea. “I could have ‘em all covered, by the time I’m done.”
“There you go. Enter in every category. Just be sure to win a ‘Dishonorable Mention’ for me.”
“I know that, Dear. It’s pretty pathetic, if you ask me.” She picked up my daughter’s TI-83 calculator and pushed some buttons at random. “Don’t think of it as ‘behind.’ Think of it as an adjustment, from 1667 words a day to 2800 words a day. You can do that, can’t you? I mean…if you’re enjoying yourself.”
“Can I use this conversation?” I asked. I was reluctant to admit it; it seemed so…puerile. But I was beginning to enjoy myself. Guilty pleasures are always the best kind.
“Will you take that thing away?” I asked, pointing at the Inner Editor. The IE growled and struggled against the ropes that bound her to her ergonomically-correct office chair. Gleefully, I smacked her over the head with an ergonomic keyboard, breaking the device in two. I dumped it into her lap.
“Absolutely.” My Muse poured two glasses of cheap cream sherry and we raised them in a toast. “To fingering Bulwer-Lytton’s proboscis in April!”
“Isn’t that ‘hear, hear’?” squeaked the Inner Editor, who had managed to bite through the duct tape with her jagged fangs.
“Good lord. Does ‘anal-retentive’ have a hyphen?” sneered my Muse. Grabbing She-Who-Inspires-Writers-to-Write-Heinous-Scenes-of-Gruesome-Torture by the neck, my Muse saluted me and disappeared. The Evil One vanished, too, and I could breathe again.
Holly Jahangiri is a technical communicator, social media analyticator, children’s book author, blogger, happy wife and mom living in Houston, Texas. She would really appreciate it if you would read her post, Good Goals Gone Bad, on TheNextGoal.com.