Back in the Saddle


I started a writing program in November. I got the inspiration for it from seeing all of the annual commotion about NaNoWriMo, an event that I know better than to participate in. Since that plays into how I came up with my own plan for writing, I’ll explain why I feel the contest isn’t for me.

Setting aside my issues with competitive writing, the real issue is that I simply can’t write 50,000 words in a single month. That would require 1,667 words written per day (for a 30-day month like November), which doesn’t sound like much but is 1,667 more than I’d been used to writing. Additionally, there are other demands on my time: a full-time job, roughly 10 hours of driving, regularly scheduled socializing, and the occasional bouts of depression.

Now, I know myself tolerably well, and if I tried to go from 0 to 50,000 words in a single month I would fail. Having failed, I would then have a hard time convincing myself to write any number of words again for a very long time. The whole thing is a perfect scenario to set me up for a fail spiral.

I sure don’t need that!

So this year, after reflecting sourly over NaNoWriMo for a few days, I decided to do something other than mope. After coming home from work one night I had dinner and watched our nightly Netflix episode, then I started work on an idea I had for a fantasy novel. After a few hours I’d only written 300 words. A quick calculation proved my initial doubts. At that rate I’d only have 9,000 at the end of the month, assuming I wrote every day and made up for the two days I’d missed.

However, I would have 54,000 words at the end of six months. If, again, I wrote every day. Which I knew I wouldn’t. So what if I only wrote 80% of the time? That’s 7,200 words per 30-day month, and only 7 of those to break 50,000. Just one additional month for 20% less pressure. That’s a good bargain! Instead of certain failure in a frenzied writing binge, I had good odds of actually making the goal at a comfortable pace that would instill the practice of setting aside time for writing. I had to try it out.

For the rest of November I worked on my 300 word per day goal. Some days I didn’t make it, but I didn’t beat myself up. After all it was an experiment, and I’d already allowed for some slippage. Other days I made the goal easily and tried to make up for lost days. Out of this I discovered that it was best for me to keep working in roughly 300 word sessions. That is to say that if I made my daily goal and thought I had another 300 in me, that was a good time to press forward. If I finished but it had been a struggle, pushing myself brought only frustration. November’s a busy month, as it turns out (there aren’t many months that are a worse time to challenge yourself, and we’re in the big one right now), especially when it’s a November with a disastrous presidential election. I came out of it with ~6,900 words, which I counted as a small victory.

Then I had to deal with the results. I’d proven that the schedule I’d laid out was challenging but not impossible. However I’d grown dissatisfied with the direction of the fantasy novel. There wasn’t one. I had no feel for the world or its characters, and what plot I had in mind didn’t make much sense. For a week I tried to think of how to salvage it, but ultimately I realized that it hadn’t germinated in the back of my mind for long enough. I hadn’t fallen asleep dreaming about the what the characters would do next (since childhood I’ve told myself stories as I drifted off). It had only been an exercise, a proof of concept for a workable approach to writing.

Luckily, I had another idea. Much earlier in the year I’d been struck with an idea for a science-fiction horror novel, set in the world of 1950s B-movie science. This is an era of filmmaking that’s dear to my heart, and I was already used to tapping into its themes for my semi-regular Dr. Oort advice columns in collections of The Mad Scientist Journal. I’d already created the main characters and setting as well as a number of ancillary details. Yet after a few thousand words I’d stopped writing. Why? No reason. I just hadn’t been in the habit of writing.

Having the means to build the habit and an abandoned story that could be readily picked up, in mid-December I started in on writing again. So far it’s going well. I’m not having nearly the struggle to meet quota as I did last month, and when I realize I’ve gone wrong somewhere I’ve been inserting notes in the text with ideas about how to fix it. I just need to stick with it, and we’ll see in June whether I’m really on to something. Maybe I’ll even be able to up my daily goal to 450!

Dream big, right?

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