Okay, so a “postmortem” should really only be casually mourning all the characters I killed off in this year’s novel, but sue me—it’s catchy.
This year’s NaNoWriMo came at a rough time for me. I was a month into a job that was literally making me sick and wouldn’t give me an end date despite me resigning literally three days after I started (and crisis social work isn’t the kind of work you can ethically just drop—well, maybe you can, but I couldn’t), working ten or eleven hour days and barely having the mental energy to talk to my husband once I got home for the day, let alone write a novel. I’d done absolutely no planning beyond a vague concept (“hey, what if Cinderella was a lot queerer?”) and the idea of adding multiple hours of writing to each day felt hugely daunting. Still, I’d been doing—and winning—NaNoWriMo since high school, and as my hero Hawkeye says, you’re guaranteed to miss every shot you don’t take. So I was hardly going to give up before I started.
So, to recap: no outlining, no planning, no world-building, no schedule. How’d it turn out?
Yeah, that’s a win, eight days early. Wahey.
I’ll be honest. November was a fucking exhausting month. Just looking at my journal from that month makes me tired, and that’s literally just looking at the pages—not even reading. Just looking. My handwriting was tired. That’s just sad. In all honesty, I’m actually kind of surprised that I even had the energy to journal most nights, and I think that if I had tried to start a journal in November I wouldn’t have written at all. Fortunately I started that habit back in July, so I had time to cement it into my nightly routine. There were a lot of nights where I only wrote a few sentences of my novel (one memorable night I literally only wrote one word. I think it was a name. Awful.) but I think there were only one or two nights that I didn’t write anything at all, and I’m more than a little proud of that.
A few years ago, I started writing down the things that got me through the month—what helped, what I learned, what absolutely didn’t help, etc—to try and review in years to come. Unfortunately, my circumstances have been so hugely different year to year, from my environment to my relationship status to my academic enrollment to the state on my driver’s license that the same tips rarely apply. That said, I think that this year, I may have finally figured out a list that might really be able to translate from year to year.
[Except the coffee. Coffee always translates.]
Write Something—Anything—Every Day
To be fair, I didn’t actually keep to this one this year. But I was pretty close. In previous years, I put way too much weight on hitting that 1667 daily word goal that the NaNoWriMo website suggests to take the “slow and steady” approach to winning. This year, I eased away from this and just tried to write something every day—a paragraph, a sentence, even a word.
[Behold, the graph of progress.]
See all those places where it looks like the graph didn’t move at all? Most of those are nights of writing under 500 words or less. The movement was barely there on the graph, but I still got to see the tracker on my Scrivener document scoot a little closer to 50,000 words. But more than that, I got to have a moment of accomplishment to know that I did something, even something tiny, to get myself closer to my goal.
On a lot of nights, just writing that first word or sentence or paragraph pushed me to write a little more, sometimes even getting to the word goal of the night (or even passing it). I often found myself pushing myself a little further: “Okay, we got to 100 words? Let’s try 200. We got to 200? Let’s try 500…” and so on. Sometimes it was about getting to the end of a scene or a line of dialogue I’d had floating around in my head all day that kept me going, other times it was just about putting something down on paper (document?) just so I could say that I did it. A lot of the time, it was just to have something to put in the “update word count” box on the website so that I could get the little “updated word count every day” badge (spoilers: I didn’t get it).
[This haunts me.]
But there was more to it than that, too.
In a month like this past November, that tiny baby steps approach was something I needed. I was feeling so exhausted and hopeless and disempowered at work that to have something at home that could make me feel like I accomplished something was hugely important. Even a sentence was something that I could look at and say, “Yes, okay, something got done today.” I couldn’t fix a kid’s horrible family situation or yell at a DCF worker who was screwing over an already screwed-over kid, but I could write a few sentences in a document after a long day.
And sometimes, that’s enough.
Build a Community
This is one that’s stuck around for a few years, probably because it’s one of the most important. Writing is one of those things that’s simultaneously a solitary pursuit and a team effort. Nothing worthwhile has ever been written in a vacuum; every good story has a team behind it in one way or another. Even Thoreau had his mom doing his laundry for him while he wrote Walden.
My writing community has certainly evolved over the years that I’ve been doing NaNoWriMo. In college I went to regional write-ins and actually had an entire room full of people working on NaNoWriMo with me; in grad school it was a friend or two and sometimes virtual communities and chat rooms. My usage of the NaNoWriMo forums has gone up and down throughout the years, mostly because there are such a huge number of users that I find it hard to use them as a source of community, but I definitely get some commiseration browsing some of the boards, and they’re always good for information and ideas.
[When you’re my writing buddy, you get a lot of pictures like this.]
Community means different things to different writers, and I won’t pretend that my way is the best by any stretch of the word. For me, though, it’s about having someone (or several someones) to talk to who can understand the writing process—building worlds, building characters, cultivating relationships between people in your head, bashing your head against a wall when those characters suddenly don’t want to be in those relationships but rather some other relationships that weren’t even supposed to exist, etc. During a project like NaNoWriMo it’s always good to have people who are willing to commiserate about the process of attempting to squeeze the sort of project that can take years into the space of thirty days, and who can be available at ridiculous hours to do word wars, read a scene to let you know if it looks as weird to them as it looked to you when you wrote it, etc. This particular year, there’s no way I would have gotten through November without Andi, who read every awkward scene, heard every work-and-novel related meltdown, and shipped my characters just as much as I did.
[I repaid her in pictures of my dog.]
Beyond having a community of writers, though, I’ve found that it’s hugely important to have a community of non-writers to keep you remembering that there’s more life outside NaNoWriMo, too. I’m not talking about the people who shoot you down when you try to tell them about your novel, or the ones who try to distract you or make fun of you or make you feel bad about your project. I mean the people who remind you to eat and take breaks, to consume more than just coffee and whiskey (thanks, husband!), to spend some time with your pets and your family and basically anyone other than your computer or pen.
Which leads me to my last—and maybe most important—lesson of the year.
Family and Friends Trump Noveling—Every Time
I won’t lie—there have been years where I’ve wanted to shut myself away to avoid all distractions from my friends and family, and there’s never been a year that I haven’t taken my writing supplies and made a run for the a favorite coffee shop to spend an entire day away from as many people as I can avoid (perfect strangers chatting in Starbucks? No problem. My spouse? No thank you). In all honesty, I get far more done in a café than I could ever hope to at home—my average on coffee shop days this November was about 8,000 words, compared to an average of 2,000 or so on home days. Big difference.
But as nice as the isolation or anonymity of a coffee shop can be, my strongest memories of this November—and every other November I’ve spent noveling—aren’t of days spent in Starbucks or nights at my desk, but the times I’ve spent with family and friends. The most memorable moment of the month wasn’t hitting 50,000 words. It as driving loops around the sketchy parts of Binghamton, New York with my dog trying to find the dog park when my sister got called into work on the day I came to visit her. It was watching my husband complete a Spartan Race at Fenway Park and then scarfing down pizza with our friends in Boston. It was celebrating my sixth anniversary with my amazing husband, who continues to put up with his wife ditching him for a month every year to write a novel. It was spending Thanksgiving with my family, sitting on the floor and watching my husband play guitar for my sweet little cousins, and then driving out to New York for a beautiful Shabbat with my in-laws.
[Seriously. How cute is this?]
At the end of the day, writing a novel in a month doesn’t mean anything without having people to share that accomplishment with you. It doesn’t matter if the people you share the experience with are physically with you or across the internet, whether it’s your spouse or your friend or someone you met at a write-in or on social media. What matters is that someone is there to share your joys and your frustrations, to help you step away from your document when it’s causing you more stress than fun, to celebrate with you at the end of the month whether you’ve won or lost.
Because after all, when it’s all said and done: what good is having written a novel if no one is there to share it with you?
[What really matters.]
How did NaNoWriMo go for you this year? What lessons did you take away? Did I miss anything major that you think I should add to the tip list for next year? Share in the comments, or shoot me a message!