What I Learned from Not Finishing on Time

Last Wednesday, December 4 — well, actually, 1:20 am Thursday the 5th — I finished my NaNoWriMo novel. You know, the one that was supposed to be done on November 30th. I have always scoffed in a superior way (the only way to scoff, when you think about it) at those people who blithely say “I didn’t finish on the 30th. But that’s okay, I’m giving myself until the 15th to finish.” You’ll never be done, I think towards these procrastinators as I smile sweetly and nod, that’s just one more excuse to not write. And yet, there I was, on November 29th, already saying those words.

When I tell people I am doing NaNoWriMo they ask me why. Why go through all that? Why not just write a little every day? Why work so hard and tie yourself up in so many knots for a novel you don’t plan on getting published?

My answer, at least to myself, is I do it for what I learn about my own creative process and how I work when it’s just me and the ideas (or lack thereof) in my head. Each time I do NaNoWriMo, I relearn vital things. And each year I learn something new. The main lesson of NaNoWriMo is some variation on “I CAN WRITE A @%&# NOVEL!!” That is a great lesson. We all need to learn and relearn at a visceral level what we are capable of doing. Too often we fall into a rut and think all we can ever do is get up, get coffee, sit at work, drive home, watch TV, go to bed. NaNoWriMo teaches us we can do more.

But this year, the year I finished, but not on time, I learned a few new things and relearned some others:

Deadlines exist for a reason. Those last four days — the ones that came after the purely arbitrary deadline — were the hardest. It was just me and my willpower alone in the race. If I hadn’t finished on that dark early morning, I probably never would have. There was no deadline to meet anymore.

For nearly 20 years I have worked jobs that involved setting deadlines and helping writers manage them.  Early on, I realized that while deadlines may make my job easier and certainly help us get a publication out to readers on time, that’s nothing compared to what they do for writers. Deadlines are vital for writers. If a writer doesn’t have a deadline, she is too tempted to write only when she “feels like it.” Very little ever gets done on the I Feel Like It schedule.

It feels really good to be done. Oh Lord, did it feel good to be done. So good, I didn’t even feel like celebrating. I didn’t pump my fist or congratulate myself. The only reason I texted the news to my loved ones is because I had promised them some sort of proof I was done. Maybe it would be more accurate to say it felt good to stop. Because that’s what it felt like. Just stopping; not finishing. I was mentally exhausted from the final push and it was just good to stop pushing.

That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a good thing to do and it doesn’t mean the story isn’t worth a revisit. I means I was done. Spent. Time to stop and rest and regroup. Stopping something doesn’t mean it was wrong to do it in the first place. It just means I am tired of doing it for now.

Mature and reasonable is not always the way to go. This is the fifth or so NaNoWriMo I have finished. The first few years I set out a long, wordy funny email to friends and family explaining what I was doing (again) and promising updates and a copy of the finished but still raw novel if they would answer my calls for support, encouragement and emotional drill sargentry when I needed it. The power of encouragement, smack talk, public shaming and random coffee shop gift cards is amazing. I would even email (or later post a Facebook status) calling for word prompts or character names.

This year, I calmly decided to not do all that. I am a grown up, after all. I have done this before and can do it again. I have this. Stand down, friends and family. I’ll let you know when it’s all done. Big mistake. As I look at the spreadsheet of my daily writing totals, I can point the the nights when it was too cold or too dark or too whatever and the days when the lure of the internet and housecleaning and heavens only know what else was too strong. I needed my support team.

More importantly, the whole process wasn’t has fun as past years when it included not just me and my keyboard and my nearest and dearest but coworkers, former coworkers, old friends, Facebook friends, relatives who barely know what this is all about and friends of all those people. Writing is lonely work, as nearly everyone who writes about writing will tell you. We need to grab our people where we can.

The beginning was easier than the end. Long before my energy started to lag, I could feel myself bogging down. NaNoWriMo has made me comfortable with just going — when I don’t know where I am going. I started with no plot, no setting, nothing. The last day of October I decided on a main character. That was it. I did  that on purpose and it was fun to see how a story began to form. Now this character! Let’s make this happen now. But about half way through the second week, I began to know what the ultimate story was. And over-arching plan began to form from this randomness. Which was really cool.

What wasn’t so cool, is how it slowed me down. But if that is going to happen later, what needs to happen now? And what am I going to do with that guy I left back there? There was too much planning and second guessing and — worse of all! — going back to redo. That all slowed me down but even worse, made me doubt what I was writing here and now.

I think I found my growth area for next year.

I am no longer being paid by the word. In the middle of November, I meet with a coworker to help him trim down and tighten his language. He talked about loving words and writing or reading a long wordy passage was like sinking back into a bath of warm water. I am the same way. But what feels like a warm relaxing bath to me can look like a someone hogging the bathroom and all the hot water to a reader. Especially now, when I am doing so much writing and editing for social media, I need to start breaking the wordy habit again.

So, lessons learned and novel written. Words are coming easier than they did a month and a half ago. The blank screen is a little less terrible. It was a good month, but I am glad it’s over.

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