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NaNoWriMo, right-sized.

Sara Lingafelter
Sara Lingafelter
9 min read
NaNoWriMo, right-sized.
Snipped from a magazine the last time I worked on a vision board project. It’s been held to our refrigerator by a ladybug magnet ever since.

I arbitrarily decided a couple of months ago to do NaNoWriMo this year.  NaNoWriMo, for those of you lucky enough to be readers, not writers, is a month of “literary abandon…” where the goal is to write a 50,000 word novel in a month.  Last year, I was one of the 256,618 participants who started the month, but not one of the 36,843 who finished.

Last year I wrote 2,542 words between day 3 and day 4 and then stopped writing.  I’ve never — to my knowledge — written fiction, and that minor fact got the best of me last year.  I mean — I’m sure when I was a kid I made up stories, but ever since declaring my major in English with an emphasis in Creative Non-Fiction, I’ve been a memoir and biographer, a reporter, a blogger.  I write the truth, or my version of it.  So, last year, after two days of effort, the idea of writing fiction was just too much for me.

This year I vowed would be different.  I had a (sorta lame) idea for a storyline, and I knew that making stuff up is not my strong suit, so I did actually spend a few hours before the clock struck “start” on November 1 writing out some preparatory materials. I wrote a three act overview, to spell out my story’s arc.  I planned for about thirty chapters, so I wrote out the numbers one through thirty on a sheet of notebook paper, filling in what I thought would happen in a chunk of chapters at the beginning, middle and end.  And then, on November 1, I sat down and started typing.  That first day, I wrote about 2,000 words — slightly over the day’s par of 1,666, and then the next day I did the same thing, and the next and the next until Day 7, when I was so distracted waiting for election returns on Washington’s Marriage Equality referendum that I couldn’t even see straight for a few days.  I didn’t start writing again until Day 10, when I totally binged, and wrote 5,783 words in a single day to reach par.

And since then, I’ve written every day but one, and now I’m well above par — I have just over 11,000 words left to write to reach the NaNoWriMo goal, and I expect I’ll actually finish at somewhere above 50k for the month, if I’m actually going to draw this mess to a conclusion.

There have been times when writer’s block has hit, and I’ve pulled out that now-totally-outdated chapter outline, and referred to it, and randomly picked a chapter to write.  Or, I’ve written a ridiculous flashback that won’t survive the first revision and I know it.  Or I’ve read my protagonist’s horoscope, or a chapter of Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird, and then sat down to type something.

There’s a whole big chunk in the middle that I got frustrated with, where it all felt forced, and rather than not write, I took the advice of my sage writer friends (and non-writer friends, for that matter) and skipped that part.  My protagonist woke up with a horrible hangover the next day, and I tried having her best friend tell her what happened.  That didn’t work either — it still totally sucked, and shifting the storytelling from the protagonist to her best friend didn’t change the fact that am actually writing this story, and have to figure out my own plot gaps — the characters won’t do it for me (sometimes — sometimes, they’ve been ever so kind as to do just that).

It was so horrible I didn’t know how I’d ever get past that section, so I just decided where I wanted to get to next, wrote a horrible transition, and then got to a happier place.  It was kind of like climbing through the crux on a rock climb and reaching a “Thank God” hold where I could hang out all day and shake out and rest and recover.

And I knew, when I did it, that one of two things will happen.  Either I’ll finish NaNoWriMo, and no longer be able to say, “Oh, I could never do that,” when someone tells me I should write a book.  Or, I’ll finish NaNoWriMo, and put the draft aside for a week or a month, and then pull it back out and fix it.  Go back and rewrite the parts that I didn’t know the characters well enough to write the first time.  Go back and actually add some of the things that I was — for some reason — afraid to try to write, the first time around.

There are people I’ll get to edit out completely — that’s great, I didn’t like them anyway.  And there are consistency issues to address — my protagonist’s dog started out male, and ended up female, and I’m not sure how or why that happened, but I really am pretty sure now that she’s female, so I’ll have to fix that.  I changed my protagonist’s first name on a whim one day because I kept typing the new name by mistake, and did a Find and Replace to achieve it, and now half the time I accidentally type the old name, so I’m not totally sure what her name is, yet.  I do know that she’s a Fire Dragon in the Chinese horoscope, like me.  And some of the details in the story are inspired by true events, but others I’ve started to write, and then stopped, because I’d rather write those some other time as real, live, non-fiction — sometime, when I get back to telling true stories, again.

It’s been a nice time to try something entirely new.  Writing is my oldest companion — I’ve done it, pretty much, my whole life.  When my work doesn’t revolve around writing, I find ways to do it in my free time.  When my work does revolve around writing, I just do more of it.  And while I’d never given a thought to writing fiction before this little experiment — and intentionally chose this experiment because I knew if I tried to write a non-fiction book-length piece my inner critic would be far too strong — it’s turned out to be a lot of fun.  Making stuff up is fun.  Imagining a setting, or a circumstance, whether inspired by true or made wholly on a blank, fresh canvas, is fun.  

Telling my inner critic, “thank you for your thoughts, I don’t need them right now – I’m playing,” and having her retreat to the other room and actually leave me alone with my creativity and my keyboard and words spilling onto the screen in front of me is fun.

And also fun, is having people in my life cheer me on.  People in my life could be telling me that I’m wasting my time; that I have so much going on right now that I should be devoting my energy to; that the odds that I’m ever going to actually write something that anyone would want to read are astronomical to one.

But that’s not what they’re saying.  My boyfriend asks me, supportively, every day what my word count is, even when the dishes are piled up in the sink and the laundry’s not folded and I haven’t changed clothes in a few days.  My best friend (who’s also writing) put up with me visiting her in Boise for days that we could have been playing outside and instead were sitting across tables from each other typing away.  One friend walked up to me at a party and hugged me and told me that me doing this is inspiring him.  He’s not sure yet what it’s inspiring him to do, but I’ll settle for the fact that he’s inspired.  And my brilliant and talented and funny friend Geraldine who is one of my writing heroes wrote this to me by email yesterday:

Let’s be fair:  crappy novels that are actually written trump brilliant novels that never move beyond the idea stage.  Congratulations!

And then she said some nice things, about how she bets (or knows) that it’s better than I think it is, and for what I’m going to say next I’m going to have to pluck the inner critic out of my brain, and place her out in the garden shed, which happens to be soundproof.  I’m going to close the shed’s door, thanking her for her service, and letting her know that I’ll be back for her soon — but right now, I don’t need her at all.  And then, I’m going to walk back to my writing desk, and stand at this keyboard, and type:

And, I think Geraldine is right.  I think this pile of words that I’ve been slaving over for the last month is better than I think it is.  There are sentences and paragraphs here and there that I think someone might actually like to read someday, after a rewrite and a lot of editing.  It’s quirky, for chick-lit, and it may not be your average beach read, but I think I’d like to read it someday, even if I have to restrain my inner critic in the garden shed for a few days to do so.

It’s felt really good to write every day (with a few exceptions).  So when NaNoWriMo is over, and I take a break from this novel to let it sit before I start revising, I’m going to keep writing.  Maybe not 2,000 words a day — but something more than I have been, the last few months and years of intermittent blog posts and regular journal entries.

I met my friend Lara, who I hadn’t seen for somewhere around fifteen years, for a cup of cocoa earlier this week.  For as long as I can remember, Lara and I have had reading and writing in common, and we reconnected earlier this month as NaNoWriMo buddies, to help cheer each other on.  We caught up on some of the details of the last fifteen years — children born and raised into little human beings; husbands come and gone (and stayed, for Lara); the paths that the work parts of our lives have taken.  After a long catch up, the conversation turned in more detail to writing.

“Writing is the one thing that comes naturally to me — but I’m just so afraid to actually do it,” I said.

Lara cocked her head, patted my hand, and looked me squarely in the eyes.

“You’ve got to stop that, dear.”

And she’s right.  What do I lose by taking two hours out of most of my days to sit down and work on a novel nobody may ever read, or to write down a story from my life that I’d never be willing to share with anyone, or to hammer out a blog post about my favorite new climbing shoes or my excitement over finding a delicious gluten free flatbread?


And what I gain, whether anyone else reads the words or not, is a deeper listening to the little voice inside me who speaks up for what I want and need.  And maybe, if I listen to her, instead of repeatedly shoving her aside because of the “I can’ts” and “I’m not good enoughs” from my inner critic, just because they’re louder, then maybe she’ll get louder and more confident, too.  She’s done that before — she’s been the loudest voice in me, at certain times of my life — and perhaps now’s a good time to hand her a bullhorn again.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a chapter to write.  Jess (or maybe Emily, we’ll see) is about to go on her first official date with the man of her dreams.  I can’t wait to see what happens.

What has your inner critic kept you from trying?  Share your thoughts in the comments, and thank you for reading.

Sara Lingafelter

Sara (Grace) Lingafelter takes steps forward and backward toward a right-sized life on a daily basis.