Thoughts on a Month of Writing

As many of you know, November was National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), the time when people all over the world attempt to make a 50,000 word novel in only a month’s time. We join the NaNoWriMo web site, make and join Facebook groups, and Tweet extensively about our “progress.” For many, it is an exciting and affirming time, but for most it’s a month of irritations, stress, and disinterest marked by blocking the #amwriting.

It had been three years since I’d last participated, and I hadn’t intended on doing so. As you may have noticed, lately my focus has shifted to non-fiction, blogging, and vaguely journalistic work. I find it enjoyable and, even better, fairly easy to do. Yes, I might struggle with a piece for several hours, and, yes, sometimes I will research for a few days at a time, but the work still flows. I rarely suffer from self-consciousness or writer’s block.

For years now, I’ve struggled to write fiction. Sometimes, the problem seems to be that I have no ideas. There are no plots, no characters, no conflicts. Other times, it seems that my ideas are either utterly banal or overdone. I lose confidence before I’ve even really started. And then, worst of all, there are the times when I do have ideas, when I do have something passably unique, but I just can’t get it to come out. I struggle to pin down an actual plot line or character trait, or I’m simply afraid that I won’t do the story justice. So I will struggle – sometimes for years – before eventually just giving up. Well, more or less.

This year was different. This year I had an idea, a burning one, and it came to me only a couple days before November. I wanted to write a fanfiction based on Rainbow Rowell’s Carry On. The ending of the book is good and appropriate, but it left me wanting. I felt compelled to fill in the silence left behind and to try to craft a happy ending for the characters.

It helps that this year I have friends interested in reading the finished project – eagerly so. I’ve always had people who have admired my work, but seldom have I had a whole group of people actually clamoring for the piece. I now have a reason to put the whole story down instead of just letting it languish in my head.

I also felt significantly less pressure to put something outstanding together because it’s “just” a fanfiction. Yes, people will read it (and hopefully pass it on), but I can’t really capitalize on it. I can’t sell it. I can’t make money off of it. It won’t go on my resume. It won’t be in libraries. I probably won’t get many reviews. It will be a piece entirely for pleasure, catering to a small group of people. If it’s awkward or silly or embarrassing, that’s no big deal – there’re tons of bad fanfiction out there. All I have to do is post it.

That’s not to say the process was entirely smooth. While I never struggled to find something to say, sometimes I struggled to go in the direction I wanted. Originally, my characters were to open a bakery together and settle down in a life of fluff and happiness and smooching. It was not to be a very intelligent or complex piece. And yet, as I went on, I found that I couldn’t help injecting angst, anxiety, and relationship problems. The characters as they had been given to me were deeply flawed and struggling. I could ignore their problems if I wanted, but I felt that that wouldn’t do them justice. Smoothing out their issues would be an easier read, but it wouldn’t be them. I owed it to the characters to face them head on.

Consequently, I had to abandon much of my original idea. It was sad, and in the editing process, I’m appalled at the lack of fluff, but the story itself is quite good. There’s mystery, romance, character development, and closure of plot holes. As I wrote, I felt less like I was making a fanfiction and more like I was writing the sequel. This, I believed, is what would have happened next. This is how the author would have continued their story. This is a happily ever after – not perfect but hopeful.

Even better, I actually liked the process. I am not always enthusiastic to edit, but I’m doing it, and I’m finding that I like it more and more. I like the idea of piecing together all the scenes, filling in the blanks, stabilizing the speech patterns, and crafting what will actually be a book length piece (64,000 words and counting). I’m really looking forward to sharing the piece with my friends, and I’m already looking for fan sites I can share it with. I think it will be a fine piece.

I’ve also learned something about my ideal fiction-writing process. In the past, I would try to work sequentially or wait to write a scene until it came up, I had the right research, etc., but I lost momentum. I would forget about the excitement that had created that scene in the first place, or I would cringe at my utter ignorance about the topic I was writing about before abandoning it. I would force myself to write scenes that I thought were necessary but boring, and I would exhaust myself trying to make a good first draft.

This time, I wrote whatever I wanted. I wrote at least one scene three times from different angles because I kept forgetting I’d written it. I wrote fluff scenes with no plot points in them because I really fucking wanted my characters to snuggle, okay? I skipped right over the research to get to the reveal. I wrote out of order. The result is a complete mess that most people will struggle to understand but which paints a very clear picture to me of where I need to go and what I need to do. It’s also maintained its energy with the second read-through reading just as engaging as the first.

I want to replicate this process. This is a huge admission so I’ll repeat myself: I want to replicate this process. I actually want to try writing another fiction piece, which is something I haven’t done in years. I even want to pick up the stories I had to abandon. I want to see if I can finish them. I want to see if others will like them. I want to give them a home.

So I am very happy that I decided to participate in NaNoWriMo this year. I’m happy that I gave myself permission to have fun and just get the story down. I’m happy with my story, and I’m excited to share it with others. I hope that it will make them happy too. And, if you can’t publish a piece, that’s honestly the best you can hope for as a writer.

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