Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Novel writing and dream crushing

I just received an update email from NaNoWriMo - National Novel Writing Month.


You may have possibly noticed, or at least guessed, that I enjoy writing. I think you sort of have to enjoy writing to have a blog, unless it's entirely made up of videos or photos of lolcats. I don't claim that my blog posts are novel quality or anything - to be perfectly honest, I only give them a cursory proofreading before posting, which is why you see the occasional typo or nonsensical statement (heaven forbid). Here I write very stream of conscious-like, more like how I would talk to you then how I'd write formally.

I've always loved writing fiction stories. When I was in second grade I wrote a story about a kid who made a time machine out of a cardboard box and befriended a talking brontosaurus (based on a giant paper mache dinosaur we made...I should really find the picture of me standing with it!). In third grade I was writing my own variety of Goosebump books. In 5th and 6th, the story of me and my friends' Pokemon journey (a fanfic writer at an early age, I guess). Then in 7th grade I concocted The Story.

Why does this particular story get the infamous title of The Story? Because it started a trend that still annoys me to this day - starting to write a great story and then never finishing it. These stories aren't just a couple paragraphs scribbled on scrap paper as an idea - with my stories, I'll get 10,000 words in and emotionally invested in my characters. And then I stop, with my chapters just sitting on my computer, waiting for me to add something to them. Occasionally I'll feel a spark of creativity, or maybe just pity for neglecting my literary children, or maybe guilt for not being able to complete a project, and I'll go work on them for a while. Even The Story, which started as stereotypical ideas from a 13 year old girl, is still around today (granted, with many many face lifts). Why have I created so many abandoned stories?

I blame NaNoWriMo.

Okay, blame isn't entirely the best word. I know there are probably maybe reasons why I don't finish them. I don't have the time, I don't think they're good enough, I don't think anyone would want to read them, etc etc. But NaNoWriMo definitely has encouraged part of it. NaNoWriMo is an event where you attempt to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November. The catch is you have to start from scratch - no adding to preexisting work. If you thought I was insane for doing Blogathon, then you have to be absolutely out of your mind to do this. Which is why I've participated in NaNoWriMo five times.

The reason why I have so many stories is that I've failed five times.

I had my classic fantasy adventure (The Story)(2004), a second failed attempt at the same fantasy (2005), the dystopian future of cloning and organ harvesting (2006), the Greek Gods humorously causing havoc on a modern day pagan and atheist (my favorite story so far)(2007), the corrupt religious scientists infecting a population with the "God gene" (2008).* All of them patiently sit at 5,000 to 10,000 words, waiting to be finished.**

And even with all my failures, I know I'm probably going to do it again this year.

It's absolutely insane for me to even consider attempting it. I'll be a senior with hard classes, a class to teach, research to do, grad schools to apply to, a club to run, a blog to update (don't worry, I won't abandon you guys) - and I still want to write a novel? NaNoWriMo is like an abusive husband that I can't will myself to leave. I don't know why I keep going back and getting slapped around. Maybe it's the hope that one year I'll actually have the motivation to finish. One year I'll plan ahead so when November rolls around, I'll have a helpful outline and solidified ideas. But really I think it's because I don't know when I'll ever have this sort of time again. College is hard, but the "real world" is harder. This is my chance to instill good novel writing habits, or I'll never do it. It's always been a dream to get a book published, but I kind of need to actually finish a book before I do that.

And now that I've typed all that, I'm really not sure why I did. Maybe for someone to tell me how crazy I am and dissuade me. Maybe for someone to wave the pom poms and tell me to do it. Or maybe I have a reader who has also been repeated raped by NaNoWriMo and can sympathize. All I know is if I do decide to do this crazy shit again, I need to start planning now, or I'm just going to be whining again come December.

*Dear lord these all sound horrendous typed out in uber-summarized form. I promise you they're better than they look. Really.
**And it's not that I'm unhappy with them - I like all of them, and I'm super proud of how the Greek God one started. I think I'm just too afraid to ruin it at this point.


  1. Definitely keep doing it because once you crack it you'll be writing a lot more and better! I dreamed of writing for ages but it took a NanoWrimo in my last year of uni (2005) to get me to actually crank out 50,000 words -- and by then I had so much more experience than before that I kept on writing.

    It did help that the Australian uni session ended on Nov 15th giving me 2 weeks of being able to spend 2ish hrs on it...

  2. Man, I had a shimmering bit of hope reading your comment until you told me your schedule =P Our finals are the second week of December, so November is a generally an awful time to be writing a novel. Not to mention my birthday is Nov 2, so I always have a ton of new toys to play with, and then Thanksgiving when I actually need to interact with humans instead of type at a computer... Dooooomed!

  3. I've been fortunate enough to steer clear of NaNoWriMo, but I have a friend who's been beaten by it 3 times now. I fully expect she'll go back for more.

    There ought to be a support group for something like this! :P

  4. I've always wanted to write a novel, and I've made several attempts over the years (and like you, I still have them somewhere, although I'm not sure I actually want to go back and read them).

    I think my personal problem is that I never plan any sort of plot beforehand, so I run out of steam fairly quickly once I've established the characters and the rudiments of a setting.

    Thanks for the heads-up about NaNoWriMo, though. I don't think November's a very good time, but I might try to do something similar in a different month.

    Good luck to you; I'm sure you'll do better than I will.

  5. Sorry to get you down! But my thing was that I had an idea and a plan and if you get to that stage it might be hard to pry you away from the keyboard. So if you want to do it, it's best to get an idea you think is kickass on about Nov 7th. At 3pm

  6. Really, it's not so much NaNoWriMo that's the issue, I've found.

    I've been wanting to write a novel for a good long time. I finally finished one that weighed in around 80,000 words. Problem? It was science fiction, and meant to be rather hard-SF, and I had started it before I had a good idea of 1) What made good hard-SF and 2) The technology involved.

    So I rewrote it. And there were still problems. So I'm rewriting it again.

    The trick is to know the thing behind NaNoWriMo. Which is pretty much to do the Asimov thing; KEEP WRITING. And when you think about stopping? KEEP WRITING.

    The tricky bastard thing with NaNoWriMo is that there's actually nothing keeping you from going back and adding to a story. You just can't count the initial words that were there before you started in the end calculation. At least, that's what some folks do.

    It's probably a good way to add more. Don't let it be restricted to one month, just keep trying to write whenever you get a chance. Carry index cards around and jot down interesting ideas relating to it. Draw out maps in your spare time, character maps, area maps, ship designs, scene ideas... eventually you go even crazier and ideas stop leaking out.

    I'd say running D&D and other tabletop roleplaying games also trains it up, but that's a schedule eater on its own.

  7. I have absolutely zero experience with writing, apart from the little I had to do in High School. I'm a developer, so I deal in hard facts, logic and strict syntax rather than the fuzziness that is the written word.

    But if it is really something you want to do, then go for it, even if you don't finish, at least you've done something you love. I've got tons of half finished side projects that I work on, and even though I feel a little regret at not having finished them, I loved coding them while I was working on them :) My 2c worth.

  8. People always want me to do NaNo with them. I can understand why. I do write, but I think I suffer from the same issues Jen does - I always end up stopping, then pondering the next big thing.

    I would say...maybe you shouldn't do NaNo, Jen. Maybe you should work on finishing The Story. Finishing your opus instead. You can use NaNo as a crutch for that (with so many people writing...it is easier to find people to write with).

    At least...that's my plan for this year.

  9. Why not just use the NaNoWriMo framework to keep working on one of the novels you've already started?

    (I know it's against the arbitrary "rules," but maybe you'd be happier with the outcome that way.)

  10. I suppose there's no reason not to move the writing month to October, if you stop October 30th.

    And I have to admit, I might have a blog, but I hate writing. I only write because I want to share my whackjob ideas with the world.

    Keep doing what you love, Jen. I hope you get published.

  11. I use NaNoWriMo as an excuse for Brainstorming. It's all about quantity over quality. Sometimes when you're 10 hours, a bottle of wine, a six-pack, a large pizza, and 10000 words deep into a session, the stuff that comes out is astonishing.

  12. I like NaNoWriMo for experimentation. 'Can I make a complete novel out of a handful of short stories?' was last year's experiment.

    My first novel was short (and still in revision) but the act of getting it done was very cathartic, and motivated me to churn out a second. That and the advice of Charles Stross: Bum in Chair or Die.

    So just keep at it and good luck. Though to be honest your writing here is often insightful and humorous so I am sure you will do fine.

    (Also: Normally just a lurker here, but decided to come out and say hello.)

  13. *grabs pom-poms and pep squad outfit*

    Jen, Jen, she's the best!
    she writes better than the rest!

    09's gonna be her year,
    and that is why we all cheer!

    *flips, somersaults, spontaneously forms human pyramid*



    Um, not sure where that came from :3

  14. I know how it goes. I've got 180,000+ words of my dreams from the last nine years just chillin' on my hard drive...

  15. I was a nano ML (municipal liason) a couple of years ago. I've nanoed 3 times, and passed the finish line twice. I missed last year as I was in the throes of emigration, but will be back this year.

    The thing about nano is that although you do have to spend a lot of time alone with your keyboard, you should hook up with what's going on in your local area. We met up in pubs and cafes, nattered online and turned it into a social event as well as a writing one.

    That said, if you can't at least once turn out 50,000 words in a month, then fiction writing as a way of earning an income is probably not for you. If you think putting the story together is bad, wait until you get an email from an editor asking for 25,000 words of rewrites...by Friday. And you have a day job, too.

    Writing is hard, hard yards, and nano is a good way to get a taste of it. But unless you actually look forward to it and enjoy the challenge, then there's no reason to feel bad about not taking part.

    Oh, and a lot of us use it to add 50,000 words to our current work, not to start something new, though one nano I finished one book and started another. It's fairly common for those of us with crazy writing skillz to hit 70, 80 or even 90,000 words.

    Yes, we are totally nuts.

  16. Entirely out of the theme with the rest of the posters here, I haven't participated in NaNoWriMo.

    But I wanted to say that the '08 story topic sounded fairly interesting - and probably a lot more entertaining to read than the travesty that was Invasive Procedures. Will we be seeing the beginnings on your blog anytime soon?

  17. NaNo trains for one goal only - sheer number of words. That's a very important skill, but not the only one. It doesn't touch rewriting, completion, polish, or even what might be the most vital skill - looking critically at your own work and making the hard decision of what is worth keeping and what should be culled. Hardly anyone turns out 50,000 words that are worthwhile as they stand, and demanding that oneself accomplish it is unfair and cruel.

    The authors whose advice I've heard and read say that having ideas is easy; anyone with a creative streak in their makeup can do that. The hard part is choosing which ideas have legs - which of the crowd of contenders have the stuff to make it in the big leagues with proper training and hard work. Pros have hundreds of abandoned projects, too. They just learned how to choose a few that deserve completion, and then complete them.

    Apparently in December is "NaNoEdMo" the unofficial editing month. The communities formed during NaNo, local support groups and such, ought to morph into continued support and critique circles through the process.

  18. Gregory Greenwood


    My advice is simple. NEVER GIVE UP. I have been planning to write my sci-fi opus for years. Planning rather than actually writing. I have plans on top of plans for the glorious day I astound the world with my sci-fi-ness . . . and, of course, make obscene amounts of money in the process (said he as he continued to entertain his fantasies of more money than George Lucas . . . nah, its not really about money. Honest).

    If I can be serious for a moment (though it causes me actual pain) if you have a dream, go for it. Never let anyone tell you that you don't have what it takes. Don't give in to the belief that no one will read what you write. Afterall, if you never give them the chance to read it you will never know. Millions of people watched and enjoyed episodes one and two of starwars so remember - tastes vary.

    Science fiction desperately needs more female authors if it is ever to escape 'lesser genre' status. For all you know you could be the next Ian M. Banks. Though, obviously, genetically speaking with less Y, more X.

  19. I don't consider myself a "writer", but my first NaNo was a blast, back in 2005. As a reward for winning I bought myself a shiny PowerBook G4. Figured I deserved it after crippling myself by writing my 50,000 words in pencil. That's right, pencil. No keyboards in sight. A few Moleskines and a whole lot of pencil shavings later and I was a winner. Interestingly, when I tried it again in 2006 I attempted it on the computer. Failed miserably. Guess I'm just an analog guy at heart.

  20. Hello from another lurker here! Just want to ask, maybe you should consider writing with somebody else? I did that for some time and althought final results were always in need of hours of polishing it was always fun. Even when i had writers block my partner or partners were always able to add something new. Yes, it makes you give away some of the controll, but for the amount of fun and suprises it gives i'd say it,s worth it.