Jeff O'Handley, Author

Jeff O'Handley

The Doubting Writer Finds His Voice

NaNo Yes, or NaNo No?

The leaves in upstate New York are turning, the kids are back in school, and we’ve had our first frost. That can only mean one thing: NaNoWriMo is just around the corner.

I first heard about NaNo two years ago. Maybe it was three. At the time I was deep, deep, deep into World of Warcraft, and part of my morning routine involved cruising through assorted WoW blogs. One blogger frequently referenced NaNo, regularly using it as an excuse for her less-than-consistent blogging. “Working on my NaNo” she’d say, or “my NaNoWriMo is coming along”, or “My NaNo is being a total bitch”. I had no idea what it was—she never said what NaNo was, and didn’t link to their site. When I finally got curious enough to look it up and found out what it was, I thought it was interesting, but it was already too late in the month to really make a good effort and I skipped it.

Fast forward a year (or maybe it was two): I was still into WoW, still checking out the blogs, but now I had also actually started writing stuff. I had two novels that I had taken stabs at (and by ‘stab’, I mean jabbed with a toothpick; these were not really serious efforts), and a couple of short stories under my belt, including one that I (foolishly) sent to the Tampa Review for a contest. This time, when that particular blogger referenced NaNo, I knew what she meant. “Oh, yeah, I should do that,” I said, but then I forgot to sign up. When I finally did sign up, it was four or five days into November.

I’ve since seen some people on Absolute Write and blogs take swipes at NaNo, but I’m convinced it was good for me. One of the biggest problems I had as a writer up to that point was with the self-critic, the internal editor, the nagging little voice that says, “Fix that,” or “I think you need a comma there. No, wait, you don’t. Hang on, you do.” You know that voice. It’s good to have, but sometimes it just keeps you from actually doing anything, it locks you into paralysis by analysis. The inner editor can also screw you up by telling you your story isn’t good enough. Blah.

But NaNo, with its pressure to crank out 50,000 words in a month (a mere 1666.6666667 words per day, if you write every day) curtails the inner editor/critic. If your inner-editor stops you at the end of every sentence to have a Lincoln-Douglas debate over every adjective, comma and gerund, it will be almost impossible to get those 1600+ words/day on paper, and the magical NaNo word counter will tell you after your first day that you now need to average 1851.7922 words per day to make the goal, and on and on, until you find yourself staring at 3000 or 5000 words per day to finish. Yikes.

So, I threw off the shackles of the inner editor and went to work, and it was liberating. I didn’t completely stop editing, of course; there were plenty of times I stopped and said, “That’s not right, I need to structure that better,” or “Wait, he wouldn’t really say THAT, would he?” and the dreadful, “Does this make any sense at all? I don’t think so,” but it wasn’t paralyzing, and, if I found myself really stuck at something, be it a plot point or a sentence that I couldn’t get just exactly right, I did something that never seemed possible before: I wrote out of order. My NaNo evolved like a patchwork quilt, with chapter 20 being written before chapter 5, followed by chapter 9 and then, finally, five. It was a terrific experience for me, and, I’m convinced, essential to me as a writer in getting my off my ass (so to speak) and in the chair.

So, for this year, NaNo yes, or NaNo no? I’m honestly not sure yet. I don’t think I need to NaNo this year; last year’s participating broke me through the bonds that stopped me from writing. I’m also hoping to be involved in beta-fueled rewrites on Parallel Lives, and I have no idea how time-consuming or brain-draining that’s going to be. I also have a couple of ideas that are partly written out (both somewhere around the 10K words mark; one of them feels like it’s going to be awfully big, too) that I’d like to get back to. And then there’s last year’s NaNo, which I dismissed as drivel, a 52K story with an unhappy ending. I took it out and put it in proper order last April while Parallel Lives was resting, and I might like to go back and revisit it. The writing is not great (and I guess that the biggest criticism of NaNo is that it encourages sloppy writing), but the story wants to be looked at again. I might be too busy to really give NaNo the attention it deserves. So, NaNo No.

On the other hand (and you just knew there would be an ‘other hand’, didn’t you?) I do have a couple of fresh ideas squirming around in my brain. What better way to bring them fully to life than in the frenzy of NaNo? Add to that that I’ve been living with Parallel Lives so long, it needs to get out of my hair, and that revision is a different beast than pure brain-dumping that NaNo involved for me last year. It may be time to really exercise that part of my brain once more. So, NaNo Yes.

Or, maybe not. I’ve got more than a month to make up my mind, though time goes faster the older we get. Just before the fall colors reach their peak, we’ll get the heavy rain and windstorm to blow them off the trees, and then we’ll get the first snowfall, and then we’ll have Halloween, and then I’ll stare at the NaNo page and debate: NaNo yes, or NaNo no?

And what about you? Have you done NaNoWriMo in the past? Did it help, or hurt? And will you do it again? NaNo Yes, or NaNo No?

Have a great weekend, all.

8 Responses

  1. Great post, Jeff! I didn't know you were a gamer. Anyway, I'm going to have to go with NaNo no. I'm knee-deep in critiques right now, and I have a feeling I'll be knee-deep in rewrites come November. *Shrug* I hope Parallel Lives is going well, and good luck with whatever you decide to do with NaNoWriMo! 🙂

  2. The Lincoln-Douglas debate thing was hilarious! I have always wanted to do NaNo and think I'm ready every year and then my efforts just fall apart around the 10,000 word mark. Just because my life totally gets in the way. Or other writing obligations come up. I've got plenty of ideas for books this year but I'm really trying to finish what I'm working on so I will just do that. Sometimes I think I'd like to do it just to see if I CAN but so far I haven't been able to. No for me this year. Good luck with whatever you decide though!

  3. I found out about NaNo nearly two years ago but too late to participate. So I decided to do my own thing in January of 2010. I just wanted to see if I could complete a novel-length manuscript. Well, I wrote 80,000 words. I then took a break and began a SciFi book, of which I has 50,000 words. I tried NaNo last year but I had too many other things going on and when I hit a roadblock with my outline (like, I changed something that totally wiped out the rest of it) I quit. I've decided to give it another shot this year since my NaNo project has morphed from MG fantasy to YA fantasy, and it's a totally new project now.

    So, yes. I'm going to do NaNo again. I'm really a firm believer in turning off that internal editor and getting something down on paper. For me, I've found, the real writing happens in the subsequent edits.

  4. Donna — NaNo definitely gave me the kick-start I needed; whether I can pull it off again this year or not is the question. Good luck with yours.

    Carrie–not as much of a gamer as I once was. WoW was the only multi-player game I've been involved in, and it's lost a lot of its luster. I did go through a phase where I played a fair amount of games, but not so much anymore.

    The book is coming along. I think I made my breakthrough (crosses fingers). Thanks, as always, for the comments.

  5. I'm a bit late in commenting – but my NaNo experience (last year) seems similar to yours. It got me to break through the self-doubt and actually get ideas on paper. So, yeah, I think it helped.

    I really thought I'd participate again this year – it is in my writing "calendar" I made for myself. But…I'm behind in my editing of my novel. I'm behind on ALL of my writing projects. So, I'm asking myself the same questions as you about this year.

    One downside to my NaNo novel (the one I completed and am now trying to edit) is that it was such a rough draft that revising has been pretty much a full re-write. I decided that I wanted to be better prepared for NaNo this year by having some background sketches, character sketches, and a general outline of the plot. BUT, I put that stuff on hold in order to finish draft 2 of the WIP.

    OTOH- it was such fun for me. How often do we as writers get to participate in a sort of group writing project? It is a lonely road, writing, so the NaNo (and the local NaNo meet-ups) are a fun way to interact with other writers.

    I don't know Jeff, I think I will be making my decision in the wee hours of Nov 1!

  6. Jennifer-I'm in the same boat there. I still haven't decided, but I'd say, right now, I'm leaning a bit towards 'NaNo Yes.'

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