It’s November which means two things if the internet is any indication:
- It’s Movember, where men are supposed to grow mustaches to show awareness for and raise money for men’s health.
- NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing month, where you’re supposed to bang out a 50,000 word novel in 30 days, presumably while growing a moustache (if you’re a man anyway).
Someone asked me if I was participating in either. I replied in the negative. One, because I’ve already grown my facial hair for the year and was not about to shave it all off and start again. And as a man in his early 40s, I’m well aware of men’s issues. Also my back hurts.
Regarding NanoWriMo however, it was also an emphatic no, because, and here’s where I alienate everyone out there who does NaNoWriMo, because I don’t see the value in it.
I write for a living. Mondays thru Fridays and occasionally on weekends (though I like to keep those free for revising what I did the five days previous and for spending time with my family). So I wouldn’t benefit from trying to bang out a novel in thirty days, because I’m already at work on several things with a deadline and people are paying me to do that. They wouldn’t appreciate hearing I was taking a month to work on something not at all related to what they expect me to.
Another reason: Magicians Impossible, which is the novel I’m already writing, the one coming to fine bookstores everywhere from St Martin’s Press-Thomas Dunne books in 2017. The first draft of that took me three and a half months, and ended with a roughly 132,000 word draft. That was finished mid-September. I took a break from it for a few weeks, then just after Columbus Day, printed the whole thing out and re-penned it; a task which took me to, well, right now. The next few weeks will be occupied by plotting and outlining the changes, collating my notes on the draft, so on Monday November 30, I can commence the rewrite, in order to deliver my draft to my editor on my contracted delivery date of March 1st.
Amidst all of this I’m in revision mode on 60 Squadron, the TV series I’m developing with Copperheart Entertainment. There’s also the matter of Starseeker, another television project I’m working on for Little Engine Motion pictures, which is now being shopped around. So that fills the day.
And, of course, Dad life; as a stay-at-home dad AND working writer that’s like having two concurrent full-time jobs. Baby needs to be fed, changed, and played with. So again, no time for NanoWriMo
And even if I did have the time for it I still probably wouldn’t do it. The idea of writing for a page count/word count is antithetical to everything I believe a writer should focus on. And I say this having been that guy who once obsessed on:
- Page count
- Word count
When I began this writing journey in 1999 I wrote faster than I do now largely because I had no choice. On RoboCop: Prime Directives we had a punishing deadline LINK and had to adjust schedules accordingly. That meant a new 95 page screenplay every 2 weeks. So, 45-50 pages each between me and my partner on it meant I had to knock out 7-10 pages of script a day, and him likewise so by Tuesday-Wednesday we had an assembled draft. Two days and sleepness nights later we had a polished draft to deliver. On the weekends, we crashed. On Monday the process started all over again.
Subsequently I’ve had much more time to write screenplays, on assignment or on my own, but in general I stick to 5 GOOD pages a day. That’s written polished, rewritten some more. 5 pages a day gives me a 100 page draft at the end of the month, followed by a couple more months of rewriting before I’m ready to show it to anyone.
[Not: in the spirit of NaNoWriMo there’s now ZD30, where you’re supposed to write a feature length screenplay in 30 days. This is something I’ve been doing for some time now.]
With prose, on Magicians my goal was 1500 words a day. I had considered 2000, but given my son was due to be born midway through the drafting I knew those 2000 words a day would take a hit after the birth. 1500 made more sense to me; I knew that – good day or bad – I could hit that 1500. And with the exception of the 36 hours I spent at the hospital while my wife was in labor I wrote 1500 every day. I actually finished the draft only two weeks over schedule I’d set when beginning. Partially because a baby occupies more time than you could ever imagine possible, but also because I’d miscalculated how long the first draft of the manuscript was going to be. I’d guesstimated it would be 90-100 K words when in actuality the first draft clocked in at 30-40K above that. But that’s where revisions come in – I’d rather have material to strip away than have to write more of it.
So that’s where strike one of NaNoWriMo comes in for me – 50K is probably too short for a first draft of a novel. It’s always better to chuck expectations, put butt in chair and write freeform than just to hit an arbitrary number of words.
Strike Two is because NaNoWriMo encourages you to update progress, to compare yours with other participants, and to write, damn it. But to me writing isn’t about the actual writing; the physical sit your butt down and pound keys. The best writing – to me – comes when I’m away from my desk. That’s where the ideas come. Going back to the 5 pages/1500 words model. On a good day I can make that goal by noon (starting your writing day at 6am helps). So what do I do the rest of my day? Before parenthood I’d go for a nice long walk, lie on the couch, listen to music, watch a movie, read a book. But the day’s work is never that far from my mind, which is why after a break, I go back to my desk, and read what I wrote that morning. I make edits, notes, changes, so by 5pm I’ve made my goal, revised pages, and ended up with something that hopefully won’t require much in the way of rewriting down the line.
I think if your primary focus is meeting that deadline, of making your page goal, then you aren’t writing – you’re typing. And anyone can do that. It makes reaching that magic number the reason to do it; not telling an actual compelling story. It’s about typing The End, not actually making the journey worthwhile.
Strike Three gets into much more philosophical territory. And with apologies to Frank Capra, I like to call it “Why We Write”.
If you’re a writer, or a NaNoWriMo participant (or both), have you ever asked yourself why? Why write? Is it because you have a story to tell? Is it because you get paid to do it? Is it because you have all these ideas and characters and voices in your head? Is it because you hope your manuscript will attract the eyes of an agent, then a publisher, then millions of readers round the world?
Why do it?
You’re only setting yourself up for heartbreak, you know. The odds of success – of publication, or production – are not in your favor. The fact I’ve been able to eke out a living doing what I do is a minor miracle, believe me. I’ve been without money much more often than I’ve been with it. And achieving success in the creative field has become more difficult with the advent of the internet where everyone expects you to do what you do for low to no pay. That book you toiled on thru NaNoWriMo and countless days and weeks and months of revision? If you’re lucky someone will buy the self-published version you release for Amazon Kindle for a whopping 99 cents.
Writing is a marathon. It isn’t a sprint. It’s hard work. It’s working when you’re tired, when you’re exhausted, when the ideas are flowing like molasses in January but your deadline is fast approaching.
It’s about constant motion. That’s not the same as ‘write every day’. It’s about constantly flexing that writing muscle. You do that through observation of human behavior. Through developing ideas. By reading books, of watching movies and TV. By travelling outside your comfort zone and finding something to write about.
I write because I have a story I’m trying to tell. After twenty years I haven’t managed to tell it, yet. But I’m trying to get there. I probably never will achieve that perfect moment but that’s why I keep pushing; because The End is not the goal –getting there is.