On the Polishability of Shit

I wrote 55,000 words of a novel during the month of November (as part of NaNoWriMo). Here are my thoughts on the whole experience. WARNING: A heady dose of narcissism follows.

I suppose I should start with a definition.

NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month, a non-profit organization dedicated to motivating writers to, you know, write. The goal of NaNoWriMo is to write 50,000 words in the month of November. If you hit 50,000 words, you win. If not, well…Chuck Wendig wrote a great blog post on the gamification of writing, which I’ll try not to reiterate here.

I’ve been meaning to participate in NaNoWriMo for a while, but this was the first year I could actually squeeze it into my schedule (after all, I still have a wife, a 40-hour work week, and various other creative commitments). Occasional overachiever that I am, I told myself, “I know what this writing thing is all about. I already have one novel under my belt. Why not shoot for 60,000 words?”

[NOTE: Lest you think less of me, let me take this opportunity to mention that I would have hit 60,000 words if it weren’t for an unexpected bout of the flu knocking me on my ass right after pie on Thanksgiving.]

2,000 words a day isn’t actually all that much in the grand scheme of things, but it meant that every day for nearly a month, I’d get home from work, grab a quick bite to eat, then retreat to the basement for a couple of hours. Now…this isn’t all that different from my normal routine. But if I were having a particularly tough day, then my writing time would inevitably cut into my time with my wife—after all, I had to hit my daily quota, or else be branded a failure for all eternity.  (Don’t get me wrong…she was supportive throughout, but that sure as hell didn’t make things any easier.)

The thing of it is, as thrilled as I am that 55,000 words of my second novel now stain the digital pages of my word processor, I’d hate to write this way all the time (even setting aside the effect on my personal life). The first week was liberating. The second week was a grind—not because I didn’t enjoy writing, but because there was no time to sit back and let the story breathe. I’d reach the end of a scene and realize it needed a different emotional beat, or an additional character moment, or god forbid, to be excised altogether. But I couldn’t go back and edit, or else I’d miss my word count for the day. There was no choice but to make a note of the scene’s shortcomings and move on.

I don’t like leaving things unpolished. (It’s part of the reason the first draft of A RAVENING FIRE took a year and a half to write.) So having a mounting pile of words that were nowhere near passable (much less polished) really began to eat at me. I began to think, "What if someone reads this and thinks it’s the best I can do?"

In those moments, I’d force myself to remember that most first drafts are little more than steaming piles of freshly-flung monkey shit. This one just happened to be steamier than usual. And now that the month is behind me, I can honestly say that while this draft has more than its fair share of dross, there are some truly inspired scenes (if I say so myself)—scenes I’m excited to flesh out and tighten.

But for the moment, my 55,000 words will sit, steaming and unpolished, while I work on other things. For one, I put the second draft of A RAVENING FIRE on hold for the month of November and I’m eager to get back to it. After those edits are finished, and it’s been trundled off to my alpha readers, then I’ll return to this draft, most likely at a more leisurely 1000-word-per-day pace.

For writers who need an extra kick in the pants, I’m sure NaNoWriMo is great. For me, it was a learning experience. I feel like I understand myself better as a writer. But if I do it again next year, I’ll probably stick to 50,000 words, or possibly even fewer (unless the money truck crashes into my house and I can afford to devote more than two hours a day to writing).

For now, I take consolation in the fact that with writing, unlike with some creative mediums (I’m looking at you, painting and sculpting), nothing is beyond repair. Anything can be polished. Even monkey shit.

-Peter