As many of you know, National Novel Writing Month (known affectionately as NaNoWriMo) is more than halfway over. If you aren’t already familiar with the movement, participants of NaNoWriMo attempt to complete a 50,000 word novel during November. The goal is to write 1667 words every single day for 30 days.
Here’s the thing though – in 2011, 256,618 writers participated and 36,843 reached their goal of writing 50,000 words. That’s 14%. Said another way, 86% failed.
Why would anyone set a goal that is so unattainable that failure is all but guaranteed?
Disclaimer: If NaNoWriMo works for you, if you love it above all other things, and if you’re already thinking of ugly things to blast me with for using the word “failed,” then I am delighted for you. Read no farther, or if you do, consider it an insight into the rest of us. (And please don’t blast me.)
If you’re one of the 86%, consider the following reasons why NaNoWriMo might not be the best tool in your writing shed.
Writing takes time. Heck, typing takes time. The average person types at 40 words per minute, which means it takes 41 minutes just to type 1667 words. And we all know typing isn’t writing. Creative writing requires intense concentration, effort, and mental acuity. In other words, it requires us to be at our best, and let’s face it, all hours in the day are not created equal. If you spend the day working a full time job, stopping at the grocery store on the way home, making dinner, and then sitting down in front of your computer to write, you just might not hit that 1667-word goal before you suddenly wake to find keyboard impressions in your cheek and a stream of drool short-circuiting your laptop.
NaNoWriMo is in November. November means Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving means family. Family means traveling or hosting relatives who are traveling. It is a lovely time of year, but is it reasonable to expect that you’ll be able to excuse yourself while the turkey is still cooling on the table to find a quiet place to write? If not, subtract four days (at least) from your available time to write. BTW, your NaNoWriMo daily goal has now shot up to 1923 words.
I know, I know – the point of writing so much so quickly is to squash the evil inner-critic and just “let the creativity flow.” Here’s a news flash – some of us not only don’t work that way, we don’t want to work that way. And there’s NOTHING WRONG WITH THAT. Half the pleasure I take from writing comes from choosing just the right word, from repeating sentences over in my head or out loud to get exactly the meaning that I want. I love giving my characters the chance to come to life, to make their own decisions or have their own conversations, many of which are as unexpected and delightful to me as I hope they’ll be to the reader. For me, writing requires a gentle pace and a lack of pressure to perform, and that 1667 word daily deadline is a creativity killer that sucks the joy from writing faster than I could suck the filling from a Twinkie (sob – gonna miss them Twinkies).
So am I anti-NaNoWriMo? Not at all. It’s a tool. If it works for you, wonderful! If it doesn’t, don’t blame yourself, just find a different tool…or use the parts of NaNoWriMo that do work. So what works in NaNoWriMo?
Do set yourself a word-count goal that will help you keep writing without putting too much pressure on yourself. You know your own writing style and commitments, so choose a number that works for you. I chose 300 words per day, five days a week because that gives me flexibility. I can write 300 words even when I’m exhausted, and I never have to feel as though I’ve failed if I miss a day of writing. The best part of having such a low goal? I always hit it, and usually I blow past it. When I was writing DEATH ON TOUR, that goal meant I completed an 80,000 word novel, rewrites and all, in 9 months. Based on that pace, I briefly considered increasing my goal for DEATH MAKES THE CUT and DEATH RIDES AGAIN, but I decided against it. I completed DMTC in 8 months and DRA in 10 months, and I never felt bad about myself.
The NaNoWriMo site is a lot of fun – it provides a way to track your progress, get cool badges, and read pep talks. Read those talks, find a friend or a small group who understands or supports your goals, write down your progress. I keep a Word calendar (you can find the templates at Microsoft.com) where I log my ongoing word count. It’s very satisfying to set my weekly goal and then be able to write down an even larger word count.
The most important thing is to love what you do. Set goals that work for you, find your community, have fun, and keep writing.
Think about your career. What is the hardest thing you have to do? Writers will tell you it’s writing, and I’m not saying they’re wrong, but I’m talking about something else. In any career, there’s the part you love, and then there’s the other stuff that makes it possible for you to do what you love. Sometimes being successful at the other stuff is what will make or break your dreams. (By the way, this is actually true for any career, not just writing.)
For writers, a huge part of the “other stuff” is speaking in public. Book signings, conferences, panels, radio interviews – the stuff you dream about when you envision any level of success and the stuff you have to do if you want to become successful. And yet fear public speaking (glossophobia) is the number one phobia in the nation (even surpassing fear of death). So what do you do when you have to do the scariest thing in the world? You join Toastmasters.
(By the way, if the word Toastmasters conjures up an image of a bunch of stodgy stogie-smoking businessmen drunkenly congratulating each other over the congealing remains of a second rate dinner in a third-rate hotel, first – kudos on a vivid imagination, and second – you couldn’t be more wrong.)
About a year before my first novel DEATH ON TOUR was accepted for publication, I joined Get Up ‘N Go Toastmasters in Austin. My new job required me to give presentations to small groups, and I was petrified. I hoped Toastmasters could help, which it most certainly did. I went from absolutely quaking-in-my-boots petrified to confident. Don’t get me wrong – I still get nervous before a big event, but now I know I can make it through, and it will not only be all right, it will be fun. More than that, I now feel more comfortable when I’m meeting new people or when I’m participating in meetings. I’m able to speak up, give my ideas, and express my opinions in front of 5 or 50 or 500 people, something that was difficult and sometimes impossible for me before. I’ve learned that it’s possible to give and accept feedback in a way that’s both positive and motivating. Because of Toastmasters, when DEATH ON TOUR was published, I was ready for my first author panel at Malice Domestic, for my first book signing, and for my first launch event. Because of the confidence I gained in Toastmasters, I was able to embrace these wonderful opportunities and meet new people who have since become friends.
Three years after my first Toastmasters meeting, I’ve published a second novel (DEATH MAKES THE CUT), I have a third one (DEATH RIDES AGAIN) in production, and I am still getting up at 5:30 every Monday morning so I can make my weekly meeting. Yes, it’s dark outside when I leave my house, but I never miss if I can help it. Who could pass up a chance to hear fascinating and often funny stories (because that’s what speeches are), laugh with friends, and be challenged to become better once a week over coffee and breakfast?
No matter what your profession, Toastmasters can help you with the “other stuff”. Try a club near you (they don’t all meet at 7:00 a.m.), and if you don’t feel right at home, try another. Each club has its own vibe and its own goals, and there is one out there that is right for you. There’s no better way to get better at the other stuff – and if you’re confident about the other stuff, you can focus on your favorite stuff.
Everyone’s a critic. If you don’t believe me, think about the last time you were in a movie theater. The lights go down, the green screen comes up, showing the words, “This preview approved for General Audiences.” As the camera pans across a city gleaming in the sunlight, an eight foot tall mechanical monster stomps through the streets and gnaws its way through a skyscraper.
What do you do?
If you’re me, you turn to the person next to you and you say, “Awesome!”
If you don’t have the taste of a twelve year old boy, you might make some gagging noises or just shake your head. Either way, you are a critic.
And why not? Being a critic is fun. I’m a writer, AND I’m a critic…which means I pour my heart out onto the page and then I basically slap myself in the face. Let’s face it, that inner critic is MEAN! But really, what is the inner critic except our fear of an outer critic? You don’t really think your new cool idea is stupid – but you are afraid that someone else will think it is. And that’s where things get tricky. Because even if you somehow manage to grab your nasty little inner critic, throttle it into submission, and produce something that makes you proud, you WILL be criticized.
My first novel DEATH ON TOUR won the Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel award and was nominated for the Mary Higgins Clark award. Don’t get me wrong, that was completely wonderful, but it also means that I now have complete strangers firing up their computers to blast me with virtual face slaps.
Email and websites like Amazon and Goodreads make it all too easy. Some people write to tell me they don’t approve of my use of bad language. Others are less specific, but even more hurtful. One guy wrote, “The mystery isn’t up to par. I didn’t hate the book, although I was definitely glad to be finished with it.” (Crickets chirping in the background.)
You know, they say it takes five positive comments to balance one negative one. They’re wrong – it takes a lot more than that. (If I ever figure out how many, I’ll let you know.) The thing is, the next time I sat down to write, I had those nasty, negative words echoing in my head. I actually found myself thinking, “ooh…I wonder if I should let that character say that. What if it offends someone?” or “Yay, great plot twist. Oh, but is it …up to par?” Those words from strangers knocked me sideways, they made me question my ability, and they hurt.
Which brings up the question: how do you deal with criticism? Because if you do anything, if you accomplish anything, if you put yourself out there at all, you WILL be criticized. So many people let that fear kill their dreams, give them writer’s block, make them quit before they even start. The question is…are you one of them?
When you’re thinking about that, consider this little gem from the Goodreads website:
“This book is quite possibly the most insipid novel I have ever read in my life. I would rather read Twilight twelve more times than read this again.”
Ouch! Ouch, ouch, ouch! But not my ouch. That one was for Pride and Prejudice.
Here’s another: “I would rather have gotten a root canal than read this book.” That was for The Great Gatsby.
And my favorite: “Words cannot express how much I hated reading this book.” Yes, that was about A Christmas Carol.
Suppose for an instant that Jane Austen, or F. Scott Fitzgerald, or Charles Dickens had listened to their critics and decided not to write their masterpieces. The world would be a poorer place.
Bill Cosby said, “I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.”
You will NEVER please everybody…and that’s okay!
Back to our movie theater. You see five or six previews. If you like even one or two, you’re doing very well. You not only don’t like them all, you don’t even expect to like them all. Think how boring life would be if everyone liked exactly the same things.
The key to failure is trying to please everyone. I think the keys to success are a thick skin, a mocking little voice to use to use when you talk about your critics, and the courage to try anyway.