Fear, Truth, And Writing: Lessons From My First NaNoWriMo

Throughout my writing career, I have regarded some challenges as being next-level endeavours of which I am not yet capable. You might say it’s a confidence issue and, if we were to spend time unpicking that, one might conclude it involves an avoidance of vulnerability, and a general reluctance to put myself ‘out there.’ In reality, it is about a fear of the truth.

The truth in question is mine. It’s the truth of me as a writer, and the truth about the way I experience the writing process.

My ambition has always been to complete a full-length fiction novel, but I have also regarded this as ‘next-level,’ and have instead allowed myself to concentrate on shorter works and freelance writing. This has been a valuable and fulfilling path in itself, because I have a burning need to write; to get these stories and ideas out into the world; to vent that internal pressure — but fear has prevented me from applying that to the pursuit of my actual ambition. This is the conflict between pursuit of my truth, and fear of my truth.

NaNoWriMo is the National Novel Writing Month that runs its main challenge every November. It is an American non-profit organisation that tasks writers with getting a minimum of 50,000 words written between November 1st and November 30th each year, with the idea being that this will give you a mostly complete — if not entirely complete — first draft manuscript. The challenge is free to enter, though you are encouraged to donate to one or more of the many writing programs the organisation runs, and to purchase branded merchandise. Such commercial and charitable appeals are largely kept to the margins, though. NaNoWriMo is, at its core, all about community, and word count. The concept is a simple one. To achieve 50,000 words in 30 days, a writer needs to pen an average of 1667 words per day. That’s much more manageable. It’s still a challenge — skipping days means making up the time — but, it’s a manageable challenge.

It’s also a challenge that I have hitherto avoided, because of fear. Fear of failure, fear of success, and fear of the truth. This year, I decided to confront those fears, and actually completed a first draft fiction manuscript in just 27 days. In doing so, I learned a great many things — including the truth of myself as a writer, and of my writing process.

Photo by Sammie Vasquez on Unsplash

1. NaNoWriMo demands that we throw out convention

We’re writers, so we naturally hold literature in high regard. Stories written by our favourite authors line the bookshelves of our minds, and take on an almost mythical status over time. But, here’s the thing: Every writer — from Mary Shelley to Stephen King; from Jane Austen to J.K Rowling — started out the same way. They had blank pages on which they put a first draft, using combinations of the exact same 26 letters that are available to you. The first draft is the hardest part, because you cannot improve upon, edit, and polish something that doesn’t exist in the first place.

So, to undertake NaNoWriMo successfully, we throw out convention. We throw out the convention that there is some magical formula to writing a book; the convention that it must be perfect; and the convention that we must await the arrival of the muse. What we do is we write. And then we write some more. And then we keep writing. And we resolutely avoid the urge to revisit what we just wrote for the purpose of editing — for this is the most important convention to be thrown out. If you are to claim your ‘win,’ you must switch off your internal editor.

Seriously — just write. Let it flow. It’s fine.

2. Building a NaNoWriMo community is important

The NaNoWriMo website has a huge selection of excellent features and resources to help you through the challenge, but perhaps the most powerful is its social aspect. There is a range of moderated forums designed to address particular questions, or simply provide general support — including several for ‘newbies’ making their first National Novel Writing Month attempt. It also provides a facility whereby WriMos can ‘buddy up,’ encouraging each other and sharing hints and tips.

When registering, in addition to setting up general details about your story, WriMos are asked to set their ‘region,’ which means that a local regional volunteer then makes themselves available for support as necessary. This regional affiliation also generates events throughout the month, known as ‘write-ins’ — often held in centrally located, participating libraries — which provide a chance to meet fellow WriMos facing the same challenges. These are all very important, and broadly cover the spectrum of levels of involvement that different people may seek, but the best place to build a NaNoWriMo community is on Twitter.

During NaNoWriMo, a quick search of related hashtags on Twitter reveals reams of Twitterers from all over the world, trying to hit the 50,000 word minimum by 11.59pm on November 30th. You’ll find writers from all walks of life experiencing all kinds of literary worries and concerns about their story and their progress, and you’ll find official NaNo Twitter accounts dedicated to NaNo coaching, and NaNo writing sprints. These are a vital lifeline for those WriMos that may be socially anxious, or in isolated locations, but they also allow you to build an even stronger writing community on your social media, on which you can rely outside of the month of November, too.

3. You need to truly love your story

You might be a ‘Planner,’ or a ‘Pantster,’ or you might even be a ‘NaNoRebel’ but, if you don’t truly love your story, it will not flow — and flow is important when you have a minimum of 50,000 words to write in a month. Characters play an integral part in this. Have you created characters with interesting lives? Are you clear on how their past experience might impact upon their reactions and behaviours in your story? Have you created characters with whom you want to spend time?

In addition to helping the narrative flow, writing a story that you truly, truly love helps maintain motivation throughout the 30 days of NaNoWriMo. Those 30 days are a real rollercoaster. You start off incredibly keen, and you might even bust out far more words than you expected in that first week. But then, week two arrives, and you’re into the weeds. You’re into the technical nitty-gritty of the thing. You know where your characters start, and you know where you want them to end. You might even have a clear view of a range of story points to hit along the way. But, how do you actually get from point A to point B, and then onto point C in such as way that the reader stays engaged?

Week 3 draws near, and some social commitments crop up. Distractions build. There are so many other things that you also need to be doing. Whose idea was this, anyway? Is this the right story? Perhaps that other story idea might have been the better choice. You check your progress chart on your NaNoWriMo account page every day, and it all still seems so impossible. You’re never going to make it, so maybe you should just stop now, and save yourself the trouble. There’s always next year.

That’s doubt and fear talking. It’s the voice of your internal editor, and you need to ignore it. You need to let your love of your story drown it out. If you remind yourself that this first draft doesn’t need to be perfect — that it just needs to be — then suddenly, week 3 flows into week 4, and you’re on the home stretch.

4. Let your characters guide you

I began my NaNoWriMo project with an outline, and a vague idea of a lead character. I knew what I wanted this character to achieve, and I knew the general obstacles that this character would face. I spent the first few days introducing her, and setting her on her journey. Then I listened, and I got to know her. Who did she need to challenge her? Who did she need to help her get to where she needed to go? From whom did she need to learn? While using this listening exercise throughout the 30 days, the other characters appeared, as and when necessary.

As the number of characters grew, I continued to listen, and they guided the rest of the story. By the time week 3 arrived, I had a rich collection of characters — all with their own complexities, histories, and agendas, and all were bound together by these fictional events to which they were contributing. Taking this approach, I found unexpected plot twists, moments of levity, and beats of deep emotion. This was perhaps the most creatively satisfying part of my whole NaNoWriMo experience, and was one that I had not anticipated — which leads me to the fifth, and most important NaNoWriMo lesson of all.

5. Embrace the kind of writer you really are

A s writers, we spend a lot of time in our heads. We’re plotting, reasoning things out, building characters, and dreaming up scenarios. This can take time, and causes us to operate on something of a different timetable to the rest of the world. We can get lost in our creations and, when we start getting them down on paper, we can then get caught up in our own meddling and tweaking. For many — and for me in particular — it’s not until a firm and immovable deadline is applied that the ability to actually focus surfaces; and, unless you are Danielle Steele or Dean Koontz, there is unlikely to be a professional person waiting impatiently in the wings, demanding your latest draft.

NaNoWriMo provides that firm and immovable deadline and, in doing so, demands that everything else be stripped away. There is no time for anything that constitutes your normal writing process and, as a result, you have the opportunity to discover the kind of writer you really are. In the usual circumstance, you might spend hours testing out different phrasing and various dialogue. You might take the time to sit and wait for inspiration to strike — watching the world go by and picking up ideas as time ticks on. These are luxuries that cannot be afforded during NaNoWriMo. You just have to put your head down, and power through. It really is a nuts and bolts exercise.

The NaNoWriMo website allows you to earn badges for your profile page as you write. Some are based on word counts achieved, and some are claimed based upon the way in which you engage with the challenge. You have the opportunity to claim the ‘Planner,’ or ‘Pantster’ badge — depending on the level of meticulous forethought that has gone into your project, for example. In reality, though, you discover that these may be largely irrelevant.

It is under the immense time pressure of this challenge that you discover whether you are the person who writes the whole thing out chronologically, or in pieces, or scenes. You could well find that the truth is surprising, and not at all consistent with your usual, unpressured process. In NaNoWriMo, this is who you are, and this is how you work — and this self-knowledge will be the most powerful tool in your kit as you move forward into your next writing year.

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

If NaNoWriMo is about confronting writerly fears, then sticking it out until November 30th is the real achievement — whether you reach that 50,000 word mark, or not. The simple act of taking on the challenge in the first place is something huge, and the brutal, thrilling 30 day marathon that ensues will teach any writer many lessons. Regardless of the ‘win,’ we learn the truth — about ourselves as writers, about the way we experience the writing process, and about who we truly are beneath those layered security blankets of fear.

What we do with that truth is what constitutes our respective next chapters — and it’s quite the cliff-hanger.