Is that a novel in your pocket, or are you just glad to see me?

It’s Day 4 of my post-NaNoWriMo existence. I am squarely in what others refer to as the “Post NaNo Blues”. It’s a real thing…I saw it on the internet. You can google it.

I entered into the “competition” without any real plan, and if I’m totally honest with myself, not expecting to actually cross the finish line. 50,000 words is a lot. Go ahead and throw 50,000 toothpicks on the floor and you’ll see what I mean.

I had wanted to give myself a metaphorical kick in the arse. I needed it. I’ve always been a rather sporadic writer, preferring binge-writing sessions to any kind of sustained, daily practice. But that does not a career make. I’d been reading a lot about establishing a creative habit, and several rules/steps kept popping up. Accountability and a trigger were the two that spoke to me most directly. So, with unbridled enthusiasm – but lacking other things, like a story idea, for example – I decided on October 31st that I would participate in National Novel Writing Month. And it felt good to decide that. I felt like a grown-up.

Accountability? Check. I posted on Facebook, Google+, and my Twitter feed that I would be doing it, hoping that the shame of having to say later, “Oh, that? Yeah, I didn’t finish it” would keep me motivated. I registered on the official NaNoWriMo website, too. They send weekly, and sometimes daily, reminders and pep talks by email.

A trigger? Check. The strict start and finish dates for NaNoWriMo made that part easy. Begin on the first. Finish on the 30th, if not before.

And so began my odyssey.

Some Numbers

According to the official stats, the total number of registered participants this year was 310,109. Over 300,000 people pledged to write a novel in 30 days. Kudos to each and every one of them.

Of course, the actually writing is a bit harder. Of the registered participants, only 41,940 completed and validated a 50,000+ word book. That’s a completion rate of roughly 13.5%. Am I proud to be in that group? Hell, ya! The accountability aspect was part of my success, but it quickly became a matter of my wanting to know what would happen next. I wanted to finish the story because it had to be told, because the characters demanded it, not because I would be embarrassed to admit I didn’t complete it.

  • My novel ended up being 54,103 words.
  • I wrote everyday in November except for two – I missed the first of the month (still had no idea) and I was away on the ninth.
  • Most days I worked on the novel for about 90-120 minutes. That was my average to hit the daily word target. But, as any creative will tell you, some days are harder than others. I did occasionally have to put in three, or even four, hours to get it done. Thankfully, those days were the exception and not the rule.
  • I averaged about 1800 words per day, but in order to finish the story, and not just cross the 50,000 word threshold, I had to write over 5000 words on the last day. I typed the last sentence in my epilogue at about 11:45pm that night. Whew.

What I Learned About Myself, my Writing, and my Craft

I am a writer.

That’s the most important takeaway for me, and not in a “I’m-better-that-the-rest” kind of way, but simply in my own belief and estimation. I’ve always wanted to do this, and now I know that I can. Trial by fire, and I emerged burned and scarred, but otherwise alive.

Good writers keep going. They don’t quit. There were a few days – although far fewer than I expected – that the writing wasn’t coming and I just wanted to quit. Those aforementioned 3-4 hour sessions spring to mind. But I didn’t. Good writers keep going, and no matter how good you are when you start, you end up better. True story.

Here are the rest of my nuggets of wisdom gleaned from my thirty days (OK, 28) sitting at the laptop:

  • The first draft is going to suck. It just will. Accept it, and move on. I don’t care who you are, or how long it takes to write it. Obviously, the parameters of NaNoWriMo exacerbate this idea (there is just no time to rewrite or improve as you go along), but even under ideal conditions, the first draft is not the best draft. Not by a long shot. Ernest Hemingway said it best – “The first draft of anything is shit.” The first draft of anything is shit.
  • My first draft sucks. Yup. Big time. There are spelling and grammar errors (I used there when I meant their on the very first page…the horror!), plot holes, repetition, repetition, parts that drag on, and parts that fly by too quickly. The entire last two chapters need to be at least twice as long (I was running out of time). But hey, if friggin’ Hemingway believes that his stuff was shitty at first, then there’s hope for the rest of us. But…
  • If the story is there, no matter how shitty, it can be pulled from the abyss, snatched from the jaws of mediocrity. Too melodramatic? I like my story. In fact, I love it. It needs work, and I have absolutely no idea where it cam from, but I can’t wait to make it better.
  • Get out of the way and let the story be told. I mentioned this in my first NaNoWriMo update, but it bears repeating. Committing to daily practice of anything is hard, but you ultimately reap the rewards without having to do anything else. For me, writing every day led to being almost a passive witness to the story. Plot twists and events bobbed to the surface from…I don’t know where. Things happened that I never saw coming. And I’m the writer! That, my friends, is magical. And the best part? It can happen to any one of us. Practice your art every day and marvel at what happens. Marvel, I say!
  • Counter-intuitive to what I thought I knew about myself, I’ve discovered that I’m at my most creative between 9am and 1pm. I thought I was more of a “night creative”. Prided myself on it. But nope. For the first 2 weeks, I was writing in the afternoon and/or after dinner. And it sometimes went well. On a hunch, I moved my schedule around and started working on the novel in the morning, and doing other work stuff later in the day. Hallelujah! Testify! I won’t say it was always easy, but I found the difficult sessions fewer and further between. Be creative when you’re at your most creative. And if you don’t know when that is, experiment. Split-test. Write in the morning for a week, then the afternoon for a week, and finally at night. Compare notes.
  • Don’t try and write well. It’s an exercise in frustration. Just write at this point.
  • An outline serves you well. Unless it doesn’t. I wrote about 80% of my novel without any outline or plan. It developed organically as it grew. Some days that was liberating, and it surprised me at multiple points, but it was also stressful and irritating, too. As I approached the end of the story, I did sketch out an basic outline of what I wanted to happen, how, and in what order. It wasn’t too detailed, but it offered road signs and mileposts as I wrote, and I found that tremendously reassuring towards the end. So, what am I saying here? I would hate to lose the surprise and feeling of “I wonder what will happen next?” that I experienced with this story, but I recognize the benefits that a plan can offer. My advice? Sketch some of it out, but not so much that there’s no way for the story to go where it needs to go.
  • Just write. Or draw. Paint. Or compose. Just do it. I’m kicking myself for never having done this before. I toyed with NaNoWriMo several times before, but never pulled the trigger. I can say without a hint of hyperbole that this was the best decision I have ever made in regards to my creative self. I am a writer. I feel I can say that now…and mean it. Not because I finished the novel – although I am incredibly proud of that fact – but because of what I learned about writing and how it relates to me. Whatever creative habit or identity you want to establish, do it. And be.
  • Take breaks. Seriously. Especially if you work on a computer. I was killing myself with long, drawn out sessions. My back and eyes were extremely sore. Use a timer, set a short period of time (around 25-30 minutes), and when it goes off, stand up, stretch, and don’t look at a screen of any sort for a few minutes. Trust me. I found that using the website Timer worked well for me. Even better, it has a pomodoro setting, which is a 25 mins/5 mins cycle. Work for 25 minutes, then take a 5 minute break. Perfect.

So, What’s Next?

Well, for me, I’m stepping back from my novel for a week or two. Maybe more. Gonna let it percolate for a while before I go back and start working through it, chapter by chapter. The editing and revision will take much, much longer than the first draft. And I’m looking forward to it. After spending anywhere from 2-4 hours each and every day with those characters, and sub-consciously much more, I miss them. That’s what they mean by the “Post NaNo Blues”.

Beyond that, I find my head swimming in ideas for other stories. A crazy amount. NaNoWriMo made my mind a much more mature field for cultivation (how’s that for alliteration?). Daily practice and habit have spread a creamy, warm, and gooey layer of manure on my creativity (too gross a metaphor?). I can’t wait to start the next one, be it novel, play, or short story.

I started out hoping to not be embarrassed. Wanting to cultivate a creative habit. And I’ve done that. I want to write every day. I need to write every day. I always read about the greats and their belief that writing was the only way they could stay sane and make it through the day. Not writing was not an option. I get that now. And holy hell does that feel cool.

What creative habit do you want, and what are you doing to make it a reality?


Bryan Johnston

Former high school English lit & drama teacher. Current writer, stand-up comedian, & improv performer. A big switch? You betcha.

International expat for 12+ years with stops in Beijing, Dubai, Shanghai, & Guangzhou. Dad to a university sophomore, an eleven-month old charmer, & the two best doggos. Lover of funny things & people. Oh, and craft beer.

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