This is not my first time at the rodeo. On my computer and in manuscript form is the spent jet trash of attempted novels: The Restaurant Book, The Family in Maine Book, The Girl Who Works at the Convenience Store and Falls in Love with the Suave Rug Cleaner Book. Their shapes are oddly twisted by the intense heat of re-entry into this atmosphere, the one in which I finally throw up my hands and abandon them as “bad,” and “impossible.” It’s an odd pastime, spending hours creating things that soon depress, frustrate and disappoint me, but I had my reasons. It’s a heady feeling to toss my head and say “I’m writing a novel,” but quite another to study the cold, hard facts about the publishing industry, and accept the facts. Unless one is already famous, or stars on a reality TV show…one is well and totally screwed.
It was, and is, much easier for me to sit down and write an essay about something that bursts in my brain like some topical supernova, making me twitch, and burn, and feel that if I do not write thatveryminute I will probably die. I love that feeling of pouring the words out through my fingers. The beauty of Open Salon, and blogging in general is that there is immediate publication, immediate response, and immediate gratification – the icy solitariness of writing is balanced by the enveloping warmth of readers, connection, and (if I’m lucky) approval. It’s hard to turn away from that; it’s kind of how I imagine a crack addict feels.
After the 500 attempts at writing a novel, I happened into the world of current, Young Adult fiction. I started reading it, both the superlative and the appalling, and I knew I had found my thing. I really am fifteen, in many ways; I can still, for better or worse, tap into the moodiness, romanticism and isolation of adolescence. So I started writing a YA book, and two days later, as if by Cosmic Delivery, I read that it was the first day of NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) in which one commits to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November. That’s a daily commitment of about 1667 words, and people all over the country play along, participate in writing groups, blog about it, and generally dig in. The completion of 50,000 words, verifiable on the project’s website, is called “winning.” I was fairly skeptical about that denomination; to me, “winning” means that you write a really great book and someone wants to pay you money for it. Writing 50,000 words of unmitigated swill does not make one a “winner,” or, for that matter, a “writer.” It merely indicates the capacity to type.
I explored the local NaNoWriMo activities, but frankly I would rather chew gum snatched from the underside of theater seats than participate in a “Write In” at a coffee shop. I also shied away from the message boards, “inspirational” posts from established writers, and other bells and whistles. I decided that I would use the NaNoWriMo structure to keep myself on track, and that at the end of the month I would have, not a submittable manuscript, but, as my friend Annie says, “50,000 words in my back pocket.” It would make me write on days when I didn’t feel like it, and it would give me a little frisson of happiness to update my word count and see the bar graph continue its upward climb.
In a shocking turn of events, the same things that had bedeviled me on previous attempts continued to bedevil me. I am good at character stuff, and dialogue, but wretched at plotting. Mostly, it’s because I don’t really care. I am a huge fan of books, movies and TV shows that are character-driven, and I may be one of the only people who actually likes “My Dinner with Andre.” The problem is that in a book for young people, something has to happen every now and then. I have now read enough YA fiction to know that whether a book is an exquisitely wrought story, or a charnel house where words go to die, there is always a plot to keep the young reader engaged. So I have to make things happen, pay attention to the laws of cause and effect, and keep characters doing something pretty much all the time. For me, it is the literary equivalent of learning, applying, and lecturing on the principals of quantum physics in front of an Honors Physics colloquium at M.I.T.. It also turns out that there are still days when I just don’t feel like it. Those are the kinds of days when, on previous attempts, I would have told myself I was “just going to take a break” for a day or two. The break would then have stretched into eternity.
Yesterday I came across this blog post arguing that writers should notparticipate in NaNoWriMo. I seriously considered the thesis that no decent novel could be written in a month, and that if a person really wants to write something worth reading, it takes as long as it takes. Then I thought about all of the writers I know who are religious about a daily writing schedule. It is their job, and while there may be times when they burn the midnight oil clothing their inspiration in words, there are other times, more times when they are uninspired, overtired, and struggling to put something on the page. Sometimes, they actually do have a deadline. It probably isn’t thirty days, but somewhere there is an agent, an editor, a publisher drumming fingers on desk and waiting for what they were promised.
There is value in balls out, burning inspiration, but for me, right now, the priceless commodity is discipline. Every day I struggle against the impulse to skip, or delay “doing my words” and write something else, or write nothing, or go back through what I’ve already written and hack savagely at its tender roots. Every single day. And so far, I have been able to make myself move forward, creating what may be an amorphous and un-publishable blob. Every day that I meet my goal signifies an investment, rather than a frittering of my creative capital, and gets me farther than I’ve ever gotten before. It may be an artificial motivation, and I have many more months of editing and shaping ahead of me, but I will have gotten farther than I ever did before. To me, that’s “winning.”