Starting My Book: Nine Things I Learned During NaNoWriMo

National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) came and went, and I did my best-ish—which is more than I can usually say, so LOUD NOISES! I’m a mediocre champion.

Did I write the full 50,000 words in a month? Please, fool. Don’t ask a woman her age or weight, and don’t ask a writer about her word count.

I did, however, finally start the book that has been baking in my skull for years, and I’ll take what I can get. Regardless of the number of words I actually slopped onto paper, NaNoWriMo wasn’t about how good those words were (thank the writing gods). Instead, NaNoWriMo was an education, schooling me hard about what it means to be a real writer—instead of just calling myself one. Here’s what I learned about being an actual, madcap, doing-it writer (without the booze but with the cat).

Writing-induced insomnia.

I usually sleep long, easy, and through anything, but even I suffered nights of wakefulness after writing. My mind…I don’t know, something happened to it when it was engaged in prose and story. There was nothing I could do to slow it from racing in wild, writerly circles long after I had set my alarm, and yes, my anxiety increased with my word count. (There’s nothing like a panic attack while you’re trying to sleep.) Also, counting sheep only adds them to your novel, so don’t.

Bookish dreams.

When I finally fell asleep, there they were—my characters, my plot, my setting. Fortunately, being able to watch my book’s wildfire race down the hill or be locked in my book’s basement was helpful. Experiencing the world I was building via dreams became a tool, lending perspective, authenticity, and fresh ideas to the thing.

Buying into it.

As a kid—a very weird, little monster in jelly shoes and scrunchies—I terrified myself by making up harrowing scenarios for my emaciated Barbies. Not much has changed since my own imagination sent me running to the neighbors’, I guess, because I found all my lights ablaze at 2 a.m. after writing a scary scene. I may eventually drive myself mad, so follow me on Twitter for that.

Self-doubt.

We’ve all read horrible books, and I could never objectively tell if I was writing one of them. I doubted everything I wrote. I was worried about if I was creating a masterpiece while actually producing a sodden mess. After all, it’s happened before. I’ve written many pieces I thought were pretty damn great (“I must be a genius”) and then read them a year later to find they were terrible. I wouldn’t read them to a goldfish. This second-guessing was the main challenge I faced trying to finish my book. I was easily discouraged and lost faith in my ability as a writer. However, I was somewhat inspired to forge on by corny NaNoWriMo slogans, such as, “Don’t get it right—get it written,” and “Don’t make it good—just make it.”

Time.

I’m not a scientist, but there was something weird going on with, you know, physics. Time worked differently while I was easing my story out of my head and organizing it on paper. What would normally be thirty minutes in real time became five hours in this alternate universe, sucked into some mysterious, writerly black hole. The phenomenon was certainly disconcerting and should probably be studied by serious scientists only.

Low productivity.

Despite how much time I wrote, I was baffled by how little I actually got onto a page. It was very slow going, much slower going than I expected. I found making things happen and making them happen with the language I wanted were two different things. They took two different efforts, two different thought processes. Just me?

Becoming a god.

I realized, as Captain Obvious, that writing a story is an act of creation. There is nothing, and then suddenly there’s a word, and then another. Each one I wrote pulled something out of nothing. Writers are gods, magicians, forming men and women from stuff less than dust and ribs and sawing beautiful women in pieces and burying them in ground that smells like diesel and mud. The whole thing was a foreign experience to me and would probably be foreign to everyone in my generation. We spend so much of our lives consuming—viewing, listening, eating, buying—and creation is the opposite of consumption. It’s giving, not taking. It’s active, not passive. Writers make things happen instead of waiting for them to happen, and it’s heady, like running twenty miles. I was a hero from my couch.

Out of control.

At the same time, however, I learned I wasn’t the boss of my story. Yes, I had a plan, an idea, but writing is like life, apparently—we don’t know what is actually coming, what we’re about to discover. We’re gods, sure, but gods who surprise ourselves. After NaNoWriMo, it was more accurate to say, “Look what I found,” instead of, “Look what I did.” Or even more accurately, “Look what found me.” Maybe we found each other.

Increased well-being.

More than anything, I discovered writing a novel is good for my brain. Even if we have pretty fantastic lives and are pretty darn happy, it’s easy to schlep through the day exhausted and sluggish and doing the bare minimum, acting as if we’re just surviving. We collapse after a long day of work in front of the TV just to turn our brains off. Consuming, taking, passive. But writing a novel is a long, creative, and engrossing process that occupies our brains even when we aren’t writing. We’re suddenly engaged in life and excited about what we’re doing. This November, I felt awake for the first time in a long time. That alone is a valuable windfall to keep anyone writing.

According to No Plot? No Problem by NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty, however, more than 90 percent of writers who start novels never complete them. That’s unhappy news, but my guess is that possibility is why many of us never start at all—it’s another thing to fail at.

But I like my story, this thing I have going. I like scaring the pants off myself. I like whipping something into existence and discovering how things connect. And most of all, I like who I am as a writer. National Novel Writing Month was like coming home as my best self, even though I’d never been here before. I’d like to stay, and, I mean, I already have the cat.

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