Photo credit: Erwan Hesry on Unsplash
My original plan for this final day of the #1,000WordsofSummer challenge was to write another 1,000 words in my novel, but that’s not what I’m doing.
Instead, my final 1,000 words will be directed to you, the wonderful folks who have accompanied me on this journey. (This means that my post will be a bit longer than usual, but I’m trusting you to handle it.)
For the past thirteen days, I’ve plunged into various aspects of my novel-in-progress, slapping on 1,000 words here and 1,000 words there without forethought. I’ve added a lot of ideas and dialogue and description and notions that I can explore later. I don’t mean to suggest for a minute that it wasn’t a worthy exercise or that my book won’t benefit from it.
One thing I came to realize early on, though, was that I was writing for the sake of writing, not because I had anything in particular to say. I wasn’t trying to say things in the most artful manner. I wasn’t searching for meaning. I wasn’t exploring points of view. I didn’t debate whether the moment I was depicting was necessary—or even relevant—to the ultimate story since, as I’ve said before, much of this was exploration.
Don’t get me wrong: exploration is good. When you don’t know what your story is about, exploration is essential.
The thing is, once you start to get a clue where you’re going, it can be helpful to shift the focus a bit, from what you’re saying to how you’re saying it. From how many words you’re using to whether you’re using the best words.
(There’s a certain irony to the fact that as I write this post, I’m paying attention to the word count so I can make certain to hit my final 1,000 words.)
Here are a few things I’ve learned from this year’s 1,000 Words of Summer challenge. If you’re planning to participate in a word-count challenge (such as NaNoWriMo), I encourage you to take these points to heart as you make your plans:
1. Timing is critical. You know by now that for me, the timing of this particular challenge was awful. As I write this now, on the final night of the challenge, all I really want to do is to log off and go to sleep. Between work and home and family and a new opportunity that’s nearly certain, I am physically and emotionally exhausted. The past two weeks have shown that it’s absolutely possible to write even in such a state, but why would you? Unless you’re on a deadline ordered by the court or your publisher, circumstances such as mine in the past two weeks are not times to force yourself to meet a word count.
2. Planning is critical. I first heard of National Novel Writing Month a/k/a NaNoWriMo about fifteen years ago. At that time, the idea was simple: jump in and write a 50,000 word novel in a month. Being forced to write that fast would unleash creativity and silence the inner editor. It sounded wild and glorious and free.
The first time I tried, I got to about 15,000 words. That was when I figured out that I had no idea where the story was going. I liked those characters—I still do—and I may do something with them one day. But the lack of forethought did me in. I had no idea in what direction the characters should go or what should happen once they took their first steps, and with the clock ticking, I didn’t have time to ponder their course.
I have a feeling that I wasn’t the only person to run into this problem. As the years have passed, NaNoWriMo has recognized the need for forethought, planning, research, and preparation. As I write this, the NaNoWriMo website now includes a section for NaNo Prep and a downloadable workbook to help people think out their stories in advance of Starting Day.
If all this preparation is good enough for NaNoWriMo, it’s good enough for #1000WordsofSummer. While spontaneity may work for some, others–people like me–need to know that if we plunge in at the last minute, we may encounter what seems like a permanent desert where all the wild, creative ideas are supposed to be.
Mind you, some people undoubtedly do NaNoWrimo or the 1,000 Words challenge without the slightest plan or hesitation, jumping in with no ideas and emerging at the end with glorious manuscripts. (But the truth is, the rest of us never really liked them anyway, and even now, we are sitting around drinking tea and talking about how those writers undoubtedly have very unfulfilling personal lives, and how the only reason we can’t do what they did is that our own personal lives are so rich and fulfilling.)
3. Life is critical. This is akin to the timing point above, but it’s slightly different. For some of us, the timing will never be any good because our lives will never be not-complicated. In my case, it’s a matter of having multiple jobs plus aging parents who require increasing care. Piling these on top of everything else, from house maintenance to laundry to chorale to trying to find a new church to the (very) occasional dinner with friends to actual rest, and it becomes clear that a challenge such as this will likely never work well. Perhaps someday, when my parents have departed this life, and I’ve hired a kid to mow the lawn and another to clean the gutters, and I’ve retired from the law and am able to devote all my time to writing, and my ever-patient friends are still hanging in, and I’ve found a church where I don’t feel constantly braced against ignorant comments—perhaps then, it will be an actual good time for a challenge such as this.
But the truth is that there will never be a good time. I said this before, and I’ll say it again:
In the coming days, I’ll begin to review the thousands of words I concocted over the past two weeks, Maybe I’ll find that some of them are worth keeping. My guess is that there won’t be a lot of them falling into this category, but maybe that’s not the point. Maybe the point is simply that I dug in and wrote them even when the times were tough, and that if I could do that, there’s really nothing to keep me from digging in again and again, any time I want.
That’s it, friends. Nearly 1,100 words in this post. Challenge completed.
On that note, I bid you a good night. If you feel like leaving a note to talk about what this challenge has meant to you, I’d love to read it. Otherwise, go and make yourself a cup of tea, and sit on the porch and watch the fireflies darting to and fro. Because who knows? Maybe one of them will give you an idea, and that idea will blossom into something spectacular.
After all, anything’s possible.