It’s crazy hot in Seattle, which isn’t that unusual in August, but the air is also full of smoke from wildfires in British Columbia. This combination is making it truly stultifying around here, as we try to choose between getting a trace of cool air flow at night and breathing in pollution that is bad for our lungs and bodies. We get such a brief window of dry summer weather here and it is hard to look out your windows and see a gray shroud blanketing the city and blocking out the blue sky.
I’ve hunkered down in the slightly cooler basement while the Blue Angels roar overhead and am making the best of it today, using the time to do some writing. I haven’t written since Monday, when I completed the 50,000 word marathon for Camp NaNoWriMo in July (I talk about getting ready for NaNoWriMo in this post, and gave a mid-point update here). I have been extremely busy all week with work, so it was a relief to be done. I didn’t feel exactly elated, but I did feel a sense of accomplishment.
I’d never attempted to do anything like write a novel in a month, and remember scoffing at the idea when Ed suggested it a few years ago. I didn’t plan on doing it this year, but I found myself at a point with writing where I wanted to push myself. I wanted to see what it was like to write one long piece. I was weary of thinking “someday maybe I’ll write a story,” and just decided to do it. As Marshawn would say, it’s all about that action, boss.
Here are a few things I discovered during this adventure at the keyboard.
Writing without a plan is like pointing yourself down a hill on skates and just letting gravity take its course. And picking up a weird hitchhiker on the way.
I had only a very basic idea to begin with, and no plot or ending in mind. I decided to just write and see what would happen. I didn’t try to control the story, and there are good and bad things about this. I can be highly self-critical, so by taking the control away and just letting things run their course, I was able to quell the judgy voice for the most part. On the other hand, the story I ended up with lacks focus and structure and in some places, makes no sense. Events are not always logical. Characters are underdeveloped. Word count became more important than legitimacy and quality.
However, there is a story there, with a basic plot and to an extent, an overarching theme. I made it to the bottom of the hill without too many scrapes and bruises, and now there is this creature with me, made of whatever I could grab onto as I flew pell-mell down. The creature has too many heads and limbs and I’d have to figure out how to bring it into a more coherent shape if I decided to continue our journey together. I don’t know if I love this creature enough yet, so we’ll be hanging out for a while until I can make that determination.
If you can write 50,000 words in a month by spending (about) two hours a day writing, you can write that much spending 30 minutes a day in less than six months.
Or 15 minutes a day over a year. Give or take. A timeline that allows for things like working, cooking dinner, watching the occasional TV. And writing a better story. I craved time to look things up, read more on the history of places that came up in the story, make better references, develop the characters and sub-plots, read other books that might have been helpful, etc. But there was no time for research like that, or even to use a thesaurus really. Maybe the high-speed uninhibited drop down the hill gives you momentum to just get your idea down and then you can go back and fill those things in. Being a procrastinating type who often doesn’t finish things I start, I think there was a lot of value in the headlong, take-no-prisoners approach. It’s just challenging to do it and have a job and pursue any other interests. I took more than a week off in July and that is really the reason I was able to get this done.
Drama isn’t just for the reader.
This never occurred to me before. Stories capture us because things happen – lots of events take place and characters are challenged, pushed. This seems normal when you’re reading, even though most of the time life is just very ho-hum. Reading about a person’s average day would be boring though, and guess what? It’s also incredibly boring to write. The days when my story had a lot of action and drama, I wrote easily and quickly. The days in between those events…drudgery. I found myself longing to do other things, even things like vacuuming or cleaning the cat box. More skilled writers probably have tricks up their sleeves to make these sections go more easily, and I will pay closer attention as a reader now. In fact, I know I’ll be a different kind of reader as a result. Part of me likes being ignorant of the skill behind the magic, but I want to know how to do some of it myself.
When things don’t flow, get outside.
Sometimes, things just felt stuck, nothing was moving. Kind of like our air outside right now. I’m glad we had better air quality in July, because I spent a lot of the time I wasn’t writing out in the yard. I would sit out there and read for a few minutes now and then, but mostly I did a ton of yard work. I weeded, pruned, watered, repotted, hauled cedar chips, and even stained the pergola over our patio. My brain was freed during these times and when I’d go back to the keyboard, usually something had broken loose. I also went for walks, and I’d see things that would prompt ideas for my story. Being in the world, and giving my body control while my brain rests and processes is a really good balance for me.
It helps to know others are sharing your ups and downs.
The Badass Honey Badger cabin was a wonderful part of doing the Camp. I didn’t visit our online hangout as much as I would have liked (again, TIME), but when I did, I always found something sustaining. Someone with the struggles, like I was having. People cheering each other on and celebrating goals met. Peg, as always, giving all of us major encouragement. Just updating my word count on the site and seeing the little graph continue its upward climb gave me a boost. Writing sometimes feels like a form of insanity, so these reminders that if I was insane, at least I wasn’t alone, kept me from giving up.
The natural conclusion is to ask, what’s next? As I said above, I’m not yet sure what I will do with these 90-ish pages. Perhaps even if I don’t do anything with this story, there are pieces there I’ll use somewhere else. Meanwhile, I’m going to write blog posts, read other people’s books, and enjoy what’s left of summer. As soon as the smoke clears, that is.