NaNoWriMo has been a part of my life since I was thirteen.
In 2009, somebody on the writing website Protagonize.com was talking about National Novel Writing Month and, being a keen/obsessive writer at the time, I decided to sign up, although it was already the seventh of November and I had no plot, characters, or experience of writing a novel. Nevertheless, I succeeded at the 50,000 word challenge, and finished my first (terrible, short, cliched) novel.
I’ve done NaNo every year since, often completing the initial 50k with ease and going on to write ridiculously huge amounts. In 2010, for example, I wrote 193k (I’d been aiming for 200k, but got ill in the last week of November). In 2011 I was more chilled out, with 73k, but returned with a vengeance in 2012 to write 200k, largely because I was racing somebody else in the London region. 2013 was a challenge because my hands were completely non-functional at the time, but with the help of voice recognition software I wrote my 50k in three days and ended with a total of 97k.
The last three years have seen me take on the NaNo challenge while studying at Cambridge, and as a result, they’ve had more reasonable wordcounts. In 2014 I wrote 50k of a redraft of Bloodied Wings, the second book in my ongoing Moth trilogy. In 2015 I barely scraped 50k, largely because I decided to write a series of short stories instead of a novel, something that didn’t exactly play to my strengths (and to be honest, I only hit the 50k because I started writing fanfic for the last 15k or so). Last year, I wrote 51k of Happy Gay Magical Novel, but it fizzled out because I’d run out of plot, and I never got around to finishing it.
With this in mind, and in the knowledge that (a) I’m in my final year at uni and (b) I’m heavily involved in the Irish Dance Society which is probably going to take more of my time than is really wise, I thought I probably wouldn’t do NaNo this year. After all, I thought, my novel from last year was rubbish. I didn’t even finish it.
Aaaaand then I reread it and realised that, aside from the minor issue of it fizzling out halfway through due to lack of plot, it’s actually a good book.
It’s funny. The characters are engaging. The banter is entertaining. Some parts of it are even well-written, despite it being a first draft. I read it, and when I got to the end of the 51k, my main thought was, “Why didn’t I finish this? I want to know what happens next!”
And close on the heels of that thought was, “Wait, so if this is a good book and has potential… doing NaNo last year wasn’t a waste of time and energy.”
And that was followed by, “Maybe I should do it this year after all.”
But I told myself I’d only participate if I found something I really wanted to work on. Because writing for the sake of writing is pointless and results in more abandoned drafts mouldering in my hard drive, right? And while I do need some kind of creative output to keep my brain ticking over and to keep me feeling positive while at uni, I don’t want to put time and energy and distract myself from my studies unless there’s actually some kind of purpose.
So, no writing for the sake of writing.
But then one of my previous unfinished projects creeped up on me — the opening of a novel that developed from a flash fiction prompt by Chuck Wendig. Its original title (the prompt) was Alone With The Owl, but it developed into a sci-fi story about a one-legged non-binary teenage smuggler with a smart mouth that read like a mix between Skulduggery Pleasant and Firefly. Again, this was a novel that fizzled out due to lack of plot, so initially I thought I was in no better position to write it now than I was when I started it last time.
And then I dug out one of the unfinished short stories from NaNo 2015 and realised I could combine the two and that would solve the problem.
And gradually I realised that although I wouldn’t say I had a plot, I had the seeds of one. The groundwork. Something that could, with a bit of thought, be developed into something approximating an outline, if I were to commit to doing so.
I’ll wait and see what my workload is like, I told myself. Term hasn’t started yet. I can’t judge how much time I’m going to have.
I mean, at my writing speed, I could probably get to 50k by writing for half an hour each day, which ought to be feasible — if it’s not, I’m doing something wrong. But then there’s pain to think about, and the chronic headaches I’ve been getting which have been destroying my productivity, so half an hour a day still has its issues. I would wait, I told myself. I wouldn’t commit. Sure, I’d let the idea tick over, but if I got to November and it didn’t seem practical, maybe I could write it over the Christmas break.
Then the NaNo website updated and profiles now contain a box that gives stats, like the longest running streak of participation and of winning. And there it was. 8 years, 2009-2016. If I did it this year, that’d be 9 years. Then I’d only have one more to go before I’d done it 10 years running, and that would be an appropriate time to stop, right?
Half an hour a day, I told myself. I can spare half an hour a day, whatever Cambridge is doing to me.
Except it’s never just half an hour, is it? Because it’s also thinking time. And brainpower. And my hands only work a certain amount, so using them all up writing novels is potentially going to compromise my ability to write other things, like essays. And just because I have the seeds of a plot doesn’t mean I have a plot. I mean, I don’t even have a proper playlist, and I can’t write a novel until I do. (I’ve tried, and it always goes badly.)
Sure, so I’m in this position a month earlier than I was in 2009 and I managed it then, but I was 13 at that point and I had no expectations that the novel would be worth reading. This time, I’d like it to be.
But here we are. It turns out NaNoWriMo is a hard habit to break after eight years, even with a Cambridge degree to do. I may end up deeply regretting this (and to be honest, I’m still giving myself room to back out if I change my mind, regardless of what it’ll do to my NaNo profile), but I guess I’m doing it.
I’m going to need a better title, though.