5 things I learned in Nanowrimo 2013

While I’ve finished Nanowrimo before, I tried a more complicated novel this year. The difference in complexity and difficulty was large–I knew what I was going to do, but unlike before I couldn’t just wing it when the going got tough.

I wrote a mystery novel. Or at least, I wanted to write one. However, I also wanted to focus on the characters, to write a character-driven story instead of a plot-driven one. I knew it could be done–Nisioisin had done it before in Zaregoto, and Persona 4 was largely character-driven in that the protagonists were able to relax and have fun despite the murders happening in their town (if it were plot-driven, it would’ve been a lot more hectic) However, focusing on the characters diluted the mystery part of the story, and I had to throw out a subplot out over the course of writing it.

It’s about a magical girl who screws up and gets kicked off her team, losing her powers in the process. She stays in Tokyo for the summer vacation, and stumbles into a mysterious bar in Akihabara: a bar staffed and patronized by ex-magical girls, all of whom are adults! As she learns how being a magical girl has changed and affected the lives of others, a murder is committed. Worse, the killer could be an ex-magical girl herself…

Now that I’ve finished it, I realize how the premise sounds so close to Watchmen. I could even swap “hero” for “magical girl” and have something that wouldn’t embarrass myself in normal conversation! At any rate, it’s a really rough draft, and one could tell how I really liked writing certain parts while barely sketching out the others. I wrote with an ending in mind but didn’t finish my pre-writing notes and outlining because of Pokemon Y. Yeah.

Anyway, here are the things I learned:

1. You have to write it down

Got a spiffy idea for a story? We all have them! So what’s the difference between yours and everyone else’s? How are you going to tell if it’s good or not?

You have to write it down. Other people, when they learn that I’m a writer, talk to me about the cool ideas in their head. I smile and nod and ask questions to get some of their points clarified, and then I drop the bomb: “well, so how much have you written about it?”

The most common answer is a tossup between “I’m not writing, it’s too much of a hassle” and “It’s already in my head, I’ll just get to it sometime”. While the second answer is slightly better (some people are able to crystallize stories in their own heads before putting them on paper, but I’ve never been one of them), both still mean that the person hasn’t written anything. One of my hard-earned lessons as a writer is that your idea sounds better in your head than it actually is. Since you had the idea, you tend to ignore or gloss over very basic questions that could topple the entire thing over. Things like, “why didn’t they use cellphones?”, or “why did X just stand there while Y and Z fought?”

Ideas don’t make you a writer. Writing does. It galls me that people could call themselves creative when they’ve never actually sat down to create anything with their hands. It’s like the guy who pitches a movie to a studio but doesn’t want to do any of the hard work. As if said idea is above details like plot, setting, characterization. The Idea Guy fails to realize that it’s these very things that make an idea good.

Which leads me to my next point.

2. There are no shortcuts

Want to have written a novel? Then you need to write it. It’s a saying that writers love like having written something, but hate the actual writing process. I can relate. It’s tough, and I’ve had my nights of crippling self-doubt. But you can’t have a finished novel on your hands if you didn’t write Chapter 21 of 30. You might have a really cool fight scene, which plays perfectly in your mind, but it’s a pain to get down on paper, because you’re scrambling for words to do it justice and failing. Going back to #1, you can’t just say it’s good enough to stay in your head.

But that’s actually one of the best parts of writing. Doing Nanowrimo made me like the process of writing, as opposed to something I just had to do in order to have a big chunk of words that others could enjoy reading. If you want to get from point A to point C, you have to write point B. After reviewing your work, you could decide what to do with point B, but you won’t be able to make a good judgment call without having it down on paper.

I used to hate having to write something that would turn out bad. Because if you spend all that effort and it isn’t good anyway, then it’s ultimately a waste of your time, right? This, as it turns out, is a very cynical way of approaching things. How would you know it’s bad unless you’ve written it first? And even if it’s bad, surely you could learn something from it? Everything is salvageable, as long as you work on it. You could file a story away, pull it out years later, and make something new out of it.

This is what plagues aspiring writers. They’re inspired by wonderful books and movies to write, but when they do start, they quickly realize that their work doesn’t quite match up to their standards. And they give up. They see mistakes as a sign of their lack of skill and conclude that they don’t have what it takes. But you can only get better at writing by writing more (along with studious reading).

3. Revisions will make everything better.

Even if I didn’t revise my draft, it was something that shadowed everything I did.

While I was writing a first draft, and writing it hurriedly, I let myself go crazy. I got inspired by a few things that I had been reading on the side, and added characters or plot points that weren’t in the initial outline. Even if I thought they could be bad, I wrote them in anyway. The worst that could happen is that it doesn’t work and I’ll have to cross it out, and even then, I could still learn something from it. I allowed myself to make mistakes, because they’ll get caught in editing.

Some people want to make their first draft good, because if they do it correct for the first time, then they don’t need to change it anymore. It’s a logical idea, but you can’t really tell that from your first draft. Writing is iterative because stories are huge things that need to be managed in chunks. I used to think that writers are incredible people who could singlehandedly build imaginary castles in their minds, but as I learned more about the writing process, I realized that you can’t have a flawless manuscript on the first try. The good thing about writing is that the reader only needs to see the best version of your story. You can mess up a thousand times backstage and go up front with a masterpiece.

My novel has a lot of problems. I have a weak main character who might be written out of the story. The magical girl system I designed isn’t very consistent or logical. The mystery isn’t all satisfying and the killer just gets revealed abruptly. Yet I rolled with all of them, as I’ll fix and address them all when it’s time to revise.

4. Enjoy the hobby!

A third in the month, I was talking to my friends about how hard it was to write (I was a few days behind that time), and so on and so on. My friend remarked, “sounds like you’re not enjoying what you’re doing.” I thought about this, and realized that I’ve been whining. So I stopped complaining. Writing is hard enough, and it doesn’t help that some writers talk about it as this excruciating slog. It isn’t nice company either–the negativity is going to annoy other people.

5. Draw motivation from yourself, not from others

I stopped tweeting and posting on Facebook for the duration of November. The reason for this was twofold: first, I didn’t want to be distracted by the stuff (and we all know how much of a timesink they are), and second, I didn’t want to rant online about how I’m falling behind or how horrible my writing is. I didn’t want to be seen as someone seeking validation or encouragement for what I’m doing. Because when the well of likes has dried up, where will you find the motivation to write?

I also wanted to live up to this quote, from One Off:

You don’t really ask people to encourage you. Someone will encourage you if they see you devoting yourself to something. The people being encouraged are often too busy working hard to notice. It’s not a visible strength, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t important.

And it worked.

* * *

Sadly, I won’t be doing Nanowrimo next year: the first was just to prove I could do it, and this time was to write a more ambitious story. The next thing I’ll need to do is to polish my work, learn how to revise and rewrite. I’d also like to sleep soundly next November, too! Nanowrimo has done me good, and I wish that others would have fun with it in the coming years. I’ve learned a lot, and I like myself a little more for it.

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