Friday, October 30, 2015

Slow life writing

This is around the time of year when we all start with our NaNoWriMo posts. This is also the first year that I didn't even consider doing NaNoWriMo. I usually at least have a fleeting moment of maybe I should—nahhhhhh. The glib reason is that I've already drafted 50,000 fast, wrong words and then decided to throw them out this year.

Seriously, though, it has taken me a few years to come to understand I don't write well when I aim to write fast. I do believe that NaNoWriMo is an excellent opportunity to build the habit and create the discipline of writing every day. Word goals, specifically a consistent word goal, is how I keep the momentum going. It's less about the word count than it is the reminder to be writing, to be pushing the story forward. (This does not, at any point, become a post about how I changed my mind and will be doing NaNoWriMo this year.)

I don't do NaNoWriMo for other reasons, including that I find 50,000 words to be an awkward length. (That's a little over half a story worth of words.) There may be a year that I choose to participate just for the challenge of writing something that is that length. But it won't be 2015.

I've been working on something this year, that I tweet about occasionally and I talk about to people, but I've not really blogged it. Possibly because I've been busy putting words into it instead of writing words about it. Also, it's a bit difficult to refer to as it needs a new title, because the current one is connected to when I planned to do something overly complicated with the structure that I'm not doing anymore. (Past Me got too much sleep in late 2014 and then had this great idea about trying to write a David Mitchell book. No. We're not doing that.)

Usually I refer to it as the damn magpie book. It's new but not, as I completed a rough draft in January of 2014. But I had left it to gather dust for most of last year, because I'd spent far too much time with it. To be honest, I was certain I hated it. We have a long history of fighting each other to get the job done.

Earlier this year, I had the great idea to draft something new and come back to revising. So I stuffed the magpie draft in a folder on my harddrive, and I (gleefully) moved on. I wrote more than 50,000 words of something else. Something fun. But I stalled out. Because I was writing fast and thin and I could see the story going to pieces. I had these characters and this vague plot and a reaction to a few things, but I didn't have what made the story mine. Why was I writing it?

I don't think that stories should only be about our viewpoints and our experience, but I do think there needs to be something that connects the writer and the story. Because the writer is the first reader. Before feedback and revisions and everything else, you've got to be invested enough to finish that first draft. And I suffered through years of falling out of love with an idea but sticking to it so I could get something finished. I wasn't about to do it again.

When I decided to have a go at applying for writing grants in June, I pulled the magpie thing out and started working on making it suck less readable. (The grant I applied for is specifically targeted at works in progress and offers funding to complete them.) I cringed my way through it. It wasn't a bad story; it just wasn't the story I wanted to tell. It had been written too slow—too much time between its starts and stops—so that it was equally thin as something written too fast.

I tried revising, got 30,000 or 40,000 words in—it had topped out around 90,000—and realized revising wasn't going to do it. I had to rewrite it into something I could love enough to do what it takes to make stories good.

My new challenge was could I make the western—such an American genre—into something Canadian, but more importantly... could I make it feminist? It was a bargain story, but could I make it about the danger of transactional relationships in a way that wasn't heavy-handed? Could I write a revenge tale that was kind? And most importantly, how could I make it so magic spilled out the sides of it even if doing magic wasn't the focus of the story?

I stopped when I was doing job interviews or reading and reviewing... but I kept at writing it. I pulled the story apart, examined it with the same critical gaze I use for other people's stories, and put it back together better. I listened when people spoke of representation and the problems with historical assumptions and felt grateful I was at a stage where I could easily make those changes. I fed it songs. So many songs. (Seriously, there is a place reserved in the acknowledgements for the person who unintentionally half-built this story's playlist.)

And the story's getting there. It is well on its way to being something. I've got work left to do, but I know I'll have it finished and readable before the end of the year. That's really all I wanted.

But if you are deciding whether or not to do NaNoWriMo, I would tell you that producing an arbitrary amount of words by a certain date won't make you a better writer. It may make you a faster writer. Few of us are fortunate enough to improve by accident rather than intent.

But if you want to do NaNoWriMo to put yourself in a position to have to make writing decisions faster and have the support of a community of people who are sharing that experience, then it's a good place and probably something you'll enjoy. Like everything, you get out of it what you put in.

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