It’s the seventh of November, and as I cross the 50,000-word mark on my NaNoWriMo project, I find myself thinking, again, about why it is I’m still participating in National Novel Writing Month.
This is my thirteenth year, and barring one or two exceptions, hitting 50k has never proven particularly challenging for me. This is a neutral fact, one that doesn’t make me a better (or worse) writer than anyone who struggles to crawl across the finish line or burns out around the 20k mark. I write speedy drafts, and I write a lot of them, because prose is never my problem — my problems tend to be plot problems, and so large-scale overhauls are a more effective form of editing. Especially when rewriting, rather than writing a first draft, I find it easy enough to write 50k in a week or two, and I’ve been known to go much faster. Last year, when avoiding reality at the start of lockdown, I wrote 236k in just over six weeks. It’s how I work. It is what it is.
With that in mind, taking part in NaNo is essentially a formality. I know I’ll write 50k. My friends know I’ll hit 50k. The NaNo London region knows I’ll hit 50k and will reminisce fondly about those 2012 write-ins where I churned out words at a speed that even I now find implausible (10k in an hour and a half?!) in my attempt to race our ML Sophie to the 200k mark. And November is rarely a convenient month, often full of academic deadlines and other commitments, so why bother, if it’s not going to achieve anything I wouldn’t be able to do at another time of year?
In previous years, I’d have said I was doing it for the sense of community. There’s something about sitting in a cafe with other writers, taking part in a timed sprint, that makes me feel a sense of connection I don’t get in many other places, since writing is a solitary pursuit most of the time. In 2018, writing one of the more challenging first drafts I’ve tackled in recent years, I crossed the finish line at a write-in held at the Maritime Museum, which was a particularly scenic setting. In 2019, I was able to call by the Cambridge write-ins on my way home from work.
But this year, as last year, all events are online, and while there’s still a community spirit being fostered in the regional Discord servers and write-ins being held over video chat, it’s not quite the same.
So was it nostalgia? Perhaps. Like I said, this is my thirteenth year. I completed my first ever novel during NaNoWriMo 2009, and as such, I guess you could say it was a formative influence on me. I strongly suspect it’s part of the reason I write the way I do (rapidly but repeatedly). The Butterfly Assassin was originally a Camp NaNoWriMo project, back in 2014. Hell, you can go further back than that: Isabel’s original novel, a crime novel featuring an assassin-turned-detective was intended to be my NaNo novel in 2012. I abandoned it at the last minute in favour of something else, then came back to it later in the month once I’d finished that, and wrote a solid chunk of it.
(It was terrible. I am forever grateful that I retrieved Isabel from that book, put her into the ideas box in my head, and kept her there for another year and a half until I came up with a concept that actually worked. Took a few more years after that to get TBA into readable shape, but I’m not sure that first book would have ever got there, not least because even I didn’t actually know who the murderer was in that story.)
And, true, I’m a nostalgic person, with a Timehop streak spanning years, but I don’t think it’s that. Nostalgia’s not a great reason to sit down and write an entire novel every year.
So what is it? Peer pressure? A sense of obligation to my past self? If I were going to stop at any time, I reasoned a couple of years ago, it should have been after 10 years. Now it’s like, well, I can’t stop now. I did NaNo in 2013 when I couldn’t use my hands and had to rely on speech recognition the whole time, so most other excuses seem flimsy at this point. If then, why not now? 2013 was a bad year: I was severely depressed and in a ton of pain and I was desperate for an outlet — which NaNo gave me, for all of three days.
I kept a journal, at the time. Still do, but it was more impressive in 2013, when the two small pages I wrote in my notebook represented the sum total of the amount of time I was able to spend holding a pen each day. Some of them are shaky, barely legible, and some days I couldn’t get through the whole thing without taking breaks because of the pain. But I kept it anyway. So I know how I felt that month, how frustrated I was for letting myself hit the target so quickly because it meant the distraction was gone and I was stuck in my own head again.
Distraction. That’s the key word, I think. That’s why I participated then, when absolutely nobody would have blamed me for skipping a year (although I firmly believe nobody needs an excuse to not participate, because it’s not as if any of this is obligatory). That’s why I sat there in my room with the uncomfortable Dragon NaturallySpeaking headset and struggled to dictate a first draft because my hands weren’t up to the job.
And that’s why I’m here, this month, writing a novel. Even though my thesis is due in less than two weeks, after which I have to pack up my whole flat and move back to the UK. Even though I’m proofreading for The Butterfly Assassin. Even though I should be packing, or making the most of Cork while I’m here (challenging, with a tendon/cartilage injury to the knee).
Because NaNo is a distraction and an excuse, an opportunity to work on something other than whatever I’m supposed to be doing and whatever my day-to-day obligations are. And while I rarely need excuses to procrastinate, I think I welcome anything that makes those non-thesis projects feel like an achievement. Anything that says, “It’s okay, you can be creative for a while and that counts as Getting Things Done.”
I haven’t really written anything new this year. I haven’t had time. I’ve been editing The Butterfly Assassin, and while there have been new scenes, they’ve generally been small contributions to the larger whole. I did rewrite The Wolf and His King, too, but there wasn’t a lot of new material there; it was more of a line-edit for style. It’s my first year under contract, and so the first year where I can’t just run off chasing after a new project because I felt like it.
And, okay, my NaNo novel isn’t new either. It’s the sequel to The Butterfly Assassin, first written in 2014, rewritten in 2015, abandoned for five years, and hastily redrafted for continuity last year so that I could show it to my agent. So this is technically a fourth draft, I guess, although last year’s rewrite didn’t make many plot changes. This one does, including some fairly substantial ones, and it frequently feels like I’m making something new even when I have an old draft and a detailed outline to follow.
Besides which, I’ve read TBA so many times that I’m utterly sick of it and every time I spend five minutes too long looking at it, I convince myself it’s terrible and nobody will ever read it. But I still love the characters, and writing the sequel is the best of all worlds: I get to spend more time with those characters, in a book I haven’t edited to death, with that delightful combo of familiarity and shiny newness.
This book is under contract, but it’s not due until May, which means I don’t need NaNo to help me meet deadlines. True, I really want to have a solid draft on paper before the reviews for book 1 start coming in, because I suspect they’re going to feed my inner critic and make it hard for me to focus on writing, but there’s no editor-imposed urgency. Nor do I need NaNo because I would otherwise struggle to get the words on the page, tormented by an inner editor nitpicking every line.
No, what I need from NaNo is the excuse. The justification. The reframing of writing when I should be working on my thesis from “blatant procrastination” to “actually an achievement”.
And, yeah, the sense of community helps. When others celebrate my wordcount, it reminds me that although it’s unremarkable to me, that doesn’t mean it isn’t an achievement. It’s easy to lose track of that, I think. Sure, so finishing a draft is only step one on a very, very long road to publication. But a lot of people never get that far, and when you’re sitting safely a fair way along the journey, it’s easy to forget how far you’ve come. Maybe what I’m able to do is an achievement. Maybe it is impressive. Maybe, for once, I should stop being so hard on myself.
And though the actual speed of writing isn’t any different for me than it would be in any month — my fingers and brain move at the same speed whether it’s May or November — it’s true that I’m more motivated to write when I know my friends are doing the same, and when there’s a reason to post snippets in the group chat. Especially, I think, when it would be so easy to justify skipping days, because I have so much going on in my life. Of course I could take days off. Days off are healthy. In fact, after rewriting 25k of my thesis in three days during the week before NaNo, I probably should take days off, because my hands are already grumpy and flare-ups are the worst.
But I don’t want to take time off, because I’ve missed writing, and NaNo is finally giving me an excuse to do it.
Even though I’m meant to be doing other things.
Even though I don’t “need” it.
50k was never really the point. NaNoWriMo is about forming habits and daring to try and refusing to let perfectionism get in the way of finishing. NaNoWriMo is about cheering on your friends and being cheered on in turn and finding that tiny window of time each day when you can write (and defending it with your life). NaNoWriMo is about getting the words in your head onto the paper, whether there are 10,000 of them or 50,000 or 200,000.
I don’t think, in the end, it matters if you “win” or not. And I know “it’s all about having fun” is a trite statement, but that is the point, in the end. Why do it, if you’re miserable? Nobody’s making you. For me, NaNoWriMo is about letting myself forget my obligations and to-do list for a couple of hours each day, and writing something, because I want to.
It’s a distraction. It’s an excuse. It’s what I need right now, burning off the nervous energy in my head that haunts my attempts to finish up my thesis or prepare to move. It stops me refreshing my inbox to see if there’s news about the book I’ve got on sub, and it drastically reduces the amount of time I’m spending on Twitter. And it helps me get this book on paper so that I can figure out how to fix it and then, maybe, work on something else.
So that’s why I’m doing this again, for the thirteenth time, with twenty-one first drafts under my belt (very few of which weren’t NaNo or Camp NaNo projects originally). Not because it’s a long hard slog to the finish line, but because it isn’t. I don’t need the challenge, but it turns out, I do need the excuse.
NaNoWriMo stats, at the time of writing:
Body count: 7. Isabel would like you to know she only killed 6 of them.
Outline fidelity: about 80%-90%, I’d say, which is honestly fairly miraculous for a pantser like me.
Number of days left until I move countries: 13.
Reasons I could have skipped this year: dozens.
Reasons I didn’t: just one that matters — I didn’t want to.
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The Butterfly Assassin will be released on 26th May, 2022. You can add it on Goodreads or pre-order it today.