Two takeaways from nanowrimo

Photo by Theresa Barker.

Hello everyone,

Have you ever found yourself turning down something new simply because you were already happy with what you had going? Maybe your friends try to convince you to try a new gelato place down the street, but you say no, because you already have a favorite ice cream place and you’re very happy with their chocolate chip-raspberry ice cream and you’re not ready to try something new. But then one day you happen to be passing by the gelato place and your friend drags you into the store. You order a cup of the honey-lavendar gelato, take one taste, and you’re hooked. What were you missing all this time? you ask yourself. Why didn’t you try this sooner? And perhaps honey-lavendar gelato becomes your favorite sweet treat after that.

For YEARS my friends have been suggesting that I try this, nanowrimo, a once-a-year November project. “Write a novel in a month,” is the idea, and when you sign up you try to meet a wordcount goal each day that will result in a total of 50,000 words on November 30th. For YEARS I said, no thanks, I’m good. I’m happy with my own writing process, I’m not ready to try something different. (It’ll just mess me up.) But at the behest of a couple of writing friends, this year I went over to the nanowrimo website, signed up, and started logging my writing progress.

Surprisingly, remarkably, I made a couple of discoveries through being part of nanowrimo for the first time. These may be things that are helpful to your writing process, and if so, I hope you’ll let me know!

Word Abundance

I started the month with the idea of writing short stories or flash fiction, and I decided to try for at least 1,800 words a day, a little more than the 1,667-word per-day target from  nanowrimo. For the first fourteen days I was writing 2,000 words every day. I let myself write whatever came to mind; they were often improvisations, short riffs on a line of poetry or a phrase, stream-of-consciousness, poetic musings, snippets of things that might contain a satisfying phrase or unusual point of view character. Here’s an example from Day 2 (written Nov. 2):

Poetic line for inspiration: At six o’clock we were waiting for coffee (from “A Miracle for Breakfast,” Elizabeth Bishop)

My piece:

https://www.flickr.com/photos/markwalker/6838092465/in/photolist-bqg1DX-pTibW6-49dB3K-boNWVz-54p8HJ-egAaQr-4DcfQJ-71g4wz-Pg9Ze-dw7poL-EpQR7y-d65Woj-pGD56Y-fpg9qS-2aEAvbY-22kv8JY-zbSTU-hdnxHR-6Y9RsF-dLXpeW-k1hAQF-Tub7ea-yf2ShB-b5U2Yi-7U7aK4-9pu2XM-8FpDy2-bRvxMz-e7GkzA-7Bd2Fd-o9rGdA-7Z2WjC-4CwCRg-9kbWzq-nKKnhk-bW9L9H-8VxkpC-7P2c8m-r5Pb6t-7WJ7gT-4rLoBN-bcwKsF-H16SuU-d65WDA-dSQ3Ug-dLJjeq-85zTCo-boxEnp-YsrWdM-9jSZhu
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At ten o’clock we were waiting for coffee. The server was late, standing on the other side of the room from us. Talking. We did not know when she would leave off her conversation to bring us our coffee cups. Helen wanted cream and sugar, Marjorie wanted black, and I wanted decaf. We waited, talking among ourselves as though it didn’t matter, but in truth we only wanted our coffee. We were like savages before drinking it, all dark thoughts and knives out for gossip. We needed civilization.

Isn’t this a fun piece? I can just see these three women waiting at a table in a diner for the server to come over with coffee. After fourteen days I had a whole collection of these random pieces, and I had logged more than over 26,000 words in my monthly total. Something very startling happened. Writing that many words for that many days in a row, I started feeling a kind of “word abundance” – the feeling of having “extra” words. More than enough words. Words to spare. I had never written that much for so many days in a row before, although I have completed three full novels in the past and a great number of short stories. The sense of abundance from those fourteen 2,000-word days helped me feel much more flexible toward my writing efforts. It gave me a sense of empowerment, an ability to write longer and less-constrained work. It made the world of writing seem wider and easier to explore. It boosted my confidence in myself as a writer.

Letting Go

On Day Fifteen I decided to come back to some of my ongoing projects with this new word fluency. I started looking at my novel “Assassin” (working title). I wrote a new scene. But it wasn’t quite as interesting as I’d hoped. I re-wrote the scene from the other character’s viewpoint, something suggested by nanowrimo experts to “expand” your wordcount. That was better. But still both scenes bored me. Huh. Well, what part of the story did I want to write about? What would keep my interest more? I set aside both of the new scenes.  Now I had more back story, even if I didn’t like these scenes well enough to be part of the novel itself.

https://www.flickr.com/photos/fantasy-art-and-portraits/10287369045/in/photolist-gF4spP-89NRYK-6G1D6C-gF3Qvy-5JA8X-bD162-2cWxyzn-8R11sk-YvdhBf-i8jaCQ-Gjavq-bGdHgV-DzTWPA-VgDR7n-dwVMki-crChDE-qretqz-nh66FZ-j62JSn-72pEeh-r3PjTx-6QFk4k-gF41vd-jLX34X-oFYc79-6uf3k6-eu7duH-8hAtG6-8D1Y7M-BEyUc-97KacH-BExyU-8D55dJ-72ebS8-8D3bev-8D1Yvc-BExeZ-8D55om-ejr5Xq-8D3bcM-2Huaj5-7ghvEo-HX6gXw-2bGww33-ruxYrT-8dMkJU-2bRMDUv-28qpEvH-6aTB4M-BExvL
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Next I wrote a really fun scene that surprised me. In this scene the royal child that my assassin-main-character had brought back from the kingdom after executing the unlawful ruler had to be sent back now that there was a regent in place. But the child would only agree to go if they sent the assassin with him as a bodyguard. Something that had never been done before. But for various reasons they agree to the boy’s demand. Here is an excerpt (written Nov. 17):

Excerpt from new Assassin scene:

The boy was refusing to go back.  What gave him the temerity at age twelve to refuse? Not only that, he was asking impertinent questions about Saska, the operative who had brought him here. Twelve was a young age, but they had a regent and the contract was clear the child should be returned when that occurred.

Simon suppressed a sigh and attempted to explain again. “The contract is very specific. Conditions have been met to return you to your proper place.”

“No one asked me about it,” Colin said. Then, quickly: “I want to see her. The one who brought me here.”

“That is impossible,” Simon responded in his calmest voice. Contact between operatives and clients was strictly forbidden.

“Why not? I’m sure she’ll remember me,” Colin said.

Stubborn, intransigent. Demanding. Royalty can be difficult, Simon thought. Why was it even the young ones seemed so imperious? Of course, he reminded himself, it was bound to be part of the boy’s training. He had had to be prepared become the ruler of the city.

It may sound strange, but I had never been comfortable setting aside scenes that didn’t appeal to me before. Somehow the 2,000-word-a-day habit made me less “clutchy” about clinging to a piece of writing for the novel that wasn’t that exciting. At the same time, setting aside those scenes did not make me feel like a failure, for once. Instead I was able to write a different scene and move forward with the story. I was thrilled.

So – word abundance and letting go – two nanowrimo takeaways that have helped take my writing to the next level. I hope you find ways to be more flexible toward your writing, and I hope you, too, can feel an abundance of words for your writing work. I’ll be sharing more soon about the novel projects I’m creating. Keep writing!

Take care, and thanks for reading!

– Theresa

20 thoughts on “Two takeaways from nanowrimo

  1. So, I’ll be chewing over the word abundance idea, just thinking about how it could fit into my photography. I like to take lots of images, but then to me they really exist and I have to deal with them. I always have this crazy huge backlog and it can feel quite tiring. It’s like I’m babysitting images, have to keep track of them all…

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    1. Oh! I can completely understand that. I have felt that way about my written pieces, too. There may not be an exact parallel to your process of visual art, hmmm. Having to manage them – I like your notion of babysitting them! – is a challenging, I can see that. Thanks for dropping in and sharing your thoughts with me!

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    2. Amy! I just ran across this article in the NY Times about “Why you start things you’ll never finish,” and I wonder if you might find it of interest in the first couple of paragraphs. The later part of the article talks about a strategy of only taking on what one will finish, which may not be as helpful for us creative types, as we need to experiment with a lot of output!

      Here’s a link: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/09/smarter-living/why-you-start-things-youll-never-finish.html

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      1. That was an interesting read, also going to look now at that book “Essentialism” that got mentioned. Only taking on projects you know you will finish sounds a bit limiting though, particularly when it comes to creative stuff. It is important though to think about ending projects that are just a drain.

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      2. Yes, I agree about the taking on project only if you’re going to finish them being unrealistic. Often you find out during a project more about it that leads you to drop it or change how you’ll approach it, right? 🙂 I did like the feeling of giving oneself permission to step back from a project rather than seeing it through just because it was started, as you referred to. Thanks for taking a look!

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      3. Oh! Thank you for letting me know about Cinderella. That was a fun project. In theory Anne J. and I are working on a 6-story Vol II of Cinderella with commissioned 10K stories from six writers we’ve chosen, although I need to get back to Anne and coordinate on where we’re at. My co-writer Kyra Worrell and I just sold our first story together and we are co-writing a Cinderella story that might go in that project. Hummm, need to follow up on loose ends!

        And, by the way, speaking of year-end, I remember that your time in Cambridge may be wrapping up in 2019? Is that still the direction you’re going in? Just curious. 🙂 Have a great week!

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      4. Wow, that Cinderella project has taken on quite a life of its own hasn’t it?
        We were actually extended here, so for now it will be back to the US mid-2020, probably in the summer of that year. Probably this will be what ends up happening, but it is always somewhat subject to change.

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      5. Yes, we have more “in the wings,” but not yet realized. It was a fun project for us!

        Well, can I say good timing for not coming back to the States for another year, it’s quite the landscape here. But then I read with the Brexit issues it must be something over there as well! Hah! Both my kids are doing well, hope yours are too! 🙂

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      6. Sometimes I look at the news and think there is a secret competition between the two counties. Let’s be polite and just call it, “You think you’re nuts? check this out…” We are doing fine though:) thanks, glad all is well on your end 🙂

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  2. Interesting take on the process! One of the best pieces of writing advice IMO is not to fall in love with your darlings/anywritingofyourown. OK, that’s a real paraphrase, but I hope you get the idea. By having that word abundance feeling you now have, it does make it easier, I’m sure! Congrats on a real accomplishment, Theresa!

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    1. You called it, Luanne! The lesson of being willing to shed or set aside those parts that don’t quite make it is important. I knew that intellectually but my little writing body was not quite as forgiving. 🙂 Perfectly said, my friend!

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    1. Thanks, Tammy! You probably run into similar themes in your coaching work, perhaps? The benefit of stretching oneself toward bigger goals or interests, allowing oneself to be more forgiving about trying something a couple of different ways if the first thing doesn’t work … Thanks for visiting!

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