It’s been a bucket list year for me, well compared to most other years anyway. Sure, my plans to put on a tux and drop a couple hundred in a Nassau casino on my birthday, a la James Bond, did fall flat. On the other hand, I did get to play my very first rooftop gig last summer — which was a lot hotter than one would imagine, and last month I finally participated in, and won, my first NaNoWriMo — which was a lot … harder? … well, different … than one would imagine.
I’ve been wanting to do National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) for at least ten years, but the best of intentions have usually been beaten out by 1) not having a story, 2) having a story, but not being excited enough to write, or 3) having a story and being excited, but forgetting it was NaNo until halfway through the month. This year was different, however. I started out in late-September deciding on a story and then meticulously making lists, outlining story points, and writing down little witty sentences to use. By the first week of October, I was chomping at the bit so bad that I almost cheated and started early. Instead I passed the time by reading a couple of books about writing (No Plot; No Problem and How to Write a Damn Good Novel) even though I was pretty convinced this was overkill, since the point of NaNo is simply a quantitative one of producing 50,000 words of a draft with no concern for editing, style, or making it in any way “good.”
So, as an analyst who normally writes 15-20 thousand words a week of technical nonsense anyway, I wasn’t overly concerned about the pace. Hell, my nickname at one of my jobs was “Tolstoy” because, while I’ve got 99 problems, being able to spew thousands of words in very short order isn’t one. The minimum path of 1600 words per day (fewer than are in this blog post, ironically) is about an hour of typing for me, and hell, if it doesn’t have to be GOOD, I can give you 1600 words about what I ate for lunch. In fact, my habit of just going off on tangents and typing wild rants about stuff completely unrelated to the plot came in handy for NaNo. It’s just going to suck if I ever decide to edit into a polished first draft. My big concern was, as with most things I’ve written, keeping the enthusiasm up and the thoughts flowing when I invariably decide about a third of the way in that it’s crap, I’m crap, my life is crap, nobody has ever loved me, and I’m wasting my time when I could be out drinking beer … alone. I had hoped the outline would take care of that part, since theoretically I had done all the thinking, and could type on auto pilot to the finish line without having to stop for anything but a caffeine refill.
I started off with the idea of doing a techno-thriller novel that borrowed Hitchcock’s “wrong man” formula, since I’d taken a class in Hitchcock and had seen just about all the director commentary tracks on the DVDs, that described his crafting of the story, the use of McGuffins, the escalation of drama, and all of those tools and tropes in great detail. For my take on the genre, I decided that, as an analyst, former software engineer, and 30-year veteran in the technology field, I would destroy the “Hollywood convenient” version of how computers and technology work (that drives me insane when watching a movie) and tell my tale with unrelenting technical accuracy — no gimmicks or eye-rolling leaps in logic. So, as you can expect, my serious techno-thriller quickly became a thinly-veiled satirical comedy about life in the software development industry, where most sinister people of power are too incompetent to hatch grand schemes, and even if they weren’t, the nerds that develop their dreams into reality are generally ten times smarter than they are, just not as rich. In the end, I gave up watching Hitchcock analysis videos and ended up rewatching movies like “Foul Play” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” to try to capture my new tone.
Finally, Halloween night rolled around, and for once I was thrilled to have an excuse to do something other than put on a silly costume and hang out at the local watering hole with a bunch of drunken amateurs who were way too proud of their “slutty version of _____” costumes. (Seriously, I’ve endured “slutty clowns,” “slutty nuns,” “slutty Crocodile Hunter,” “slutty Cookie Monster” … well, that last one may have been intended as “plain old Cookie Monster” that she failed miserably at. Wait … I just sidebarred into a different blog post.) This year I was thrilled to be hanging out in a big co-working space with a bunch of severe introverts, sipping tea, and discussing our favorite authors. Believe it or not, I’m good with this. I read a buttload of books every year (in fact the worst part about NaNo was not having time to read for a whole month), and I decided that while I’m generally not extroverted enough to be the talkative one in a group of bar-dwelling beer buds, I compensate for this by instantly becoming the outgoing one when surrounded by people who are more interesting than me. I refer to this as “alpha-introvert.” Oddly enough, the socialization ended abruptly at midnight and the room went deadly silent except for clacking keys for the next several hours.
So began an amazingly fun month of going to “public write-ins,” participating in daily midnight “virtual write-ins” via Drupal, and conversing with local and international NaNo participants on random side-topics in the message boards, Facebook groups, and chat rooms. Honestly, the amount of group participation and interaction among the Indy participants was a big surprise. I had no idea how popular NaNo was, much less that there were a few hundred people participating in Indy, and a few hundred thousand worldwide. There were multiple virtual and real-world meet-ups every day of the month and someone who wants to chat at every hour of the day.
Speaking of which, just to punch back at all the “successful writers” who published bile-filled articles and social media posts insisting NaNo is a bad idea and a waste of time that reinforces bad behaviors from shitty writers (sometimes even using less-polite words), let me counter with, in addition to the aforementioned social and psychological joys, I actually tried out a few new things and learned a lot. First off, outlining. Turns out this is very handy. I never tried it before because I somehow expected characters to come alive and stories to unfold by themselves, which I now see is why previous attempts sort of ended right after character introductions and right before the main action would have started. Second, write first/edit later. Writing analytical stuff, you don’t get this luxury since you’re constantly on a deadline and waiting on other people’s numbers and research to put in your document anyway and don’t have time for multiple drafts. Doing a novel, or even something like a blog post though, I would spend hours crafting a paragraph and days editing a chapter, insisting each was perfect before moving on, and all the edits really weren’t making things better, they were just slowing me down. With NaNo, I never once looked back at anything I wrote — still haven’t; that’s next month. I just went down the outline, checked off the stuff as I put it down in the story, and made a few notes of things I changed that needed to be paid off later or retroactively set up. Anything can be fixed, added, or pulled out in a later draft, but until you have a baseline, it’s all second-guessing. Finally, and this was a big one for me, I never once had a breakthrough moment sitting around thinking about the novel. There were two or three places at the end of the second act where I was just stuck, and I spent the first couple of weeks dreading the day I reached that point because it looked like a boulder blocking the otherwise smooth train tracks. I sat up nights thinking about possible twists, I tried to plot out story points while driving, I even went to the gym and tried to mentally rewrite sections while on an elliptical. In the end, I still had nothing. The only time inspiration ever came or when problems ever got solved was when I was sitting down at the computer writing. This gives me hope that some of my other stuff doesn’t need to be abandoned, it just needs to be revisited.
Almost exactly as planned, I hit my 50,000th word on the 26th, leaving me without the pressure of a big rush job on Thanksgiving weekend. I managed to clean up on all the badges, though I admit, I did log a couple of 10-minute writing days to maintain my path to the 21-day streak badge. But hey, got the certificate, got the T-shirt. What did you do last month? Grow a beard? The only shortcoming is that at 50,000 words, which is technically “the win,” I’m only about 80% of the way through the draft, and without the contest and my new peer group pushing me on, I fear losing momentum. Obviously I will finish it, just so I can change “wannabe writer” to “author” on all of my social media profiles and whip out my manuscript when I’m drunk in a bar — in much the same way middle-aged women whip out naked pictures from their college years. Once that’s done, I have a number of rewrites and edits before I decide whether to self-publish or bury the fucker, since let’s face it, a zeroth draft where once does not review, edit, or rewrite at any point is really just improvisation, isn’t it? I’m just saying, for a comedy/thriller this book is about as original as something from one of the later seasons of Matlock, and about as funny as Saturday Night Live after 12:45. Therefore, I am encouraging everyone to encourage me by offering up the unedited, as-written on Day 1 first chapter on my website at lungbarrow.com. If you enjoy it, then by simply performing a random act of kindness and submitting evidence, I will add you to the list to receive a free copy of the finished eBook. You’ll find all the details on the site.
Meanwhile, I’ve got friends I haven’t seen in a month to catch up with, so thank you for encouraging my behavior.