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NaNoWriMo: How It Started vs. How It's Going (Not Today, Santa!)

Happy Thanksgiving 2020! Scroll down to the bottom for a turkey bone broth recipe, or keep reading for a dramatic story of despair and redemption. Choose your own adventure! Allora. Those of us with survival instincts are locked down in our own homes this holiday season with no guests, and some intrepid aspiring novelists have taken advantage of this fall's pandemic isolation to try for a NaNoWriMo win. To all you crazy kids who have already certified your 50,000 words so that you can relax on this day of joyful gluttony, congratulations, winners! I am not one of you. Not this year, anyway. When I wrote the blog post below (originally entitled "Final NaNoWriMo Weekend Squeeze,") life was extremely different. I was a wildly busy, messily eager, child-free young adult who didn't let a little thing like a holiday slow me down in my race to become a WINNER WINNER TURKEY DINNER. 

So what did I win, exactly? To put it simply, I received a near-delusional shot of confidence that turned out to be just what I needed to push through agonizing self-doubts and write my magnum opus, checking something very dear to me off my bucket list, after a long and arduous process through the jungle of dream-crushing despair that is the path of the aspiring literary novelist. It was a process that helped me tap into uncharted territories within my soul to create something beyond my wildest imaginings thus far, and it cost me so much that it may take me years to recover. Was it worth it? Yes. But like my beyond-unpleasant childbirth experience, it's not something I look forward to doing again. Certainly not this year, Santa baby.

If you aren't already aware, NaNoWriMo is a program that started roughly 20 years ago, to give whimsical encouragement and virtual prizes to participants who race to pound out 50,000 words of novel rough draft material in a single month. There are also in-person, local NaNoWriMo groups that meet physically (in non-pandemic years) to clatter away on their keyboards in a shared space, egging each other on with silly challenges and prize-trinkets. It's all about quantity over quality, speed over quality, enthusiasm over quality, DOING SOMETHING over stagnant perfectionism. It is a wonderful program for people who:

a) are not serious at all about writing a good novel but enjoy the totally fun nerd-berserker vibe of the WriMo community and the opportunity to challenge their creative writing habits in a fresh way.

b) are so dead serious about writing a novel that the will to produce it has haunted them every day of their lives and will never stop until something blows away those barriers of self-doubt, inexperience, or boggy perfectionism.

NaNoWriMo claims to make participants into "novelists" if they win by writing 50,000 words in a month, which is cute but meaningless outside of the community, because 50,000 words of stream-of-consciousness speed writing truly amounts to about half of the starter culture ingredients needed to develop one actual rough draft manuscript, which itself is only a "novel" as much as a gessoed canvas with a pencil sketch on it is a painting.

But you can't complete a painting without prepping that canvas first, just like you can't write a novel without putting together that rough draft first, and it truly can help prime the creative juices to bang out some wildly random ideas.

I am a group b, dead-serious, lifelong-dream, book-nerd-since-age-three, I-have-to-write-this-story-or-I-will-die type of writer, and participating in NaNoWriMo a few times in young adulthood did help me to reach my goal of writing a proper novel--two of them, actually. But it wasn't quick or easy, and I still haven't released my novels into the world, which is a whole other arduous business if you want to actually make an impact and/or a profit.

There aren't great statistics on the ultimate results of NaNoWriMo participation, but a rough estimate is that about 10% of those who sign up for NaNoWriMo "win," as in, they complete the goal of banging out 50,000 words of what insiders call "wonderful shit" by the end of the month. Less than one in a thousand NaNoWriMo attempts eventually becomes a completed and published novel. And of those published novels, the vast majority fail commercially.

Both self-publishing and traditional publishing are tough, rocky roads. Not many novel drafts become complete novels, and not many completed novels get published. And then, most self-published works dissolve quietly into a vast sea of forgotten stories while only a quarter of traditionally published novels even earn out their advances, let alone result in any significant income or future career prospects for the author.

It's a dreadful business!

That's why I recommend NaNoWriMo only for those who are either truly in it for the process, not the end result, or for those who are doomed to zombie out their days in unfulfilled misery until they write out that story growing inside of them like a malignant tumor. 

If you're in the middle, like someone who doesn't care that much about literature or telling a particular story but desperately wants the ego boost of "being an author," honey. Get yourself a tele-therapist or a life coach, and choose an easier path to notoriety. Get on TikTok or something.

So back to my personal NaNoWriMo journey, I beat the odds and achieved more success than most, but nevertheless I feel this is the right time for me to take a long hiatus from noveling.

I first participated in NaNoWriMo when a close friend dragged me kicking and screaming into it. She had seen me floundering for years in my attempts to write a big, important novel since college, and she kindly put an end to my suffering by hauling me into the loosen-up-and-get-r-done fray of this warm and welcoming writing community.

We both liked it so much that we participated several years in a row--and won sometimes! My creative writing life transformed from a lonesome agony to a sort of dorky-fun team sport, and my friend honed her skills and her writing goals as well. As we became more confident and serious about writing novels, we sought ways to take our writing to the next level by trying out various local novel-writing critique groups, educational workshops, and conferences. They weren't all a bust, but they didn’t connect us to the equally motivated partners and mentors we needed to grow beyond our amateur scribblings. Finally, my friend decided we needed to start our own group—for serious novelists only, to give and receive straight-talking constructive criticism and push each other to learn new skills—and I recruited a couple of other women, a comrade from my local pregnant-ladies group and a lost but earnest young soul who had found community and purpose at a local WriMo meeting. Half of us were pregnant, and half of us were women struggling with pretty serious personal issues, and none of us were independently wealthy (always helpful as an author), but all of us were totally on board.

Despite the odds, our critique circle lasted seven years and resulted in at least one completed (as in, written, rewritten, revised, edited, waxed and oiled and made ready for public consumption) novel per member, plus lots of other work. Two members delved into self-publishing, and two of us collected nibbles and feedback from literary agents. None of us achieved "earning a living" or built a sizable platform, but one did receive some accolades within her genre.

Meanwhile, a new writers association formed in our area, led by mostly women writers with real credentials but who were still also young and hip to current publishing trends and standards (no disrespect intended toward the lovely retired professors and elderly writers of memoirs in our area). We all become involved in the shiny new association and its useful educational workshops and conferences while continuing to meet monthly in our critique group. 

Then the association lost its main event venue, a beautiful independent bookstore that closed down, and its nonprofit status. It downgraded and moved its operations way out to another city 45 minutes away and scheduled its regular meetings late on Wednesday nights. Obviously that made it impossible for me to continue participating on a regular basis, but the other members of my critique group all lived closer to the new headquarters or had schedules that allowed them to stay out late on weeknights, so they stayed involved more than I could. Still, we kept getting together locally every month to workshop our novels, and it was like the heartbeat of my calendar, a strong support for my dearest creative dream as well as a respite from the hard slog of raising a young family.

With my group's invaluable help, I completed a grand romp of a darkly romantic and comedic fantasy novel that the group founder had encouraged me to start years earlier, to get me out of the rut of trying to write a “serious” novel without being ready yet. She was right; I rediscovered the joy of writing with that novel, and going through that entire process built my confidence and skills until I was ready to research and write the big one, the great historical adventure story full of emotional turmoil and deep character development that embodied the culmination of all my lifelong creative yearnings, the story that might just become somebody's favorite book of all time, the kind of thing a girl could get lost in and rediscover over and over again like the favorite epic tomes of my own youth.

I did it! I did a crazy amount of research into tribal Eurasian and African cultures of the 11th century and the Byzantine Empire, at the library and in academic texts and on foreign language scholarly websites that I had to translate. I scoured original documents of the time and linguistics studies and archaeological finds, and then I took care to build my setting on the foundations of lost civilizations. I furnished it with rich details but tried to keep them light enough to keep the pace of the plot fast and thrilling. It took me a couple years of hard focus and juggling an insane workload, often reading and taking notes during my daughter’s swim and karate classes and constantly yelling at my husband to leave me alone when he kept sneaking up behind me to offer a glass of water, but finally it was done! I could not wait to hand it over to my critique group and let their sharp eyes find all the spots to fix or improve upon for my first rewrite. But as soon as I made the breathless announcement that it was finally ready... two of my critique group partners ghosted. (The third decided to step back from noveling a bit to attend nursing school but kindly gave thoughtful feedback on my beginning chapters.)

Poof. Writing community gone. One later apologized when I finally got in touch but didn’t explain, except to say that she was mentally unwell to the extent that she could not do much of anything anymore. She gave me the impression that now that she had crossed something big off her bucket list before age 40, she could rest--like, forever, and give up on herself. I felt like I had been tricked into helping her destroy herself, which is something I'm still having trouble sorting out. She even seemed resentful that some of my critical advice had contributed to her success. It was a shocking emotional whiplash. All those years I'd steeled myself against struggle, failure, and rejection, I was not prepared to lose one of my best friends to a an epic breakdown over a small amount of success. It was a traumatic ending to our collaboration, and I grieved for it and for my formerly close friend and for all the hopes I’d had for both of us and all the efforts of our group.

Around the same time that my critique group flamed out, so did large segments of the publishing industry, due to racism and misogyny scandals that thoroughly disrupted a bunch of heavy-hitting literary agencies and professional groups. And then the pandemic struck, throwing even more wrenches into the gears. It is not an encouraging time for me to embark upon a soul-crushing marathon of rejection and relentless failures, for reasons ranging from the personal to the global.

But despite the hurt, I do not regret the years I spent working with complicated, messy people who were also creative and smart and truly did support my journey in important ways, and for a long time, before they didn't. And I have not lost hope for the unfinished business of sending my novels out into the world--sometime after the pandemic, when my daughter is back in school. When my family doesn't need me as much as they do now.

Because, for me, the flow state of writing a novel is thrilling and sometimes ecstatic, but it is also exhausting and emotionally taxing. I'm distant and irritable with my family while wrapped up in that process, which feels kind of like being possessed by spirits. It's incredible and powerful and awe-inspiring and drives me to create things that feel beyond my abilities, but it's also hard and costly--not just for me but for my loved ones. We all need a rest. And they are my foundation for anything I do in the future. They’ve also supported me all along the way.

The only thing I've ever desired more than writing an immersive and ambitious novel is having a loving family. As long as I can remember, I've dreamed of having an adoring husband and a beautiful daughter. And those aren't things you can just work to achieve--it takes fortune and grace and the desires of other human beings to fulfill wishes like that. Whether or not you deserve them, you don't necessarily get them. But, miracle of miracles, I do have them--a husband who is also my best friend and favorite lover, and a daughter who is beautiful in every way, inside and out, loving and sweet and funny and smart and creative and hardworking and cuddly and amazingly her own glorious person more wonderful than any dream child I ever could have imagined myself.

She is nine years old now, almost ten. We are halfway through the time she lives with me and her father, in the likely event that she goes away to college after high school. 

If I don't die tragically younger than expected, I have a good forty or fifty more years to write and publish books, but I have less than a decade, starting now, to be with my daughter while she's a minor child.

And my husband--it turns out he isn't just my best bud and romantic partner and hydration coach, he's also the best alpha reader I've ever had! Like the most ridiculous deus ex machina, my husband swooped in at the nadir of my noveling sorrow and whipped out this superpower that I had no idea he possessed, saving my hopes and dreams and mental health for the long run and helping me get that first major rewrite done. (Click the link to read if you like ridiculous romantic stories.)

I owe him one.

And I owe myself some healing time. 

And my daughter really needs me right now, to be soothing and warm and attentive and supportive as she navigates adolescence in a pandemic.

So for the sake of myself, my husband, my daughter, and my long-term noveling dreams, I am using this time of social isolation not to write a great novel (I already did that!) or to hustle my bustle pitching it into a fiery pit of industry chaos, but to refocus my time and energy on love, family, rest, rejuvenation, healing, quality time, and survival. 

And turkey dinner.

Last year around this time, I wrote the post "Green Therapy Is the New Black Friday," about resisting the holiday season temptations to overspend and overextend, as I was enthusiastically doing in the 2000s when I wrote "Final NaNoWriMo Weekend Squeeze" below--when I could get away with it.

This year, I don't want to "get away with" anything. I want to be here with everyone and everything most important to me. I want to sink into the blessings of my life, to reflect on gratitude and nourishment, and to attend deeply to all those who love and value me unconditionally.

If you are participating in NaNoWriMo this year, more power to you! If you have certified early, my sincere congratulations! I've been there, done that, and haven't regretted it. It was an important first step for me as a novelist.

Whatever you're doing this year, stay safe! Don’t risk your life to share physical space with anyone outside your household. If they love you in a mature and unselfish way, they’ll understand.

Final NaNoWriMo Weekend Squeeze

Happy Thanksgiving weekend! We are squeezing all that we can out of this holiday! There's friends dinner, family dinner, leftover turkey carcass soup (mmm, carcass), and OMFG, only two days of NaNoWriMo left!

Dear God, I am still 12,000 words away from the finish line! CAN I MAKE IT? Has anybody else validated already? I need to pick the bones of these last two days, suck on the marrow of stolen minutes, forgo all unnecessary tasks like laundry and showering and sleeping, and get this story written! Christmas shopping can wait until December. So can living like a civilized human. I'm about to be a novelist, dammit!

P.S. Our personal chef Mr. C took the yucky leftover turkey skeleton (pictured above, in Mr. G's skilled hands) and dropped it in a pot of seasoned water with chopped vegetables. He used a thermometer to bring it up to about 215 degrees for awhile, then brought it down to just over 140 and let it steep there overnight. Damn, the kitchen smelled delicious in the morning. Then we strained out the liquid--voila! turkey broth--and threw out the other stuff. (Mr. G wanted to eat it like a bad dog, but I told him NO.) We now have a huge pot of aromatic, herbalicious turkey stock in the fridge. I shall buy some Bisquick--ahem, when my novel draft is finished, of course--and use the stock to make turkey and dumpling stew after the holiday weekend. Yum!


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