Why I’m Quitting NaNoWriMo

First off, no, I’m not quitting writing. But over the past week I’ve had some realizations that made me rethink what I’m doing.

I started off NaNo this year on a slow pace, and it never really got any faster. And with each passing day, I felt more and more pressure to catch up. I was also putting in full, mentally draining days at work (I’m half the IT department for a regional HVAC distributor) and was spending all my off hours time at write ins. It was wearing me down, and it showed. In particular, I started developing small illnesses and injuries that in the past have been warning signs that I’m pushing myself too hard.

And then it hit me. I don’t need to do this. I’ve started NaNoWriMo four times now, and “won” twice. I know I can do it. I also know I don’t have to.

A lot of professional authors like the idea of NaNoWriMo but don’t participate themselves because writing a novel is _what they already do every day._ And it finally dawned on me that this applies to me as well. When I’m done with _Crusade_, my editor and I are going to tackle getting _Revelation_ ready to post on the various ebookstores (Amazon, iTunes, B&N, etc.). Then I’m going to write _Jihad_, the third book in the Between Heaven and Hell trilogy. Then I’m going to edit _Crusade_. And so on. I’m going to be writing every day, or nearly so, all year round. So why kill myself to meet an arbitrary deadline I’ve already proven I can beat?

So best of luck to all of you still trying to beat NaNoWriMo this year, especially those of you who have never won it. I’m going to plod along at my own speed.

Game day jitters

Five hours.

In five hours, both NaNoWriMo and the Maximum Geek Ultimate Writing Challenge begin. I’m going to a NaNoWriMo kickoff party tonight here in Denver, and I’ll start writing at the stroke of midnight. Better yet, since I’ll likely still be writing at 2am when the clocks fall back, I get an extra hour. Not to sleep as most people use this odd autumn bounty, but an extra hour to write.

And I’m gonna need it.

Right now, I’m writing this in my friendly neighborhood Chipotle, where I plan to do a lot of writing over the next year. It’s either a horrible or oddly auspicious night to do this, as the place is likely well above the legal occupancy limit because of their annual “dress as a burrito and get a free burrito promotion.” Nearly every one of the hundred people in here have at least some aluminum foil wrapped around something. Some, like the ones who just have a little crimped over an ear, aren’t really trying, but the cashier is being pretty generous. The point is that if I can write in this din, with the end of the line constantly bumping past my table—the only one in the place with access to an AC outlet—then I can write anywhere, anywhen.

And I’m gonna need that too.

On the surface, what I’m about to do—rather, what I’m about to start, this is a marathon, not a sprint—isn’t all that unusual as professional grade writing goes. Stephen King does two thousand words a day, every day, when in the composition phase, and there’s a lot of writers who work even faster than he does. But the difference is that I’m not taking a leave of absence to do this. I’m not getting paid to do this. I don’t even have a spouse who can support me for a year while I chase my dream.

In the next year, I’m going to transition into a new job. I’m going to file bankruptcy, something I know very little about and that scares the heck out of most people. I’m going to move out of my parents house into a place of my own. I may end up buying a new car or buying and learning how to ride a motorcycle. Despite what my friends seem to think, I’m going to maintain an active social life, though I probably won’t date more than I do now, which is to say I won’t date at all. I’m going to keep blogging and tweeting. I’m going to have a full life.

And I’m going to write somewhere between a half and three quarters of a million words of fiction.

And now, as I sit in this cacophonous Chipotle, that’s starting to sound… real. That’s starting to sound daunting. The enormity of my task looms before me and I feel small.

Tonight, I get to do that.

Because in five hours, everything changes. In five hours, I start writing. And I don’t stop until I get to the end of book seven. I don’t give up. I don’t despair. I don’t get to run to anyone to take this burden from me. This is my dream. This is why I’m here on this planet and this is what I’ve spent the last twenty years running from.

In five hours, the running stops. And the writing begins.

Script Frenzy fail

I gave Script Frenzy a solid shot this year. I plotted out my movie in advance, fixed all the plot holes, had some blockbuster cinematic moments planned. I started writing the script, got about five pages into it, and realized something. I’m not a screenwriter anymore. I’m a novelist.

I used to joke that I was a screenwriter trapped in novelist’s body, a nod to my very visual, very action-oriented style of prose. And I used to really enjoy screenwriting. I read movie scripts the way other people read novels. I watched movies constantly, seeing probably close to 100 films a year and rewatching lots of favorites.

The problem is I don’t do that anymore. I see maybe 20 movies a year, probably closer to a dozen. For my leisure time, I’m usually reading a book (well, an ebook). I just don’t have time to devote a couple hours at a time to sitting in one place and watching a story from beginning to end.

I got into screenwriting in the first place because I didn’t think I had the patience for novels. I’d just finished Between Heaven and Hell and hadn’t been able to make any serious headway on the sequel. Screenplays were shorter, simpler, and more active. They capitalized on what were my strengths at the time, action and dialogue. And I had a blast learning how to write screenplays.

But that was over 10 years ago. In the intervening decade, I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words, and all in either narrative (novels) or essay (articles) style. And in the process, I’ve lost the eye of my inner screenwriter. I don’t see stories through a camera anymore. I see them from the omniscient viewpoint of a novel’s narrator.

The work I did getting the story put together isn’t going to be wasted, though. The more I wrote on the screenplay version of Titanus, the more I wanted to write it as a novel. My favorite books when I was younger were Michael Crichton’s Congo and Jurassic Park (long before either became a movie). More recently I’ve discovered writers like James Rollins (Amazonia, Subterranean) and Jeff Rovin (Fatalis, Vespers) who also managed to find that mix of science and adventure that made Crichton’s best work so good. Titanus is my shot at joining their ranks with a science-oriented thriller, and I think it will work just as well, if not better, as a novel as a movie.

If, for no other reason, that I’m a novelist now.

NaNoWriMo 2008 washout confessions

So NaNoWriMo was a bust for me this year, as I’ve given up only ten days in. Why did I wash out this year when finished in 2006?

No one to race against. One of the big motivators for me in 2006 was racing against my writing partner, Josh Curry of Maximum Geek. Josh sat out this year, preferring to spend his time doing schoolwork for his degree, like higher education is important or something. So I was pretty much going it alone, and couldn’t rely on anyone else to push me.

Lack of incentives. Other than keeping the blog going, I didn’t really have anything to reward me when I did well, nor any negative consequences if I didn’t make my quota. Again, this is where self-discipline should have kicked in, but if I had strong self-discipline, I might be fundamentally unqualified to be a writer.

And there’s one reason I thought might be factor, but I won’t use: lack of time. I’ve had time if I’d really wanted to write. In the past week, I’ve installed OneCare on both my desktop and laptop, cloned and then reconsidered the Windows 7 user interface on XP (I’ll do a writeup of this later), how to blog in OneNote, rebuilt my phone around Kinoma instead of BeyondPod and AudiblePlayer, then back to BeyondPod again, watched nearly all three seasons of "How I Met Your Mother" and found lots of other ways to waste time I could have spent writing.

Too afraid to screw up a book I care about. This is the big one. I know now why Chris Baty makes it a rule not to use pre-existing material for NaNoWriMo. I was rules-lawyering my way around that prohibition by starting an entirely new draft of Ghost Ronin, but I’ve had this story developing in my mind for damn near two decades now. I’ve done years of research for it, have the 17 chapters of the book planned out in some detail, and oddly, that very preparation is what killed me.

NaNoWriMo is based on what Anne Lamott calls “shitty first drafts,” something that no matter how much I understand the concept intellectually I can’t manage to internalize. I kept freezing up, not wanting to get anything “wrong”. While I know I have to work through this eventually if I want to ever finish anything, I doubt it’s going to happen this month. Ghost Ronin’s firm structure and abundant research and backstory will make it great for writing at my own pace, but they also served as constant roadblocks for the silly abandon that is supposed to characterize NaNoWriMo.

I’ll try again next year, and I have tentative commitment from Josh that both he and his girlfriend will be joining me. I’ll pick a story concept that I don’t already have much investment in, but one that seems exciting enough to carry me through 50,000 words. I’ll set up a system of rewards for hitting certain milestones, and try to really enjoy the ride. For now, though, I’ll keep plugging away at Ghost Ronin at my own pace and try to get it finished before Script Frenzy next spring.

NaNoWriMo Day 6

I figured someting out today. The reason I’m having so much trouble keeping any momentum going on Ghost Ronin is that I’m trying so hard to do it right. So I don’t know how an ambush by terrorists on a couple of Army rangers in Basra would really go down. So what? This is NaNoWriMo! Make it up, fix it in rewrites!

Why is it so fricking hard to remember that every single November?

NaNoWriMo Day 5

I’m starting to question my commitment to the cause. Haven’t gotten any writing done today, just haven’t had the time. Part of that is being so very tired from last night and needing a nap, but I could have gone home to write after work instead of going over to a friend’s to help him reflash his phone.

It’s a self-discipline problem, pure and simple. Without Josh to race against for the month, there’s really no consequence I care about if I blow off a day. I’m only hurting myself, because every day I don’t write is a day without my book, but there’s so much more to do (tomorrow is both Maximum Geek and a Broncos game, then Friday is gaming and I desperately need to get my Rock Band on after missing it last week). Right now the tentative plan is to make it up over the weekend with some 5000-7000 word marathons, but what are the odds nothing is going to pop up unexpectedly over the weekend?

And in another sense, the heat is off. I’ve been holding off on starting Ghost Ronin for months, waiting for NaNoWriMo to begin. Now that it has and I’ve started the book, why not write it at my own pace? The beginning, with Mike and Chris in Iraq, was the hard, intimidating part. Once I get get my main character blown up, I’m back into more familiar plot territory, variations on a theme I’ve been working on for two decades. I have a lot of new surprises in store for this (final?) version, but still not as scary for me as a writer as trying to write convincingly about being on the ground in Basra.