Yes, it’s that time of year again. I don’t know exactly why November got picked for all the challenges, whether instagram, journal, or moustache. Maybe it’s the feeling of fall, which ever quite lands until now, at least in the places I’ve lived, that reminds us of change, or maybe it’s the end-of-the-year vibes, which one could logically put in December, but that month is too crowded as it is. But, for whatever reason, November got picked as the month we all challenge ourselves to do something.
For me, it’s National Novel Writing Month. For the last five years, I’ve taken the challenge to write a novel in the next 30 days. I’m happy to say it’s a challenge I’ve completed the last 4 years.
And the thing about challenges is that they are challenging, (duh), but often not in the way you’d expect. The challenge of NaNoWriMo is to write 50,000 words. Over the month of November, that averages to about 1666 words a day. And that is a challenge. When you hit a wall with your story, you can feel the clock ticking. There are times I’ve rolled around to the last week and wondered if I could go back through and convert all my contractions, “won’t” to “will not”, etc., in a desperate attempt to meet my word goal. But the real challenge often comes in ways unrelated to the writing itself.
Because the real task with this sort of thing is not writing, it’s life. Because writing 1600+ words a day takes time, it takes space, and life rarely offers as much as we would prefer of either. In fact, it seems to get offended when we try to make time and space for these things. You might start the challenge thinking you can block off a set amount of time everyday to knock out your word count. Good plan. But no sooner have you done that than some very-big-thing-that’s-way-more-important-than-your-silly-writing-project shows up and outright demands that block of time you had set aside.
One would think the challenge would be “how am I ever going to finish this whole story?” My biggest fear the first couple of years was completing the story before I hit 50,000. (I never have, by the way.) My second biggest fear has been that I’ll simply run out of ideas. (Haven’t yet.) You’d think the challenge would be to your creativity. Do you have the artistic merit to get this done? But that’s not the case.
I’ve completed this challenge 4 times, and each time was a completely different experience. Which makes sense, because I was writing a new novel each time, and every novel is a new experience. But they were also unique in other ways. By a strange coincidence, I have written in a different genre every year. From post-apocalyptic scifi to romance to kung fu fantasy to historical fiction. And this year, I’m going back to scifi, but in a more modern, scientific setting. Each novel also required vastly different prep work. Some years I had a basic outline; others I had the story intricately mapped out. Some books I wrote by the seat-of-my-pants; last year, I spent weeks doing mountains of research. But I’ve completed all of them. In the end, it hasn’t made a lot of different how much, or how little, I did beforehand.
I’m not trying to say any of this doesn’t matter. Yes, we want to produce good art, and that requires skill and practice. Research, outlining, and prep work can make writing the novel easier. These are all good practices, but they aren’t the things that are going to get you to the end.
Because, like anything else we want in life, the challenge is not usually “how well can you perform at this task?” but “how badly do you want to finish it?” Stick-to-itiveness is the thing you need more than anything else.
Every year for the last four years, I’ve had the exact same thought the first time I sit down to write on November 1. I open my laptop, stare at the blank Word document, and think, “I can’t do this.”
Every year. Every. Year. I have this thought, like clockwork. Again, I’ve done this 4 times. I have risen to the challenge 4 times. You’d think that would be enough evidence to the contrary, but, no. Last year, with 3 novels under my belt, I sat in a Starbucks, my notes and research material piled around me, ready to conquer this book, and had that same thought. I will have that thought tomorrow. I know I will.
And knowing that tells me two things.
1. That thought is not going anywhere.
I’ve written 4 very different novels, done different amounts of prep work for each. Some stories I had almost totally outlined. My characters were fully biographied. I knew who and what and when and why. I was completely confident in the story I wanted to tell and my ability to tell it. And I still thought I couldn’t do it. It seems that it doesn’t make a different whether I prep or not. I’m still going to doubt, at least at the beginning.
2. That thought is not accurate.
I’ve written four novels, and those are just the ones I wrote as part of NaNoWriMo. I’ve written other books. I’ve written this blog, consistently for almost a year. Last spring, on a whim and for reasons I can’t fully explain, I wrote a whole novel in a week. I can do this. It’s a challenge every time, but it’s not a challenge that’s beyond me. I may doubt at the beginning, but I know I can.
And that’s the thing to remember. Because that thought, that doubt, that feeling, is always going to be there. I’m starting to believe that it’s a part of the process. You will always doubt whether you can. The trick is to move past that thought. As many times as it shows up, you tell it “no” and keep going.
And that’s how you write a novel. You start by pushing past that hurdle, past the feeling that you simply can’t, and you don’t stop.
If you can figure out how to do that, you can write a novel. If you figure out how to do that, you can do anything.
I hope you’ll join me for the rest of this month as I take the NaNoWriMo challenge, and I hope you will challenge yourself, as well. It doesn’t have to be a novel. It can be another creative project, or anything positive, really.
Speaking of which, I’m working with #CreateLounge to support and encourage the creative community to take up their own creative challenge this month. We’re calling it #NanoLounge, and you can find more information on it and the various challenges you might take here.
Good luck, Nano’s.