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The Why

I’ve known about National Novel Writing Month for a few years. Every year I thought I would sign up and see if I could write a novel in a month. Then November would roll around and I would forget about it. Then, in December I would remember about it and end up reading a lot of things about it and how some people were able to do it and others weren’t. Then I would forget again for another year.

This year, a couple of months ago, I was driving to work and a thought popped into my head. It was a small thing. An adventurer dying a dumb death in dungeon by a trap. I liked it. I thought I would write it down and file it away for future reference like I have so many, many, things.

This snippet would sit on a hard drive (and in ‘the cloud’, and a USB drive) for as long as that medium lasted, collecting dust and suffering from bit rot. Because I would never get back to it. I would never use it. It would just be a scene in my mind that I might think about every once in a while.

I really liked that bit, though. I was determined to write it down. I am, however, mentally deficient in so many ways that I can’t count them. Also, I’m horrible with math. Anyway, I would write it down, but I couldn’t just have this scene floating in the aether by itself. I needed a reason for it being there.

That led to writing an opening to a story, to give the characters a reason for being down there in the first place. So I wrote it. Believe it or not, it was one of the longest thing I’ve ever written that wasn’t a complete stand alone piece.

[At least that’s how I feel. Many people will point at my short-short story, “A Chance Encounter At The Inverted Oasis” and say that I never finished it. Then I say, “Yes, I did. That’s it. That’s the entirety of the story. There is nothing more.” And then they argue with me saying, “No, it’s not done! I need to know what happens to the waitress!” And then I pull out the author’s greatest tool; the tool that has annoyed many students over the years. The tool that goes: “What do you thinks happens to the waitress?”]

I posted that piece online as soon as I was done with it and showed it to a guy a work. I got a surprisingly lot of positive feedback on it. Three people (that’s a lot for me), said that I should continue it.

And I toyed with the idea because, of course, I hadn’t gotten up to the point where the guy gets killed in the trap. But then October came and was nearly gone when I remembered about NaNoWriMo. “Maybe,” I  thought,”I should sign up this year. And work on this story and maybe, just maybe, I can actually complete a story that’s longer than ten pages.”

So I did. I stopped working on it (which wasn’t hard, because I hadn’t worked on it since I wrote it) and waited until November.

This doesn’t really explain “The Why,” though. The real reason is because I really consider myself a failure in life. I’ve never had any real goal in life besides surviving from one day to the next. Granted, I’m good at that. I’ve gone through a lot of tough times and never stopped and said “I give up.” Well, okay, I have. Frequently. But I never actually gave up. Sometimes I just need to vent, despite learning that people don’t want to hear me vent. Everything that comes out of my mouth is required to be colored by rainbows and tasting of lollipops.

So, the reason why I committed myself to writing fifty thousand words in thirty days was so that I might actually finish a story I started and I could set a goal that would be met relatively quickly and I could feel like I accomplished something I set out to do. You see how deeper meanings can work their way into everything?

If I didn’t make this goal, then I would know that I was an abject failure in everything I would ever try to do and rain clouds would form above my head and I would grow moles on my face and children would scream in horror at the sight of me and the world would explode.

So it was pretty damn important to me to succeed.

The How

When I committed, when I finally signed up on the NaNoWriMo site, the very first thing I did was change my Facebook and Google+ cover photos to show that I was a participant. I told people at work that I was going to do this and I made a semi-big deal about it. I did not do this to ‘toot my own horn’ and show people that I was great and that I was going to write a freakin’ novel in thirty days. I wasn’t going to grow a goatee and wear a leather jacket with tweed elbow patches. It wasn’t so that I could show that I was so hip that my pants wouldn’t fit any more.

I did it for the shame factor. Just officially signing up was done for the shame factor. Then I forced myself to post on the message boards there so that people would know I was involved and my word count would show up under my picture.

The reasoning is, if I kept it to myself nobody would ever know I was trying to do this. If I went that way, which is my normal way, then it would be very easy on, say November 4th, to say, “Screw this. I’m going to watch TV.” And then I would be done. Another year, and I’m running out of years, would go by when I did nothing but look for episodes of “Holmes & YoYo” on YouTube. And nobody would say anything, chide me, for not giving it my best. I could be a failure in secret.

If people knew, I thought, then it would be harder to give up. Family might ask me how I was doing. They might send me encouraging notes. They might waggle a figure at me in disappointment if I thought about throwing in the towel. If I didn’t complete this task I would be shamed. Shamed!

Sadly, it appears that the majority of people I know had no interest whatsoever in what I was doing. There were, however, three people that I know did show an interest. Some fellow NaNoWriMo’ers that I don’t know were also supportive. And, in truth, if it wasn’t for them I would have quit.

So, getting on with it. I had grand plans. Oh, such grand plans, on how I was going to do this. My story was simple. I made sure of that. Because simple is easier and easier is… uh. easier… This wasn’t a grand story of kingdoms rising and falling, it was just a group of people running around in a dungeon trying to not get killed. Like a role playing game. Just like a role playing game! And you know what would make this whole thing easier? If I used a role playing game to set up the situations! The story would write itself!

All I needed was a rule book, some dice, and a pad of graphing paper. I would use the GURPS rule book because I like how you make characters with that. Mostly, because if you want to give a character a huge advantage, you also have to give them a huge disadvantage. This keeps you from creating a ‘superman’ who has no faults or weaknesses. I would create characters from somewhat random die rolls, give them a personality through their traits and that would be that.

Encounters with monsters would be the same thing, including combat. If a character was grievously wounded in combat, then they would be wounded in the story. If they died, well, that’s the breaks. If they succeeded, then they could gather up the loot and I would keep track of that, too.

It would be a beautiful system and my story would be finished in no time. So I bought the rule book. Eventually. Then I talked about getting dice, but never actually did it until my workmate drove me to a gaming store and made sure that I bought some damn dice. I bought a bunch of six-sided die and also multi-shaped steampunk themed dice even though GURPS doesn’t use them. I just thought they looked really cool. And I picked up graphing paper to keep track of the dungeon levels the characters would go through.

I was all set. And it was now November. And that beautiful system I had thought of, worked on, bought things for? Never happened. Oh, I half-assed drew a kind of dungeon level with the graph paper, but that was it. I had a choice of writing my story, or sitting around rolling out characters. Not that I didn’t use the rule book, because I did when I wanted to look up particulars about magic spells or something about monsters. But, mostly, just collecting dust.

I didn’t plan out my story, either. I wanted to. I wanted to have something to refer to, but, no, that didn’t happen. It was all about the writing and I was going to have to fly by the seat of pants and pull things out of my butt.

To write fifty thousand words in thirty days you can get away with writing 1,667 words a day. That sounds like a lot, but it really isn’t. In fact, by the time you reach the period of this sentence you will have (hopefully) read through 1,656 words. And this has only taken me about an hour or so, including getting up to get coffee, to tell my parrot that she’s gorgeous, and to get distracted with things on the Internet. So, figure maybe two hours a day of straight writing and you’ll be at 50,000 with ease.

I started pretty strong. Some days I was even ahead by a couple of hundred. So, if one Monday I wrote 1,800 words I thought, hell, Tuesday will be easy. I’ll just write 1,500 or something. This is a bad thing to do. At least for me. I should treat words like money. If I make extra, put it away and use it for a rainy day. Because what usually happens is that something goes wrong. In my case, I got sick and lost about four days of writing. I could barely move and spent the majority of my time sleeping. I ended up being 2,000 words behind. And then 5,000 words behind. And then 10,000 words behind.

Even when I was feeling better it was hard to write because I would end up being so tired by the time I got home from work, I just wanted to feed the critters and go to bed. So I would write a few hundred, maybe a thousand words, before I passed out. That looks okay, when you view your stats. “Okay,” I thought,”I wrote 500 words so now I’m only 3,000 words behind. I’m catching up!” But then the next day comes around. That 3,000 turns into 4,667 as if by magic. Then I write another 600 words so now I’m 4,007 words behind. It just keeps slipping away. Do that long enough and you start to believe that you can never catch up. If you go back a few blog posts you’ll see that I was at that point.

I went to work and told my coworker that I didn’t think I could do it. I was too far behind. I was done. Kaput. Put a fork in me. Then he gave me a stern talking to. And it surprised me, shocked me really, that he thought enough of me to give me all sorts of reasons for not giving up. And other online people gave me pep talks. And it meant the world to me.

So I pushed on. I spent entire weekends just writing. Writing 1,667 words was out of the question. I would have to put in 4,000 or 5,000 or more. I started having very peculiar dreams that had nothing to do with what I was writing. Driving in the car meant thinking of a new situation to put my characters in. I would write things down to use later on.

I came to some realizations, too. For one, I had too many characters to comfortably manage. I felt like I was leaving people out when writing scenes. I realized that I didn’t have any place for certain personality types that I really wanted in there because it got a little tedious and contrived. I realized that I didn’t have enough conflict, fighting, or exploring. I was, basically, shoving too many characters out the door in a rush to get some sleep. I lamented not using the RPG to set things up because that would have made things a whole lot better. Still, I soldiered on deciding to give at least one more character the axe.

But I didn’t stop writing. Yesterday, in fact, I wrote nearly 10,000 words in an effort to push on and complete. I wrote about that yesterday so I won’t do it again here, but it was difficult. It was hard. It was, in its own way, kind of painful.

What I Learned

So, I wrote 50,000 words in 30 days. I am a winner. What did I learn from the experience?

I learned that I can write more than flash fiction, whatever that is. I can write an entire story, even if I don’t think I can come up with characters, a plot, a story, or any of the other things that go along with it. It’s doable. What happened is that I was writing and then an idea, based on something else, would present itself and suddenly I had a direction to go in. Sure, it  may not be the best thing in the world, but it’s there. And it can be refined later on.

I learned that I didn’t need to like what I wrote. Here is my usual writing process:

  1. Think of an idea
  2. Load up a word processor
  3. Stare at the screen for a long time
  4. Write three sentences
  5. Decide that it’s crap and close the word processor declining to save it

That’s 90% of my ideas right there. By putting myself in a situation where I had a deadline to write a certain amount of words, though, meant keeping things that I thought were absolute horseshit. I would groan at the things I was writing, wishing a swift death upon myself. But I would need to keep it because otherwise my word count would go down and I’d have to replace it with something else. Which may be just as bad, if not worse. And then I started thinking, hey, I think it can be salvaged. When I have time I can just make a few changes and it’ll be all right.

It will be all right. Powerful words, they are. Not just in writing, but in other ways, too. Did your car break down? It will be all right. Have you just suffered a tragedy? It may not seem like it, but it will be all right. It’ll take time. It may take effort. But, you know, it will be all right. Don’t beat yourself up about it, don’t curse yourself, don’t take it out on others, because as long as you can still draw a breath — it will be all right.

What else. Oh, I learned to do it for myself. Like I said, 99% of people I know couldn’t care less about what I’m doing, so it was foolish to think anyone would be interested. I pushed on, not to impress people or to show off my MacBook Pro to the other Starbucks dwellers, but because I wanted to do it. What support I got was nice, believe me, but in the end it’s all about me. Seriously, think about it. Is it really easier to throw down the pen, sit back, and watch TV? It absolutely is! Is it rewarding? Well, not so much. If I ever feel down in the dumps would it make me feel better saying to myself, “Hey, don’t feel so bad. You watched Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D the other day!” No, not really. But I can always say to myself, now, “Buddy, you did something you never thought you’d be able to do. I will let you feel good about yourself.”

I also learned that, when  you think you’re going to fall down and fail, it’s better to keep going. I was absolutely convinced that I wouldn’t make it to 50K. Convinced. But I kept going, anyway, so I could at least see how far I would get. When I got to 35K I thought, “Hey, that’s not too bad. I’m more than halfway.” When I hit 40K I realized I only had 10,000 words to go. I’d already been at 10K and passed it. When I got to 45K, well… That’s when this tiny, squeaky voice in the back of my head said, “Holy shit! You’re only 5,000 words away from finishing! You wrote 5,000 words in one day not too long ago!” And I said to that squeaky voice,”Hey, I think I can do this. I really think I can do this!” That was yesterday. I thought I was going to fail all the way up to yesterday. Evening, no less. Magical things can happen.

Did I learn anything else? I sure did. You’d be amazed at the crap you start looking up on the Internet in the interest of ‘research.’ I was typing away, struggling with something, when I suddenly had an overwhelming desire to know what Hall & Oates was up to. Really. I hadn’t thought about Hall & Oates since the 1980s but, by God, I needed to know about them. And I wasted about an hour reading about them and watching videos on YouTube. Of course, once you’re on YouTube they show links to other bands that I suddenly had to know about. Even doing something as simple as wanting to know what a specific part of a fountain is called is like dropping acid at home and then following wondrous looking creatures through a fairyland of forests and gum drop trees until you finally come down and find yourself sleeping behind garbage cans in an inner city alley with no wallet. You have no idea how you go there and getting back to what you’re supposed to be doing will be a mighty chore.

Well, I guess that’s enough. I’ll probably think of more things that I learned later on. I’ll leave you with this and maybe you can get something out of it.