In the past 30 days I accomplished two different artistic goals. Here’s what that taught me about the act of creating, and about myself.
National Novel Writing Month
I’d always wanted to try National Novel Writing Month (or #NaNoWriMo). I even started it once before, years ago, but I gave up after less than a week. This is a recurring theme in my life, mind you — giving up on things too early, after the initial excitement has worn off — so I really wanted to prove to myself that I was the kind of person who could finish writing the first draft of a novel in 30 days.
So this year I mentioned the idea on Facebook, and some friends said I should do it.
So I did.
(For all the downsides to peer pressure, sometimes it actually works in my favor.)
The goal of NaNoWriMo is simple: you have all 30 days of November to write the first draft of a novel. This draft must be at least 50,000 words long, so you’ll need to write at least 1,667 words each day, for all 30 days. And with Thanksgiving happening at the end of the month, you know you’ll lose a day or two of writing here and there, so it behooves you to get ahead while you can.
I squeaked across the finish line at 8 PM on November 30th, with a novel that totaled 50,075 words (or 50,081 words in the official NaNoWriMo verification process). Here are five things I figured out along the way.
Choose a Story That Holds Your Own Attention
Otherwise, you’ll get bored. And if you’re bored, it’s too easy to quit.
I had four different ideas for stories on November 1st, and I didn’t know which one I should choose. In the end, I picked the one that most closely resembled a memoir. By its very nature it meant this idea also had the slimmest plot. And that was a mistake.
I realized that NaNoWriMo lends itself much better to stories with a standard plot, like:
- a hero on a quest
- a puzzle to be solved
- a goal to be achieved
- a battle to be won
… than an introspective or experimental story, both of which I was trying here.
One of my other ideas was an ensemble fantasy-sci-fi story, with dozens of characters and interweaving plots. It seemed too ambitious to try and write coherently in just 30 days, but in retrospect I think that’s exactly what I needed, because I could have jumped from POV to POV and plot to plot whenever I needed something new to think about, and that would have accumulated 50,0000 words of story much more quickly.
Luckily, this story did keep my attention because it was about me (or the fictional “me”). But I made a few other mistakes in putting it together.
Introspection Requires Different Skills Than Exposition
Thirty days is not a lot of time to solve your own existential problems.
Every chapter of my story either forced me to articulate something very personal about my thoughts and feelings, or to extrapolate what other people must have been thinking or feeling at certain times. It was novel-as-therapy.
The good news is, it ended up being extremely useful and valuable to me in that regard.
The bad news is, the finished work is so filled with flaws, plot holes, loose ends, thinly-drawn characters, questionable conclusions, and a variety of other story and logic problems that it’s essentially unreadable as anything other than a story concept, not a story itself. (Granted, I may be too hard on myself here; but trust me, this isn’t what I’d want anyone else to see as an example of What I’m Capable of Artistically.)
However, there’s another upside.
You Don’t Know Where You’re Going Until You’re There
I thought I was writing one story, for one specific purpose. I didn’t know what the ending would be, but I knew what question the ending had to address. I thought I’d sort everything else out along the way.
But the act of writing this story gave me a continual supply of new ideas that I wouldn’t have come up with otherwise had not I started trying to write one thing and then watched it gradually become something else during its act of self-creation.
I figured out what the actual plot should be around Day 5. But around the midpoint of the story, I had a series of revelations:
- Another character in the story was actually more interesting than “me”
- The story structure would require two dovetailing endings, not one
- I really was writing a fantasy story, but I hadn’t set it up properly
In fact, I hadn’t set anything up properly. What I was aiming at was far less interesting than what I could be aiming at. Seeing this, I almost pivoted and told a different story from that point on, or scrapped it all and started over.
Instead, I saw my original (and now seemingly less significant) story through, because it was more important for me to finish something coherent in 30 days than it was for me to tell the “better” story at this exact moment.
I knew I could always go back and rewrite everything. But first, I had to get this draft done.
And really, that’s the most important lesson.
What Matters Most Is the Process
At a certain point in the act of writing (or, really, of creating anything), you will hate what you’re writing, and you will also hate yourself for attempting to write it.
This doesn’t matter.
What matters is sticking with it.
You will read what you’re writing and think it’s terrible. You will wonder who you’re writing this for, and why. You will wonder who you think you are, to be spending your precious time typing words into a computer to tell a story while there is so much else to be done in the world.
None of this matters, though.
What matters is finishing it.
NaNoWriMo isn’t about writing the great American novel. It’s about proving to yourself that you can stick to a deadline, accomplish a goal, and commit to putting words on paper (or pixels) until you reach the end. It’s about completion, but even moreso, it’s about creating a process that leads to that creation.
Because if you can write a shitty first draft in 30 days, what can you do in 60? Or 180?
And once you start developing that writing muscle, and you dedicate yourself to creating on a regular schedule, and you force yourself to take control of your time, your inner critic, and your urge to quit, you realize you can do more — and that you have more time to do more — than you previously imagined you could.
And my use of “realize” in that paragraph reminds me of one final lesson:
Creating Proves How Talentless You Are… and That’s Okay
When you’re writing 50,000 words, you become acutely aware of all the limitations of your writing ability.
I couldn’t believe how hard it was to find a greater variety of words to express myself than I was coming up with. It seemed like in every paragraph a character was “realizing” something, or “finding himself” somewhere, or things kept “occurring.” Characters would “decide” or “vow” with alarming regularity. And if I had a dime for every time something happened “in that moment,” or “for the first time since ___,” I could afford a new thesaurus.
But it wasn’t the limits of my own vocabulary that frustrated me as much as the difficulty I had in expressing myself clearly.
The act of writing gives me newfound appreciation for anyone who’s completed a novel that’s even halfway readable, and it makes anyone who truly has a way with words seem like an enlightened genius.
But it also shows me that I, too, can continue to improve my own skills.
I just have to keep writing.
Meanwhile, on a much smaller scale, I took up a photography challenge — or, more accurately, I issued it to myself, and to anyone else who wanted to join me.
In late October, I started thinking about black and white photos, and why I rarely posted any to Instagram. The phrase “nocolorvember” popped into my head, and it seemed like a handy 30-day experiment to explore the black and white photo process. So I searched the hashtag on Instagram, and it turns out someone else started using it last year but it never caught on.
I mentioned this on Facebook too, and a few friends said they’d give it a shot.
So we did.
The rules were simple: every day, post a black and white photo and tag it #nocolorvember. Not hard right?
Well, you might be surprised.
What I realiz– er, what I learned by limiting myself to only posting black and white pictures for a month is just how much I rely on color to do the job of storytelling. It’s easy to attract the human eye to bright colors, or to rich contrasts. Photos of autumn foliage are like eye porn; it’s almost too easy to get people to “like” them because you’re giving them what they want to naturally see more of.
But black and white removes that aesthetic crutch and requires you to make use of composition, contrast, design, and narrative. It’s a much different experience. I would shoot dozens of photos every day, only to get home and see maybe two or three that “worked” in black and white.
Over time I shot fewer photos because I started “seeing” what they’d look like in black and white before I took them, and I knew that what I was attracted to in a shot relied more on color, or on the seeming contrast of shades that would actually be far lessened without color, than on the strength of the composition itself.
I also got really frustrated with my phone’s camera. It’s almost three years old, so it’s not a great camera by modern comparison. But I’d look through high-quality black and white photos from photographers with better phones (or who shot on film with actual cameras) and I’d lament the limitations of my phone’s meager lens. I couldn’t capture the crisp blacks, the sharp contrasts, or the intimacy that I admired in the work of people like Clay Benskin, so I had to lower my own expectations and start looking for shots that would still work even with my own more limited toolbox.
Thirty Days Later
I ended November having written a questionable novel from scratch, and with a slew of amateurish black & white photos under my belt. Neither of these accomplishments are particularly worth celebrating on their own.
But what I’m proud of is having committed to something (two somethings, actually) and having seen it through.
And now that I’ve realized what I can do in a month, it makes me wonder what I can do if I keep going.
What do you want to try that seems a little beyond you?
Could you do it in 30 days?
Well, December has 31 days, so maybe you should give it a shot.
Sara Jane Lowry · December 1, 2015 at 9:40 pm
I’m impressed that you stuck to it. There’s so much pressure to execute a fantastic creative product quickly. But creativity is a journey, of process, of observation, and plain hard work. Your artistry will have grown by the daily process. Kudos.
Justin Kownacki · December 2, 2015 at 7:24 pm
Thanks! The process of working on something in increments is definitely something I’m keeping as part of my day / week. I’m a procrastinator, so I fell behind by several days (and several thousand words) a few times in November, and then I’d have to binge-write over the course of a weekend in order to catch up. As soon as I realized I could do that, it became my new norm. For better or worse, “can I get this done” and “can I do this well” are separate questions, and A doesn’t necessarily imply B.. but you can’t do B without A, so start there.
30 March 30 Is a Simple Trick to Make You More Productive | · March 1, 2016 at 2:11 am
[…] up to you. We all have our own work ethic. When I wrote a novel during National Novel Writing Month, I took whole weeks off and then binged at the end to catch up. […]