Finished Lines and Forks

Friday, November 24, 2006

It’s over. The Marathon, that is. I stuck a fork in it last night. I still don’t have a name for my “finished” story. From the looks of those quotation marks, it should be obvious my thoughts on the work. When it comes to saying nothing in many words, I have this exercise down to a science. I haven’t yet decided if this year’s writing is worse than The Pink Sweater or only almost as bad as The Pink Sweater. (I’m weaning myself away from using too many words to say something insignificant, if you hadn’t noticed.) Either way, I am once again not happy with my plot, story, or characters. And the writing, yeah, that wasn’t too good either. But other than those minor complaints, I’m generally satisfied with this year’s efforts. November is about making the Goal. The published best-selling-novelist part comes later (much, much later).

At its essence, the Marathon is about perseverance. Chuck in his wonderfully inspirational Nanowrimo podcast, The Sixty-Second Pep Talk, spent an episode talking about this. Everyone is capable of completing the Marathon. For most people, the difficulty arrives between capability and performance. A real marathon requires a certain level of fitness before a runner can even think about starting their training. The Marathon (with a capital M) requires only words. And, as I aptly demonstrated this year, the words don’t even have to make much sense when placed together. The real skill necessary for the Marathon is the ability to sit in front of a computer screen or blank paper each day and writing to a daily quota. It’s that simple. Okay, I’ll admit that it is easy for me to say that now that I’ve completed the Marathon. And perhaps it’s a bit simplistic for me to think that it doesn’t require any training to write 1,667 words in a day. Some people have not written a total of 1,667 words since completing school. What I meant to say is that at its essence the Marathon is about moving fingers for a month. The doing is hard work. But you have to ask yourself, if it wasn’t hard work, would it really be worth all that much?

With that said, this year was a struggle for me. There were many days where I started later than I planned, and then invariably blamed Doolies for my procrastination. She would insist that we eat around dinnertime, and I would roll my eyes and point my finger at her and claim that she was single-handedly attempting to hinder the talents of a would-be-best-selling novelist with her insistence on sustenance. I would always feel terrible later, and crawl back to her to apologize profusely. As always, Doolies understood and supported me by dealing with my insanities. She even tried to assist early in my story planning. (She’s very helpful with my planning. Remember, she rescued The Killton Academy for the Insane from terribleness.) But after the first week, I realized that her help was no longer necessary because there was nothing to plan as I did not possess even the semblance of a story.

After I arrived in Taiwan, my last four days of the Marathon were particularly painful in the literal sense: late-night headaches ascended from the lowest levels of hell to torment me as I stared at a blindingly bright screen in a darkened room attempting to convince myself that the pain would go away if I wrote just one more word. For the record, the pain did not go away with each word. If anything, it intensified into a blinding point of insanity until I finished the two-thousandth word and put down the computer for the healing confines of blissful sleep.

But the worst part of this year’s efforts were the uncountable days and nights where I sat in front of my computer knowing that my story had ground to a halt, my characters had abandoned me (and never bothered to write to at least let me how they were doing), and my plot, well, my plot, which had seemed so promising in my head weeks before, had turned out to have abandoned all semblance of coherency only to be replaced by a vacant pit so deep and discouraging that I was divinely gifted in the most visceral sense with the knowledge that this year’s story was an unmitigated failure. (Chuck wrote me mail as I penned this entry letting me know that I may be too close to the story; that it only took me 40,000 words to find a story peeking out of the ground. I wish to thank him for his sincere encouragement. I must be still too close to the story to consider anything more than an attempt by a good friend to keep me writing no matter how terrible the output.)

Through all these obstacles and excuses, I did manage to write my 2,000 (well, 1,700 on the last day to hit the Goal) words each day. And I even came away with a few nuggets of wisdom:

I’ve grown to accept first-draft quality in my Marathon writing. It took me a few days of writing, but I somehow managed to write without worrying about quality. Part of the cause was my decision to lock my writing. Although I did unlock the story for a few readers, my knowing that most people could not see the writing quality lowered my fears. (For as much as I claim not to care about the readers, I obviously do care—even if there are no actual readers besides the ones for whom I unlocked the writing, with the exception of my Mom, and as the above should make aptly clear, she did not miss much.) I’m hoping this first-draft acceptance spills over into my short-story writing. It’s a good skill to have because when I get around to it, I’m much better at the second and third draft than the first. The trick, of course, is getting around to it.

I discovered that saying the same things multiple times was good not only for my word count, but also for the quality of the story. I know that sounds ridiculous after everything I’ve said about how bad my story was this year. I have a tendency to keep my writing short and to the point—it’s the same tendency I have when speaking. When I talk, I am always watching the other person for the first signs of boredom. That doesn’t always allow me to relate my ideas fully. There are times where I stop talking, even though it would be better if I continued to explain the idea a few different ways. Similarly, when writing, I sometimes say too little to fully develop the idea. I leave too much unsaid about what I already know but the reader has no way of knowing. Repetitiveness, at least in a first draft, is better. There’s always the cutting floor after the second draft.

After writing 2,000 words for the past twenty-two days, I’ve decided not to take a break. If I want to pretend to be a serious writer, then I have to write every day. I won’t promise 2,000 words every day (today I came up a few hundred short of that goal), and I certainly won’t promise that the writing will be of any quality or related to a story. What I will promise is that I will sit down and pound out at least 1,000 words of musing or story or story planning, or some combination every day. We’ll see how this works out.