What I’ve Learned in 3 Months of Writing A Novel 400 Words at a Time
In January I embarked on a challenge. I would write four hundred words, five days a week until I hit the NaNoWriMo word count goal of 50,000 words and finally be able to check, “Write a novel” off my life’s list of things to do. I wanted a way to cultivate a writing habit that wouldn’t require me to neglect my family or my work but would still keep me motivated. My goal is to have a first draft finished by late June, in time for my 30th birthday.
It’s now mid-April, and I am happy to report that I am still plugging away. My word count hovers around 30,000. At least five times a week I sit down and I write 400 words. I may not write every day, but I open my google-drive document, aptly-named “Novel,” at least once a day, even if it’s just to visit my characters and sit with them for a while. It’s a habit now, a part of my life, but I won’t pretend it’s easy. With each sentence I pen, I’m reminded that writing is work. It’s hard. Writing every day is hard. Writing good words is even harder.
Since starting this project, there have been a handful of days where I’ve found myself staying up late, checking my word count after every sentence, desperate to hit my number so I can go to bed. There have been weeks where I have written my words and felt like the story was getting away from me. I trudge through my word count more often than I would like, writing sentences I am not happy with just to drive the story forward. It is so difficult, so often, that I find myself wondering why anyone would put herself through this. Then there are days where I sit down to write and, before I know it, an hour has passed and I’ve written a thousand words. At those times I wonder why anyone would ever want to do anything else. Those days of flow and magic are worth the slog of the daily practice.
When I started writing my novel, I had a storyline in mind. I knew where I wanted to start and where I wanted to end up and had a hazy idea of how to get there. Then I started writing, characters starting popping up uninvited, plotlines started to divide and scatter, and I’ve had to relinquish control. For someone who very much likes to have a plan, this has been the most difficult part of writing fiction. Some days all I can see are the plot holes and the incongruences; the questions that pop up again and again. It’s difficult to work on something that won’t tell you where it’s going. Letting go of the reins is a daily chore. It’s hard to relinquish control, to blindfold oneself, and to trust that the story will figure itself out as you go. It’s very much like parenting a toddler. The guesswork of figuring out the right motivation for a character’s actions is a lot like deducing why your child is in tears when you gave them the banana they just begged you for. As I write, I struggle to see the connections, to know why I wrote what I did, and I panic about how I’m going to resolve the questions and forge the path. Then I’ll take a walk around the neighborhood with my toddler, pointing out all the trees and squirrels and birds as we mosey along, and soon the questions I’ve been struggling with all week work themselves out. It’s amazing. “That’s why I wrote that scene. That’s why that character popped up out of nowhere. I get it.” Then the process repeats. It is the most frustratingly amazing work I’ve ever done. Funny, the same can be said for parenting a toddler.
In addition to just putting the words on the paper and trusting I’ll figure it all out, March was my month to dive in head first to learning the craft of fiction. I am lucky enough to live in an area with a fantastic writer’s center and, after avoiding taking fiction classes for years, I finally signed up for three classes on the novel writing process. I’m a little more than halfway through my eight week intro to fiction course and I have really enjoyed it. Each week we spend an hour learning some element of craft and two hours in workshop. It’s made me more confident as a writer, and as I go back to revise some of my work to submit to my workshop classmates, it’s reminded me what I love about writing. I’m definitely a revision girl.
Shining up ten pages at a time is where the fun lies for me. My instructor recently related an interesting way of looking at the writing process. Sculptors, he said, take a block of clay and trim it away into art, but writers have to first build the block of clay. That’s the first draft. An ugly lump you can only start to chip away at once you’ve finished building it up. It can be tedious and boring to make that lump of clay, and it’s not pretty when it’s done. Maybe my feelings on this will change once I’ve written more than one draft, but the creation is not where the fun lies for me. I want to take a chisel to my words and sculpt some arches and decorative details. I want to tinker with sentences until they thrill me. I am plugging away to build a story my future self can enjoy revising. But first I need to build my lump of clay. When I struggle to write and I feel like I’m wasting my time writing words I hate, I remind myself that, unless I put the wrong words on the page first, there won’t be anything to revise. You can’t fix what you haven’t created.
I’m a little more than halfway to my end goal and I cannot recommend this approach enough. I tell all my writer friends about it. I hashtag 400words on twitter. I might be starting to annoy people. I’m so excited by it, even though the newness of it has long passed. Every week I am writing 2,000+ words—words I would not have otherwise written. That’s amazing. This is the longest I’ve ever stuck with a writing project; it’s the most writing I’ve done since my thesis. I’ve started novels before, writing ten or fifteen pages before losing interest and giving up. This time though, I know I’ll finish. I know I’ll revise. Maybe I’ll even shop it around. These are goals I’ll tend to later. Right now, I’m concentrating on writing the words. Four hundred words, five days a week. One word at a time. Won’t you join me?
Columnist Shannon Curtin is a 2014 Pushcart Prize nominee and the author of two collections of poetry, Motherland (Anchor and Plume Press), and File Cabinet Heart (ELJ Publications). She is the newly named Poetry Editor of The Quotable, and her writing has been featured in variety of literary magazines including Mothers Always Write, The Muddy River Review, The Mom Egg Review, and The Elephant Journal. She holds an MBA, competitive shooting records, and her liquor. You can find her at www.shannonmazur.com and @Shannon_Mazur.