Today’s special article was written by my friend Sally Jane Smith. She shares the highs and lows of her past year. Sally’s article has a lot of good advice.
National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo) is an annual online challenge in which you undertake to write a 50,000-word manuscript in thirty days. The main project runs in November, but there are other events during the year. The next is Camp NaNoWriMo, which begins on 1 July 2020 and in which you have more freedom to set your own goals. If you’d like to know more, click here.
When I took on NaNoWriMo, I was a sceptic. Given that I’d been toiling over my Greek travel memoir for three years, the idea that a book – a good book – could be written in a month made me cringe. I didn’t see the point of churning out thousands of poorly crafted words and labelling them a manuscript.
But my own writing had stalled. Horribly.
I’d been planning it for over a year: the seven-week solo trip through Turkey on which my second book would be built. The itinerary was more than a list of places I’d visit. It was the framework for a story, a carefully structured journey based on the themes of heritage, family history, triumph over fear, and the matching of books to destinations.
Life intervened. Or, rather, death did. My niece, Carly, was killed in a road accident in Hanoi just two days before I boarded the plane. The lighthearted adventure I’d planned was shrouded in a smothering fog of grief. I was barely able to breathe through the pain. And I lost the capacity to write.
Half a year later, when I made a public commitment to National Novel Writing Month, I hoped I’d be swept up in euphoric spirit with the hundreds of thousands of other participants. The discovery that Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus, a book I love, was born through NaNoWriMo helped me to overcome my prejudice against the project.
My NaNoWriMo wasn’t an exhilarating experience, though. It was a hard, hard slog.
Here’s what I learned:
- It’s tough, but doable. Given a few pre-dawn hours, and the bulk of each non-working day, I could grind out the required wordcount.
- A three-hour, early morning writing session before heading out to my paying job didn’t sap my strength, as I’d expected. Instead, it energised me. At least, it did at first.
- But the discipline of writing every day drained me dry. While many authors advocate a daily routine, I found this is not for me. Writing became a chore. My words suffered, becoming dull and lifeless.
- The intervals between writing are more important than I’d realised. When a week passes between sessions, there can be magic in my keyboard. On a good day, it is as if the shape of the story flows from my fingers – even in the first draft, there is a trace of the narrative to come. I understand, now, that my subconscious works away all the time, molding the story before my hands touch the keys.
By contrast, my NaNoWriMo output became a tedious memory dump. This raw material may yet prove valuable, but producing it was like being forced to sit through a casual acquaintance’s slideshow of thousands of travel photographs. Reading it, I’m sure, would be even worse.
This phase of writing can be compared to mining a massive boulder, a great lump of stone to be hauled from the depths of the earth. This is where the harshest labour lies, in heaving the unwilling mass, inch by inch, from the dark. Later, I might have the joy of finding hidden curves in the rock. I might sculpt and polish them into something beautiful.
There’s no point in undertaking NaNoWriMo if you are not committed to your goal – but it’s just as important to know when to let it go.
So, when my friends met up for cocktails, I stayed home. When my partner suggested a rare lunch date, I declined with regret. But when bushfire threatened my sister’s home and she asked me to come by to pack up her most treasured possessions, including family paperwork and photographs, no mention of NaNoWriMo escaped my lips. Instead, I asked, “Do you want me to stay tonight?” and quietly wrote off two days of writing.
The Australian bushfires kept growing, and Tassin needed more help. When things were at their worst, the Three Mile fire covered 36,000 hectares, its front a simmering threat five kilometres from her fence line, and the mammoth Gospers Mountain fire wasn’t much further away. Long before it got to that point, I’d packed my bag for another overnight stay as she prepared to evacuate her wildlife sanctuary.
My sister has the strangest household, with around 300 native Australian animals living mostly in wild bushland, and now my task was to respond to a flood of Facebook messages. It was a fulltime job for two of us. We couldn’t have managed without those donations and volunteers, and the thousands of caring comments brought us real comfort. Trying to keep up with answering this tsunami of love, though, was exhausting beyond measure.
By then I was four days behind in my writing, and the tension headache I dragged home with me brought me to six days behind. NaNoWriMo was no longer achievable, and I relinquished the challenge with a mixture of relief and a deep disappointment in myself.
I failed NaNoWriMo.
I learned, though, that once you give up, you can start again, and that it’s okay to choose a new target.
My project derailed at 26,331 words. I limped along for another thousand words or so before quitting. But I took it back up. While my sister, her remarkable team of rangers and dozens of spontaneous volunteers continued their battle, backed by an awe-inspiring level of community support, I stayed home and managed a modest but satisfying 40,004 words by the end of the month.
I still haven’t figured out whether there’s a book in my Turkey trip. I don’t know if I can sustain the balance – between writing about exploration and writing about grief – that would make it a story worth telling. But I’ve started.
Sally Jane Smith is the author of Unpacking Greece (working title), anticipated to be published in 2022, and has started work on her second manuscript, inspired by her journey through Turkey. She loves connecting with readers, writers and travellers online: the best way to stay in touch is through her newsletter, but you can also find her (and her social media links) on her website. Her sister’s wildlife park can be found on Facebook.