It’s Okay to Say No

“Today is the first day of November and, so, today, someone will die. –The Scorpio Races, Maggie Stiefvater

Not to be dramatic, but I always feel a side of fear with my excitement on
November 1st. Yes, you’ve guessed it. This is yet another post about NaNoWriMo, where writers world-wide converge into one collective unconscious creation amoeba and delve into a 50,000 word-writing sprint over the course of November’s 30 fall-flavored days.


Since I started doing NaNoWriMo in 2013, this will be the first time I will not be participating[1]. Learning to manage expectations is just as much a part of a writer’s growth as learning the mechanics of writing. As I sit beside my writing and critique partner, whom I am also fortunate to have as a best friend, and she clacks away at her brand spanking new novel, I realize, for once, I do not feel envious of her ability to jump into new worlds with such ease. This is how she writes. She enjoys world-building, the excitement and possibility of beginnings, while I fear beginnings and yearn, from the outset, for the delicious center, where all the secrets begin to surface like bodies rising in the Dead Marshes. I’ve also been fortunate enough to view Maggie
Stiefvater’s seminar on writing
(which she’s offering for half off today!), and it has reinforced my instinct to hold off on putting this project down into words; the seminar teaches temperance as I hold my novel baby in the realm of perfect forms in the furnace of my brain and continue weaving it like candy floss in this space, safely hidden away from the imperfect translation of thought-to-word.

I completed an exercise from Stiefvater’s seminar to explore the mood and test which point of view this novel might work best in. As I wrote, I was freshly astounded at how stories are woven: an image that creates a story in your head and takes off on its own if you’re lucky or practiced. It seems like a random image that ignites a random movie that plays on your brain screen. However, both that seed of a story and the resulting array of Power Point slides stem from an infinite combination of stimuli and memories that make your unique map of synapses and the sparks traded between them like paper
fortune-teller predictions in grade school. So don’t discount the experience of just writing to write, without feeling like it has to fit in anywhere or be applied to any tangible Work or Project. Even if it never finds permanence in your body of work, it has done important work in your brain and exercised that story-telling instinct with which humans, in all of our pattern-seeking wiring, are born.

I used to think of myself as a procrastinator, when actually I am afraid to commit something to paper before I have an idea of what I’m setting out to do. Not necessarily an entire outline, but as Stiefvater beautifully puts it in her seminar, it is integral to the writing process to know what kind of book I want to hold in my hands at the end of it all, what kind of emotions I want the reader to feel during and days after reading it, and what I want them to remember, years later, about how they felt when they see it on their shelves. We are, after all, conductors eliciting a mood in our readers; we need to know the mood before we can adequately translate it. This has given me the peace to refrain from writing while I fill out its form in my head, letting the rain build before ripping the cloud apart. This takes less time for some people, like my writing partner who asked me to assign her a genre[2] and had a solid idea, characters, and pages of plot and dialogue in 24 hours. For me, it takes more.

I thought this would be a pep talk so that I didn’t feel some type of way about skipping NaNoWriMo, but it’s more of an affirmation that this is the right decision. And if this speaks to anyone else, then welcome to my kumbaya circle. I’m not a particular fan of Kenny Rogers, but I find myself returning to and adhering to the advice of “The Gambler” again and again. The chorus is as follows:

You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run

All this just to say ‘intuition’ in a quirky, entertaining manner. Intuition isn’t some mystical otherworldly place you can only touch with meditation and burning sage (but our kumbaya circle does meet on Tuesdays to do this). Sometimes it takes practice, like anything else, to listen for its voice and know when to follow it. This little seed of a novel isn’t done germinating, so I do not yet know the shape of this very emotional, personal project. Therefore, I will continue slowly curating my playlist and Pinterest board–which has been overrun with wolves somehow–and cheering you all from the sidelines, whether you’re endeavoring to write 50,000 words this month or saying no to NaNoWriMo.

1Not including 2015, when my twins were 2 months old, but I wasn’t even human then, let alone a writer, so it doesn’t count.

2After reading through this for coherency, aforementioned writing partner/best friend wanted me to mention that I also gave her the idea for her main character and his goal, so as not to downplay my part in her NaNoWriMo project. *smirk*

Failing NaNoWriMo

The title is pessimistic and depressing, but I swear I’m okay. No, really. I felt like I should write down my experience with NaNoWriMo though (yet another means of procrastinating to write on my novel?). I started this month jubilant and green as every other chum that starts off on a pilgrimage of epic proportions, like Tolkien’s hobbitses running through hill and dell of green fields to begin their adventures; like every Disney character who ever wanted to go exploring the real world outside his or her menial existence (though internally, I was experiencing something more akin to what Rapunzel went through in Tangled when leaving her tower);


like Anakin Skywalker, bright-eyed and doughy cheeked, starting his Jedi training with Obi-Wan….and we all know how that ended.

Oh, Anakin, you’ve….changed

My excitement and awareness that something magical was about to happen was a real thing, and I still feel it, in a different way albeit, more removed, awe-inspiring way at the power of this culture and community and this crazy tradition that was born from it.

The slackening off started to happen right around the end of the first week, when I started—well, there’s no nice way to put it—slacking. Now, while my grandmother is sick (and commencing full-on writing sessions in the hospital during visits with her wouldn’t go over very well, even with an excuse like NaNoWriMo), I have done my fair share of dilly-dallying, hem-hawing, pussy-footing and all other manner of avoiding what needed to be done, because I just didn’t FEEL it. A lame excuse, by the way, NaNos; the point of this event is to power through all that passivity and/or terror to move forward, to roundhouse kick down that wall of writer’s block.


Just make sure you’re wearing steel-toed boots, because, let’s face it, you’re not Chuck Norris and you may sprain a little piggy. My point here is, the second I stopped writing EVERY night, getting my 1,666 words in, was the second I stopped driving myself to push forward. No matter how much you tell yourself ‘I can always catch up later’, or ‘I can write double—nay! triple the required word count in one sitting’, you run the risk of losing momentum. That’s why there is a daily word count tracker; you’re supposed to be running to the finish line all month, not speed-walking and then planning to catch up with a heart-attack inducing sprint at the last.

So, now that I’ve admitted my failure (to reach 50k), I want to quote my best friend, who told me that I didn’t really fail NaNoWriMo, because I have written more this month than I have ever, in my life, been able to produce in a month (usually no more than 16 pages). I proved to myself that I can park my ass and throw out 34,247 words in less than 30 days, and that is pretty damn amazing to me. She went on to point out that this month was made for me, because it gets me to do exactly what I am unable to do because of distractions, insecurity, overthinking, back-editing: WRITE.

It’s something so simple, yet so few people can understand what this event represents for writers. My sister asked me “Why is it every time I ask you to do something, you say you have to write?” I went into the old explanation of what writing means to me, that I want this to be my career, and for it to be that way, I HAVE TO DO IT. And seeing as how I can’t do it in the day when I’m working, I have to do it at some point—and that some point happens to be whenever I have time off. I have major problems with focus (beginning to think I might have a strain of ADD, as these parenthetical asides may have already indicated) and procrastination though. So while I could have won NaNoWriMo 2 times over had I used every moment of free time to write (even with write-free visits the hospital), the impetus is what sometimes gets a little dull. NaNoWriMo helps me keep it sharp. And now I know what to expect for my second year, and I plan to open the door a little wider to fully let that impetus-sharpening motivation in.

So, to conclude these ruminations, I would like to, despite my failure, congratulate the incorporeal entity that is NaNoWriMo. You have acquired a follower for life. This is a remarkable community that fulfills a critical need for writers. Thank you for seeing me through my failure, and I hope you will be able to validate my future successes.

If you also “failed” NaNoWriMo, what have you taken away from it?