Rules, Trust, and NaNoWriMo

I used to be a big jerk about National Novel Writing Month.

I didn’t really think about it one way or another until I started writing seriously, but then, I was Very Grumpy about it. Real writers wrote all the time! Often in daily wordcounts that were more than the NaNo requirement! And 50K words isn’t a novel anyway! NaNo was clearly not for real writers. I was very snarky about it.

I want to be clear that I no longer feel like this.

Here’s the thing. I like rules. They give me a lot of comfort. If there are rules, then I can follow them, and I can know I am doing The Right Thing.

When I was just starting out as a writer, I had almost no confidence that I was Doing It Right. So I looked for rules. I read process books and writers’ blogs and anything I could get my hands on that would tell me how to do it. I made rules for myself—stringent ones, ones that some of my favorite writers followed, and ones that I put together on my own—so that I could have something to cling to that made me feel like maybe I was a real writer. (Imagine a tiny trademark symbol there.)

And I didn’t cut myself any slack, because I didn’t trust myself with it. Which meant that when I talked about writing, oh, say, on a blog (maybe this one even) (probably) I was rigid. Prescriptive. Sometimes probably a jerk.

I was, even though I didn’t realize it at the time, sort of being a jerk to myself, too. By making all those rules (some of which I needed then, to help learn habits and discipline, some of which are still useful to me now), I gave myself a million tiny ways to be afraid of not doing the right thing. To fail. To let the brain goblins in on a bad day.

And, in a way, to be unhelpful to other writers. I mean, I’ve pretty much come to feel that there are few absolute rules in this business. Do what you need to do to get the words on the page, and know that that might change from story to story, from book to book. But I remember what it’s like to see the people in the field that I looked up to talking about how they write, and I remember measuring my process against theirs, and making myself feel lacking because mine was different. Not rigorous enough. Not professional.

Which is some kind of bullshit, I tell you what. Because at the end of the day, I don’t need to make anyone else’s process work in order to write a book, and neither do you. We just need to figure out what works for us. For this scene. For this project. For today.

I was talking to a friend this weekend about a novel draft I’ve been bashing my head against, and I said that I thought the biggest change in my process since I started writing was that I trust myself to fix things now. I am not one of those writers who generates clean first drafts. Mine are hot messes, shitty first drafts. I wind up rewriting and throwing out A LOT. But I am a good reviser. And no one needs to see those hot messes of words except me.

I’m not officially doing NaNo this month, but I’ve got about 50K left in this zero draft to write, and so my goal is to push my way through it, and get to the end of that first bad draft by the end of November. Because that’s what I need to do right now. Because that’s what works for today. Because the only thing that matters is what gets the words on the page.

This article originally appeared November 2, 2015 on Kat Howard’s blog, Strange Ink.

Kat Howard lives in New Hampshire. Her short fiction has been nominated for the World Fantasy Award, anthologized in year’s best and best of collections, and performed on NPR. Her debut novel, Roses and Rot, is forthcoming in 2016 from Saga Press. You can find her on Twitter @KatWithSword


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