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On Determination: Understanding Scale

I talked on Tuesday about climbing mountains — about facing and overcoming an arbitrary challenge in an arbitrary amount of time, just to become a better person. And now…welcome to NaNoWriMo Week Two.

For the productive among us (or just the prepared) Week One was all about the pell-mell rush into productivity, and Week Two was when they slammed to a painful stop. There’s another set of WriMos out there who wrestle with Week Two for a completely different reason, though:

We showed up late.

Remember last week’s story about my Category Fiction class, and those eleven novels I’ve had to read? Three of those novels came due in November, and one of them required a major paper. So I spent my first work week writing on my novel when I could, but mostly I was focused on getting a month’s worth of homework out of the way.

Of all my classmates this semester, I only know one who’s doing NaNoWriMo, and I asked her last night what her word count was. She shrugged one shoulder, gave me a story much like that one (since she’s taking the same class I am), and said her count was just over 2,000, but she was really ready to get going now. That’s quite a deficit to start with, though.

Writing a Book

No matter why you find Week Two frustrating, most writers find Week Two frustrating. That’s okay. It’s part of the process. In fact, if you’ve been reading your pep talk emails (and you should be), you’ve now heard two successful writers tell you precisely that.

The thing about Week Two is that it forces us to realize (or remember, if we’ve done this before) just how big a project writing a book is. Writing 1,667 words a day isn’t so huge. It’s kinda like hearing you’re going to scale a 13,000-foot mountain with reasonable hiking trails. That’s a doable thing. It could be a pleasant day trip.

When you realize you’re doing it with a group of twenty inexperienced lowlanders, though, and the nobody gets to the top unless everybody gets to the top, suddenly it becomes a challenge.

Because the trick isn’t hitting a target of vertical-feet-per-hour. The trick is coordinating a whole bunch of moving parts, some of which are working directly against you, and shepherding the whole lot of them into a real challenge.

It’s the same way with NaNoWriMo. The trick isn’t really getting words on the page, no matter what Chris Baty says. During the course of one month you’ve got to create a cast of character, dream up a plot, manage an outline, suppress an inner editor, and somehow find your way to an ending. That’s a lot of coordinating.

Every scene I write tries to take on a life of its own, deviating from the path I’ve set out for my book. Every time my nuisance/nemesis character (Eddie McSisters) says something charming, he risks wrecking the plot points my later pages depend on.

On the other hand, a lot of the time those deviations represent the true life of a writing project. They can be a nudge toward a much better story. If I follow that nudge, though, I’ll have to come up with a new plot, and find a way to a different ending. That’s a lot more work, and most of it doesn’t take place in the document that counts toward my total words.

Getting Behind

Week Two is all about writing from behind.

  • Maybe you’re starting from a deficit because you had other projects distracting you.
  • Maybe you’re struggling to hit your daily minimum because you’re too busy doing maintenance on your reference documents.
  • Maybe you’re ahead of schedule, but you still feel behind because you can’t come close to the productivity you were achieving last week.

It doesn’t matter why. Week Two is all about writing from behind, and learning a critical lesson that every successful writer must eventually master:

Success has nothing to do with staying ahead. Success is catching up.

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