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On Persistence: Worthless Words

This week I started with a story about trying to get started jogging again. I almost didn’t post it. I felt like maybe it was a little too personal, and I wasn’t sure you’d much care.

But one of the things I’m learning as I study writing this fall is that good storytelling is always personal. More important to me, though, was the realization as I read back through it just how applicable those lessons were to writing in November.

Big Things Happen in Small Steps

Big things happen in small steps. It’s the biggest challenge of starting a diet, a workout regime, or really any large-scale project (and a one-month novel definitely qualifies). You’ve got to maintain the vision, find some way to keep the end goal always in sight, but day-to-day, you’ve got to find the time and motivation and the focus to do just what needs to be done right now.

I knew that going into my exercise plan last spring. I’ve known it going into every new gym membership or diet for nearly a decade now. It’s so frustrating to know that it’s going to take months to see real progress, but that months-long process is built on what you do today. Every day.

Writing is the same, of course. You read a book all at once, as a big old block of awesome prose, but you write it in scenes, in snippets scribbled on napkins, in four forced sentences on a Saturday because you have to add something to your word count. It takes a real mountain of words to make a novel, but you put it together one stone at a time.

Getting Nowhere

Last February, when I started working out, it was on an elliptical machine. That’s a little bit easier on the knees, but it’s not much better than a treadmill in terms of making you feel like you’re spending a whole lot of energy getting nowhere.

Once the weather warmed up a little bit, I could get out on the streets. I’d roam through my neighborhood, picking longer and longer routes as my pace and endurance picked up. It was more interesting that way — it felt less tedious, anyway — but in the end I was still just going in a circle. I’d go out and spend all my strength and an hour of my life just to get back where I’d started. That’s wasted effort.

Except, of course, it wasn’t. It’s easy to get hung up on that quest for progress, but my goal was never to get from point A to point B. It was the motion that mattered, not the outcome.

Worthless Words

That’s something worth remembering in NaNoWriMo. There’s a phrase that tends to come up sometimes in the course of the month, especially for new writers: “worthless words.” As in, “Well, I wrote nine hundred words today, but they were worthless. They’re all going to get cut in the rewrite.”

But there’s another phrase that gets repeated often in Creative Writing programs the world over:

Every word counts.

Forget the first phrase. Cut it from your lexicon. Cling to that second one like a life raft. I guarantee it’ll carry you a whole lot farther.

It means several things, depending on the context and the experience of the writer.

  • All writing is practice writing.
  • You’re always getting closer to your goal.
  • Big things happen in small steps.

Those are all reminders you’ll need from time to time. In November, though, the phrase has a very practical application. Legalistic, even.

  • In NaNoWriMo, every word you add to your story — good or bad, right or wrong — counts toward 50,000.

There are no worthless words in November. Every word is worth exactly 1. And that’s exactly what you need, right now: one more word. And then another one after that, of course. And another. And next thing you know, you’ve written a book.

You could never do that in a day. But if you keep doing a little bit at a time, one day soon you’re going to wake up and discover that you’re there.

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