Quashing the Inner Editor – For a While

This past Saturday I went to a National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) write-in in Harrisonburg, VA. Seven of us made it and commandeered a corner of Panera to have some writing fun–word sprints, where you write as many words as possible in a set amount of time, and the “no backspace” game.

The “no-backspace” exercise really suppresses your inner editor, and the exercise consists of writing and not backspacing or deleting anything, not even a typo. The person who can go the longest without backspacing is the winner. In the first go-round, I lasted six words; I made it to about 200 words the second time around, but, oy, what a mess!

The concept of NaNoWriMo is to write without editing yourself in the moment. That comes later. By not editing as you write, NaNoWriMo-ers believe you tap into creativity that pausing to edit disrupts. Writing purists may cringe at such seat of the pants writing, which does sacrifice structure to a certain extent, but I find it particularly liberating.

A few weeks ago at the James River Writers Conference I heard Tim Robbins explain his writing process. The reason years pass between his works is because he literally perfects one sentence at a time and doesn’t go back to revise when the book is done. When he finishes a book, he considers it edited and revised because of this rigid method.

I’m not dissing that sort of structure; in fact, I admire it, and, obviously, it works for him. I’ve always been the type of writer to get what’s in my head down on the page, then I go back and “fix” it–rather a middle ground between a seat-of-the-pantser and the dedicated structuralist.

When I’m not doing NaNoWriMo writing, which, by the way, is eleven months out of twelve, I typically start the next day’s writing with a review and rework of what I wrote the day before. That refines it for me and gives me a basis to begin the next part. It’s true I rarely work from a written outline, but I usually have the structure in my head. I’ve always jotted down notes and ideas for anything I’ve written, but I, personally, find a detailed outline confining. I haven’t adhered to one yet.

The free-wheeling aspect of NaNoWriMo is what appeals to me, to just sit down and write without second guessing a sentence or what a character says or whether this is the direction the story should go. I know I’ll go back and fix that later, and the very act of putting the editing and revising off for a period of time, unleashes my brain.

For example, I had a fairly detailed list of scenes I’d foreseen for this year’s project, but somewhere about a third of the way through getting those scenes fleshed out, a new direction emerged. Frankly, you can’t ignore that. You can’t limit yourself to an outline or a list of scenes and not be flexible. At least I can’t. If the idea pops up that I need to go over here and explore something, I have to go do it. I may end up tossing it out in editing and revising, but I have to write it when it manifests itself.

The NaNoWriMo project from 2009 wound up in an entirely different way than I ever intended. The idea came to me that I should kill off one of the two main characters I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words about, so I did. It was an amazing writing experience to explore the thoughts and feelings of the person left behind (and a great outlet for those same feelings after the break-up of my long-term relationship).

When I got to the revision stage, though, I knew it was wrong. I’ve joked the character tapped me on the shoulder and said, “It’s not my time, yet.” Purists scoff at the idea that characters speak to you or direct a story, but I know what I know. The character was right; I knew I wouldn’t be able to write more stories in the genre I’d chosen if he weren’t around.

That’s not a wasted manuscript though; I’m incorporating large portions of it into another plot. Another NaNoWriMo MS I’ve mined for short stories. Yet another, after editing and revising, just completed a trip through my critique group, and after another set of revisions, will be ready to see if someone is interested in publishing it. I haven’t touched the MS from last year (2011), but that’s on my list for projects in 2013.

This year’s? I’m so pleased about the direction it’s headed and the fact I decided to strengthen my literary fiction skill set, that it will be a 2013 revision project as well, probably toward the end of the year to get time and space between the writing and the revising.

NaNoWriMo is neither futile nor frivolous. It is, however, what you make of it. If you treat it as a creative way to develop a first draft, it can be very fulfilling. And great fun.

NaNoWriMo Update

This weekend, eleven days into the adventure, I hit the 30,000-word threshold. At the NaNoWriMo average of 1,667 words per day, by day eleven 18,337 words would have put me on track to finish with 50,000 on day thirty. Well, I’ve always been an overachiever.

The point is, without that artificial stimulus, that “imposed” deadline, I would never have written an average of 2,700 words a day. That’s worth it to me.


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