too many words by laura lemay

on writing

it’s December 1st, and National Novel Writer’s Month is over. In case you don’t know what I’m talking about, November is a month in which one is supposed to sign up to write 50,000 words of a novel. The novel doesn’t have to be good. It just has to be 50,000 words. Unbeknownst to absolutely everyone, I was doing it.

I’ve signed up for NaNoWriMo, as it is called, a few times before. I’ve always sucked atrociously. This year I was true to form: I sucked atrociously. But I sucked less this year than I did in previous years. I did 10,000 words this year, which is three times as many as I did the last time I tried nanowrimo and way more than my first attempt. And each year I do it I learn something important and something new about myself and how I write, so I consider that a good thing.

Amongst the things I learned this year were that not telling anyone was the right thing to do. I suffer from a malady one could call Expectation Fear. If I think too many people are expecting something from me, then I can’t do it. The first time I signed up for nanowrimo, I told everyone I knew I was doing it and got them all excited about it. They wanted to know all about my idea and told me it was fabulous and they wanted to read my novel as soon as I finished it — as soon as I finished each chapter, if possible. Could I post it to my web site? Could I send it out to an email list? When would the first chapter be ready? And so on November 1st I wrote 300 words, froze up, and then spent the remainder of the month drinking heavily. Eventually people stopped asking about it.

Related to Expectation Fear is the Internal Editor. The Internal Editor is a known problem with a lot of writers. You’ll be typing along madly and the Internal Editor will pop up in your head and say “that sentence runs on too long.” or “you are using too many adverbs.” or “your dialogue is wooden.” or, more generally: “you suck.” and then next thing you know you’re carefully crafting the same sentence over and over again for the next week. One thing writing 50,000 words in a month is supposed to do is get you past the Internal Editor because when you have to write 50,000 words, there just isn’t *time* to carefully craft every sentence.

I have a lot of trouble with the Internal Editor. I don’t finish a lot of stuff I start because of the Internal Editor. Sometimes I can keep the Internal Editor quiet and actually accomplish something by, yes, drinking heavily, and before you point it out to me I know all too well how much of a damned cliche the writer who drinks too much is. The second time I did nanowrimo I wrote about 3000 words before my Internal Editor told me my novel was so incredibly tedious I might as well stop now. So I did.

By not telling anyone I was actually doing any writing this last month, I found I could keep the Internal Editor quiet. The Internal Editor would pop up while I was writing and say “this is the stupidest thing you’ve ever written; you suck,” and I could spit back ha ha! No one knows I’m doing it! No one is ever going to read it! It doesn’t matter! Screw you, Internal Editor! And the Internal Editor would slink back off into whatever filthy brain cave he lives in when I’m not writing.

(As a side note, I know exactly who my Internal Editor is. He’s an instructor I had in college who subscribed to the “be vicious to your students” theory of teaching (the theory goes that if you write fiction professionally you will be abused every moment of your career so you should be abused while you are learning. This will weed out the weak). This particular instructor told me I would never amount to anything as a writer. For years now I’ve been wanting to send a copy of my Java book to him with a note that says “This book sold a zillion copies. Ha. Ha.” But being that he is my Internal Editor and I’ve been listening to him criticize me for the last eighteen years, I know he would just peer scornfully down at my book through his glasses and then scribble a note back to me that said “And how many copies of works of FICTION have you sold recently, Miss Lemay, hmmm? Any hack can write about computers. Real writers write fiction.” Now you know why I hate my Internal Editor. Now you know why I drink.)

Besides managing Expectation Fear and murdering the Internal Editor, however, probably the most important thing I learned this time around doing nanowrimo, is that it’s not actually writing unless it’s written down. Duh, you say. Well, it was non-obvious to me. Thanks to nanowrimo this month I realized that I spend a lot of time writing in my head. I think a lot about writing. I plan lots of writing that I’m going to do, down to actual sentences and description and dialog. But very often: I don’t. actually. write. anything. Sometimes I get bored with a story before I write it. Sometimes stories are harder to write than they were to think about. Sometimes I just have just bits and pieces of stuff that don’t make a story. Sometimes the Internal Editor comes along and that’s that.

And conversely, because I spend so much time thinking about writing, doing a novel has often felt like a huge unconquerable chasm of a thing, way beyond my capabilities, because I just can’t fit the whole thing into my head.

What my 10,000 words this year taught me is that I just have to do the work. I have to put the words down. Think less; write more. I have to stop trying to figure out if I can write a novel and just try. I have to stop worrying about readers and editors and whether or not I suck. I just have to write. Just write. Just write. Just write.

I hope not to wait until next November to put this insight to greater use.