Camp NaNoWriMo and Why I’ve Decided to Try It

You might have noticed that I don’t normally talk about myself or what I’m writing on this blog. There are a lot of reasons for that, not least of which being I don’t think I’m that interesting or that anyone but me will have an interest in what I’m writing. What I tend to want to do with posts is be inclusive and open – looking at things that interest a lot of people, me included.

But part of it is that I’d feel accountable, as if by putting down my thoughts about my own writing, or revealing details about it, will mean there is an expectation that what I’m talking about is a long-term thing, that the story I’m writing will be completed and will be published and under no circumstances can be scrapped, and I’ve not felt able to make a commitment on that in a while.

I’ve decided, though, that it’s time for that to change, and Camp NaNoWriMo is going to be part of that.

From September 2008 until about June 2011, I was working on a story called The General’s Secret. During that time I was also learning a huge amount about writing, getting involved in the writing forums that still make up a big part of my online activities. As a result, what I wrote in November 2009 was, by mid-December, so far below the quality I expected of myself. Everything I wrote wasn’t good enough within weeks.

I decided therefore to try something very ambitious with this story: I decided it should be a tragedy. It didn’t need a lot of structural work, from what I had in summer 2010 (already vastly different from version 1 written in November 2009, during NaNoWriMo), to achieve that aim. A tonal change, some foreshadowing early on, a few nudges to the plot, and a complete rewrite for the whole last third of the book which in any case I’d only done isolated scenes from previously.

The problem was that I’d been working with those characters so long, and put quite a lot of myself into both main characters, that giving them a tragic ending was very difficult for me; I wasn’t mature enough as a writer to put them through that kind of emotional pain, but I was good enough to write – and feel – it. So I had two versions of the story I wrote concurrently, or switched back and forth between: a tragic version, and a happy ending version.

I put a lot of time and thought and effort into the story/stories. I became very passionate about it, very dedicated, to the detriment of my studies and relationships – I’d chose to stay in and write instead of joining friends for their birthdays; I’d leave assignments to the last few days before the deadline before I started them, would burn out doing them, then after some sleep get right back to the story. I would divide my notebook page down the middle during lectures and seminars and make lecture notes down one side and story notes down the other. In March 2011 I linked a piece of music to the story and listened to it on repeat when I wrote (Reverie by Ludovico Einaudi – a beautiful piece of music).

To give some context, in April, May and June of 2011 I had some of my final university assignments for my Master’s degree due, as well as various steps of my dissertation due. I rushed them, did “good enough” instead of putting my all into them. My thoughts were always on my characters, Reiss and Seris.

Part of the depth of my obsession was escape; my fiancé was suffering from depression and I felt hopeless. I didn’t know how to help him and I was scared the man I knew and loved was vanishing in front of my eyes and would ultimately vanish completely. I put some of that into the story, though that’s also why I needed the happy version of it.

In the end, though, it was too much. I was emotionally fragile. I became snappy. I lost touch with friends. And it took me far too long to realise that The General’s Secret was the problem. My indecision, the almost manic-depressive way I swung between the tragic and happy versions, the sense of false hope that came from writing the happy version, the way I was using the story to avoid thinking about my fiancé’s depression and learning about how I could help him.

So I stopped writing it. I made a decision to sever all ties. The folder got buried in my file structure and then transferred to my external hard drive. The Einaudi track I associated it with was struck from my playlists (including my “sleepy” playlist – the one I listen to while falling asleep) and I have listened to it only twice since then – just to see if I could without tearing up.

But in everything I have written since, I have failed to connect. The characters lacked the same depth; I think in part I feared having the kind of connection with them that would leave me feeling guilty at what I put them through. I struggled to build the same passion about stories, again, probably because I feared the obsession that I fell into. And so story after story was planned, plotted, begun – and then abandoned.

In the last two years there have been at least six stories I’ve dedicated at least a month to. Not one passed 5,000 words written, though some reached 15,000 words of notes.

Now is the time to stop that. I’ve been stuck in this rut for two years. In that time I’ve graduated, got a job and moved in with my fiancé. I’ve grown as a person, and I’ve read a lot about writing and talked a lot about writing, but I’ve not done all that much actual writing.

And that’s where Camp NaNoWriMo comes in. NaNoWriMo has always been about finishing something, about creating something unpolished, about leaving concerns about quality behind in pursuit of quantity, because you can’t edit a blank page. With Camp NaNoWriMo, I can set my own target which is achievable to me (and after my last two November NaNoWriMos ended in huge failure – 11k words in 2010 and 2.6k in 2011, that’s important). I’ve got a support team in the form of my Cabin mates and my fiancé (now considerably improved compared to 2011).

With Camp NaNoWriMo, I have the kind of goal the Time Management course at work was promoting – SMART: Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound. 40,000 words in 31 days between 1 and 31 July, which works out at 1,291 words a day on a novel. I think that fits the bill for a SMART goal.

I’ve got an idea for the novel. I’ve got the world to write it in. I’ve got a few plot points and a general feel to it. I have a name for the protagonist. And I have ten more days in which to fill in the gaps before I can start writing.

So that’s my goal: write 40,000 words on this story in July, no giving up, no excuses.

For me, Camp NaNoWriMo isn’t just about writing a novel. It’s about getting out of the rut I’ve been in. It’s about reaching higher than I have dared reach for two years. It’s about getting it done no matter how rubbish I think it is. It’s about acknowledging that for too long, my expectations of myself have far exceeded my abilities, and bringing those expectations down while at the same time bringing my abilities up to meet in the middle. It’s about deciding not to give up this time.

Wish me luck.

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