Quieting the inner editor

Day one, November 1st, 30 days to write a 50,000 word novel.

To make the 50,000 word mark, I needed to average about 1,700 words a day. I have no idea if this sounds like a lot to you, but in practice it felt huge at times. Day one went reasonably well as the details of the first scene had been working themselves out in the back of my mind. Day two, I was on my own.

One of the stated goals of NaNoWriMo is to turn off your inner editor. That little (sometimes loud) voice that says, “that paragraph makes no sense, you have nothing new to say, you’re not much of a writer, no one will ever want to read this, this is all crap…” The point of the challenge is to create enough time pressure that you are forced to just write as quickly as possible. In order to get your daily count of words, you need to muzzle that inner editor. Quantity over quality. What you are writing may indeed be crap, but you can always clean it up later. If you listened solely to your inner editor, nothing would ever get written.

For the first week of writing, I still struggled against the voices and hesitated too long over sentences. It would take me a while to get the ball rolling and I found myself staring too often at that little word count number at the bottom of the page. Writing became a rhythm thing, and things would speed up in the second half, but each morning I would stall out again.

The one thing I was able to do to limit the inner editor was that I didn’t go back and read what I had written at the end of the day. Once it was down on the screen, I did not go back to it. Each morning I would read the last paragraph or two to see where I left off, but I would not go back any farther. I didn’t want to give my inner editor any more ammunition than it already had.

Working with a guide but no guidelines

I have seen the period before actual writing described as the “compost period”. You let stories and characters sit in the deeper reaches of your brain and let them ferment. I spent the month before NaNoWriMo doing just this, but it didn’t feel like I had much to show for it when November 1st rolled around. In truth, there were probably themes and ideas that would pop up later, growing in the background during the month, but there was little to start the pen rolling on day one.

What I had was a backdrop for the book. It would take place along the Pacific Coast of the United States, hugging the coastline for much of the journey. As far as story, I had an opening moment (not even a scene) and one more scene I would use sometime later in the book. That is about it. As day one of writing approached, the details of the first scene were probably growing in the background, but I still had little idea where the story would lead.

Encouraged by Stephen King’s method of writing, I planned to write my way into the story. I have learned this method of writing is often called “discovery writing”. I don’t recall if he called it this in his book, but one of the passages I highlighted in On Writing describes it as,

“I lean more heavily on intuition, and have been able to do that because my books tend to be based on situation rather than story…I want to put a group of characters (perhaps a pair; perhaps even one) in some sort of predicament and then watch them try to work themselves free. My job isn’t to help them work their way free, or manipulate them to safety – those are jobs which require the noisy jackhammer of plot – but to watch what happens and then write it down.”

So I had permission to just wing it somewhat and see what would happen. But it felt like I was working without a net.

On Writing

We decided to participate in NaNoWriMo some time in September, about a month and a half before the November 1 start date. This would be the time to start plotting and planning, but of course that is not what I did initially. I went back to some of my stalling techniques.

Some years ago, I bought Stephen King’s book On Writing but never read it. It was one more book sitting on the shelf, quietly mocking me. With a deadline approaching, I finally pulled it down to see what this best-selling author had to say. It turned out to be a wonderful book on the craft of writing, and it inspired me to relax a bit about the upcoming month of writing.

Can you inspire to relax, or is that an oxymoron?

My inclination is to over-plan certain things, imagining pitfalls and solutions ahead of time. Planning to write every day for a month, without a place to begin much less an outline of the story, had me questioning if this attempt would fail before I even began. On Writing gave me a plan that wasn’t a plan.

After some memoir material about how he became a writer, the book described the advantages and pitfalls of how he went about writing his novels. One thing he mentioned was that he often started a novel with little more than an initial scene with one or two characters, and maybe a conflict. Unable to imagine planning or writing 50,000 words, I latched on to this technique and worried a little less about how unprepared I was.

But only a little.