Get It All Down

If nothing else, NaNoWriMo is a great motivator for us writers to turn off the editing side of our brains and write. Rough drafts, after all, are supposed to be rough.

The problem is, novices think the first thing onto the screen is brilliant and a finished product. On the other hands, those of us further along the writing process tend to think we have to polish and perfect scene one before we can progress to scene two.

Years ago I was in a critique group with a writer (actually more than one) whose desire for perfection froze her. She couldn’t get past the problems of her previous novel and move on to her second. She endlessly fiddled and tweaked and rewrote and could not move on. Nothing was good enough. Nothing was perfect.

The truth is, nothing we write ever will be perfect. There is always something more we could do to make the story stronger or the character deeper or the theme more intricately woven into the plot.

It’s a hard truth for those of us who want our books to be our best. It’s such a hard truth that it ends up paralyzing too many good writers.

Enter a contest, of sorts, that pushes writers to produce volume, not quality, and suddenly stories are taking shape and frozen writers and pouring out pages.

But do we have to wait for November to experience this rush of creativity? I don’t think so. What we need to do is to commit first to getting the story down. Then we need to commit to going back and polishing those pages until they shine.

I don’t want to slide by the months when a story is gestating. I think that’s also a necessary step. Unlike children, however, stories don’t have a set amount of time they need to develop. And writers can take some steps to move the process along.

The “move along” activities are sometimes referred to as pre-writing. They might include research, writing character sketches, filling out character charts, or doing the early steps of a process like Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake method.

For me, my first pre-writing activity was to make a map of the fantasy world I was envisioning. As I worked, story elements suggested themselves, and I began to make notes. Eventually I worked on an outline, and then I was off.

In those early days of my writing career, I was operating with that false idea that I’d get the story right, with some minor tweaking, as soon as I transcribed my handwriting into my computer. (Yes, I still write my rough drafts in long hand, even for short stories, but that’s just me.)

The bliss of that ignorance was that I plowed forward and got the story down. As I learned more about writing, I found a disturbing truth emerge: getting the story down was becoming harder. I felt less and less willing to write what I knew was drivel and keep going. This scene was wrong, that character motivation was weak, this plot point was predictable. I wanted to get it all right that first time.

I’d been around writing circles long enough to know the importance of getting the story down, and yet at one point I was forcing myself to move on. I’d already torn up one opening and started over. I’d gone back and added in a scene I was pretty sure would make things better. But I was still unhappy, still stalled.

Until I made myself write. Without going back. Without rendering a judgment on what went on before.

This act of getting the story out may be the very best thing that NaNoWriMo does for novelists — even ones like me who don’t play. The emphasis on volume serves as a reminder that at some point we all have to sit down and release the words, which will add up to pages, then chapters, and one day a completed story, rough though it may be. After all, a rough story is a lot easier to pretty up than a non-existent one!


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