How NaNoWriMo stopped my fear and helped me find my fourth career

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(This post expands on a NaNoWriMo pep talk I wrote a couple of years back).

Are you at the end of the first week of NaNoWriMo 2013? If so, congratulations!

If you are (and even if you’re not), it’s likely that you will be very familiar with this scary thought:

When you start to create something, YOU ARE FACED WITH INFINITE POSSIBILITIES.

You may sense the germ of an idea, a character, a colour, a bit of story or a setting, but beyond that, once you sit down to start whatever it is you’re making, anything can happen; you’re simply finding the best path through the whole universe of choice.

Like Michelangelo’s Captives – sculptures partly liberated from stone by the marks he made with his chisel – your story will only come into this world if you are prepared to make a whole set of decisions. Some of those will be conscious and some will not.

Now, when I start thinking about the universe and infinity, I start to wobble somewhere deep inside. I guess that’s where our ancestors started to find their Gods – when they started thinking bigger than the human mind can imagine.  But when I’m talking about my own creative process, that wobble is, in fact, the fear.

And the fear is what stopped me even starting to write until I was *ahem* forty *ahem* something.

I used to feel the fear when I was devising and directing plays (my first career) but I overcame it because there were a whole group of people involved, and if I didn’t take the plunge I would let everyone down.

I felt the fear when I was a graphic designer (my second career), but then I had a deadline and someone was paying me to do the creating, so that was a big decision made for me already – there was no choice: I had signed up, I had to do it.

I dabbled with writing and illustrating children’s books, (my failed third career) but the drawing decisions you have to make – for example about line, colour, texture, point of view, faces, feet, hands – before you even begin on the words… Well, let’s just say I briefly took up smoking after fifteen years’ abstinence.

The fear is so great that I could have sat around my whole life time, dithering about making that first mark, typing that first sentence, or (and this was my particular pet issue) moving on beyond that third chapter.

That is why NaNoWriMo is so brilliant!  You sign up, you have a deadline, there is a whole community of people supporting you and egging you on (and who will be sad if you don’t complete), and you don’t have to draw a single line (unless you want to). All that, and the quantity-not-quality edict, the liberating permission to write – and write badly if necessary – pushes you beyond the dithering stage and into making your thing happen. In my case, it even helped me find my fourth (and hopefully final) career – Novelist!

If the thought of the Universe does your head in – and it does mine – then here’s a more manageable image. Try to think of starting out on your NaNovel as being on the edge of a big, dark forest. You need to get to the other side, but there is no obvious path, so you just tear through it as fast as you can – in my case with my hands over my eyes, but you can keep yours open if you want.

Your trail will be ragged, over-wide in places and only enough space to squeeze through in others. You will think, at several points on your journey, that you will never get out of there; you will feel like sitting down and giving up, or going back out the way you came. But occasionally you will see glimpses of light that make you realise your task is possible. Then you see there is more sky and fewer trees and without knowing it, you are out the other side – sweating and scratched, but victorious.

That’s November.

(Remember: don’t show the forest, or the path, to anyone at this stage. No one at all. It’s not fair on them and it’s not fair on you.)

After a decent rest (until 1 January is neat), you might decide to take a slow walk back around the outside of your forest, right round the perimeter, feeling the size of it, getting its measure, until you find where you started out. Then go back in, and follow your path again, but this time, do it slowly and consider: was it the best way? Are there better paths you could take?  Can you make the path look better, less ragged? Could you stop and take a look around?

That’s until the end of the following October.

By then you will have delineated your novel’s path through the Universe. You’ll possibly have something you want to show to someone else.  You might even be ready to do it all over again.

I have done NaNoWriMo five times. I didn’t ever inspect the path I made through the forest of my first NaNovel. It still – probably quite rightly – languishes unread by anyone but me on my hard drive. But my second turned out to be Cuckoo (March 2011), which got me a three-book deal with Headline. I used NaNoWriMo to speed on my second novel Every Vow You Break (March 2012), turbo-charge my third Tarnished, (March 2013), and my fourth The Long Fall (due out in July 2014). Unfortunately, my deadlines have now put me right off kilter for November this year. I might have to do something about that for 2014.

Keep it up and, most importantly, have fun!

 

 

 

 

 

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