It’s hard to believe that at my age, I’d be considered a virgin. Well, I conquered that label recently when I attempted for the first time the NaNo challenge. For the entire month of November, I wrote my fingers to the bone (not really), making certain to reach the 50,000 words (almost didn’t) by November 30th. The experience was…stressful.
I’d always wanted to do NaNo. I felt a strong sense of community with other writers while challenging myself to write during the start of the holiday season. I don’t know what I was thinking. It was hell!
Except for a short story I wrote earlier this year, I haven’t written a new full-length book in 3 years. Life was a major reason for the lull. Losing my confidence was the other. And yet a third came in the form of brain death, which I had mourned far too long. When I decided to finally take the plunge, I was nervous, uncomfortable and terrified, and that was just the day I entered my book before the November 1st start date. There was still a month to go! I’ve had a horrendous 2011, health- and otherwise, so why was I intentionally setting myself up for more stress?
The answer: I needed to find out if I could write again or if I should hang up my keyboard and call it a less-than-stellar writing career. In other words, could I rebuild my confidence in myself and my storytelling? Oh, and could I find my creativity, which seemed to abandon me 3 years ago.
The morning of November 1st, I was up early, steaming coffee at my desk, eyes wide open and staring at a white screen. Blank screen. No words. Had I expected come the start of NaNo I’d sit at the computer and my fingers would fly over the keyboard? Apparently. My little bit of positive thinking bombed, and it was only the first day.
I write historical novels. My research was somewhat complete, although when I write, I’m always referring back to my files and searching the web for answers not in my notes. Unfortunately, to “win” the challenge, I had no time to waste on looking up details I knew were beneficial to the story. Almost immediately, I came up with ways to get around the use of research. In places I needed a name, I’d write “whatshisname” or “whoeverthisis.” For the details of the period (15th century Italy ) I didn’t know, I’d write “lookthisup” or “whatsitcalled.” I thought, okay, this isn’t going to be so bad. That thought came back to bite me in the…well, “youknowwhere.” Why did I run the words together? It would make replacing them with the find and replace easier when the time comes.
I threw some words down on the first page. Actually, it wasn’t so bad. My fingers didn’t fly like a flock of birds with a purpose, but I wrote those 1767 words each day. Until the 4th day. Understand, I’m a detail-oriented writer. I have to know what “things” I can use in the story. For that, I needed my research. Desperately. Remember those substitutions above? I discovered they didn’t work a lot of the time. My creativity already stalled, and I was only 4 days in. Panic set in. I fell behind in word count. But by some minor miracle, I caught up on day 5 and surpassed the count by 500 words.
Until day 6. Yeah, my creativity didn’t last. So for the next 24 days, I developed a love-hate relationship with NaNo. Losing my (NaNo) virginity became as painful as it is for my heroines when they part with their virginity. Of course, in a different part of the body, but the kind of pain I suffered through was real.
The most difficult thing for me to do was turn off my internal editor. She has a habit of sitting on my shoulder when I type. My first draft of any book isn’t submission ready when I’m finished, but editing while I write is a habit I developed years ago, somewhere in the 30 years since I began writing. Every time she crept in, I tried my best to shoo her away. I really hated chaining her to the lamppost. I was afraid the police would notice.
My muse was a different matter. For most of the month, she decided to go AWOL. I could have strangled her for leaving me stranded without a clue. But then, the police would definitively take notice. Instead, I struggled to find motivation and conflict for my hero and heroine. They weren’t helping either. Non-cooperative characters tend to rub my temper the wrong way. To blow off steam, I’d take a break and cook or bake, play with my dogs, decorate for the holidays. And procrastinate.
Being a stubborn Italian, I refused to quit. No matter the rubbish I’d written, I determined to work through memory and creativity lapses (every single day). The stress overtook the enthusiasm I’d built long before NaNo started. No way is my story fit for anyone’s eyes but my own. At the end of the 30 days, I figured I’d trash it all and start from scratch. You know, that blank page.
It wasn’t until a few days before the end of NaNo that I realized my goal was in reach. I turned into a madwoman, just one step short of being committed. On day 29, I surpassed 50,000 words. When I clicked on word count, I stared numbly at the number: 50,423. Whew! I did it! Proudly I followed the links to the certificate I was to receive, filled in the blanks and printed it out. My husband pointed out that I’d misspelled Petska. I had typed Petwska (after nearly 40 years, you’d think I get it right). The perfectionist that I am was not happy with the error. I tried to go to the certificate to fix it but couldn’t. Apparently, once you’ve printed it out, there’s no going back.
I doubt I’ll do NaNo again. The stress combined with other factors in my life became almost unbearable. For a while, I dreamed of finding the guy who came up with the idea for NaNo and dropped it into November. Really? He’s probably single and doesn’t have holiday cooking, baking and cleaning a house for company to do. Holiday shopping for gifts. No concept of how busy life is for everyone at this time of year. Is it bad that I woke up several mornings with my fingers closed around an imaginary neck, squeezing the life out of the faceless creator?
Now that it’s a good week behind me, I can be a bit more objective. For one, NaNo got me writing again. And two, I can say I joined the NaNo challenge and won. It feels good. Now, where is the TV news camera and announcer telling me and the world, “Jannine Corti Petska, you’ve just won NaNoWriMo. You’re going to Disneyland ?”