For those who don’t know this (and for those who care), I’m doing Camp NaNoWriMo. I joined with the hope of eliminating some of my perfectionism for a month in order to force words down onto the page for one of my novels — a novel that, should I finish it, could be a huge step for me as a writer. With the sudden amount of school assignments that I have this month and the final line/content edit I’m doing as a freelancer, I opted for a relatively low word count of 21,000 words so that it wouldn’t overburden me. 700 words a day. I can do that, right?
Yes, I can . . . BUT . . .
On the first (or second?) of April, I actually had time to write. I was rearing to go. Bring it on, I thought. By the end of my sprint, more than nine hundred words were on the page for a scene that started the relationship between my two lead characters. The dialogue was okay, I decided. Technically, there was nothing wrong with their conversation or the way things played out on the page, but something felt off-key. After a moment, I realized that I didn’t like the scene. At all. That the words weren’t right. And I realized that this was part of the problem: I hated the words I had written. I hated the way they felt. I hated them so much it was almost painful when Robyn didn’t give me permission to delete every single one of them.
Turns out that MS Word solved the issue for me. I’m usually anal about saving my work, but I may have been tired that day. Alas, I went to open the document today . . . and my first NaNo work? Gone. (I promise, Robyn, that this was not intentional . . .)
At first I was irritated, but then I remembered how I’d felt about those words. How they had felt sloppy, thrown on the page, devoid of life. I decided, then, that maybe MS Word was on my side for once. Maybe this was fate.
Camp NaNoWriMO is supposed to be a lesson in discipline. The goal is to get words down on the page, to challenge ourselves to write consistently, no matter what. I wholly support this ideal. I will write consistently, if not every day, then at least every other day. I will meet my 21,000-word goal. But I will also ensure that I’m happy with the progress of my work. Word count for word count’s sake doesn’t do me a lot of good, in the long run. A number is an empty, trivial thing. I have been, and always will be, moved by quality rather than quantity. Even in the first draft. Even if I will scrap the first draft two months later, give it a total overhaul, or throw the entire novel out the window, I will ensure that even those words are words that make me happy. That’s just the way I am.
Sometimes, when I see the speed at which my author friends write, when I see how quickly they get published without having to deal with the endless rejection letters (I’ve been rejected more times than I care to count), I feel totally incompetent. Rushed. I feel like I should force past my process. That I should change it. But then I read novels that sing to me (recently The Golem and the Jinni tops the list), written by authors who spent five to ten years writing and researching their stories, who took the time they needed for them, and I see that those books seem to carry the kind of soul that I’m searching for, the attention to detail and thought, the beauty of a well-written, well-executed novel. After that, I don’t feel so inadequate. My characters tell their stories in ways that suit the narrative. I trust them. I have to trust myself. I want what I write to mean something more (to me) than pure entertainment for my readers. I want to play with language; I want my words to make people feel.
Yes, I say that I’m a perfectionist, but it’s not perfectionism in the sense that every comma must be in the correct place or every word must be in order (though if they were out of place, that would annoy me). No, what I seek is the perfection of the voice of my characters, the perfection of the heart of their words on the page. And perhaps it’s not even perfection that I’m searching for, but a feeling, a rightness. If I simply word vomit in a bid to finish the story, it disrupts the song of the narrative. When words fall flat, it pains me. Even if I tell myself that the problems can be “fixed” with edits after the story is completed, this doesn’t mean that I can suddenly give a soul to the wrong and empty words. No, I’d have to rewrite them anyway.
So I’d say that my battle with perfectionism is actually more of a love affair than a war. It’s a love affair with the sound of the scene playing out between the lines of the page, the chatter of my characters, their brushes against my heart. It’s my love affair with a story that I must tell a certain way, with a certain voice. Not for me, but for them: the words, the characters.
Maybe my process is slow — incredibly slow — but it’s consistent. I listen to my characters. And in the case of my first Camp NaNo writing assignment, from the beginning, Salem (my MC) was telling me that the scene was wrong. So we’ll try again today to get it to feel the way that it should. And tomorrow, if needed. And the next day, and the day after that.
Because, in the grand scheme of things, that’s what matters: trying again and again. Never settling for less. Trusting both my intuition and my process, even if that means I’ll have to take the extra time to do it right.
Are you guys participating in Camp NaNoWriMo? How’s it going? How do you feel about the initial drafts? Does word vomiting work for you?