Not a Writer
I want to be a writer. A paid writer, preferably, but I’d settle for just being a writer. What makes a writer? I’ve visited blogs about writing, read some books, and subscribed to Writer’s Digest. They all give pointers on character development, plot motivation, editing, publishing, you name it. But there is one thread that runs through all writing advice.
Writers write. I think Chuck Wendig might through a “motherfucker” at the end. Succinct, pithy, perhaps a bit simplistic. But writers write.
That’s why I’m not a writer yet. But to continue the Jules Winnfield Pulp Fiction quotes, “I’m trying, Ringo. I’m trying real hard.”
Seriously, how hard is it to write? All you have to do is sit down at a keyboard and tap, tap, tap, right? And yet… and yet…
There are a whole bunch of books running around in my head. The one that’s been there the longest is a political drama about a dark horse running for president. It’s been in there since the government class in my senior year of high school. It would have some great plot twists, a seriously flawed antihero, and might even set up a sequel where his brother becomes Governor of California. That is, if I had ever written it. But as of the writing of this blog, (let me do some math, carry the one), about 8,500 days have passed since the idea came to me. The number of words I’ve written is (okay, logarithm to the base of e, translated into base-7, carry that damned one again) zero. Zero words have been put on paper. Oh, there are pages and pages of notes, timelines, character sketches, and outlines. Well, there were all of those things, but I don’t know that I’d be able to find them if I wanted to start up again. I’m guessing they’re in storage with some cassette tapes. But in terms of actual words in the actual novel, I’ve got notihing. Haven’t even created a file named “President Book,” nor typed “Chapter One” on the center of any top line. The good news is that I don’t have to worry about that blinking cursor screaming at me, like I’ve read on many of those blogs about how to get past writer’s block.
But writers write, right? I’m already doing this blog in Microsoft Word, so all it would take is a nifty Ctrl-N and start tap-tap-tapping. But I’m not a writer. I’m a thinker. From time to time, I’m a researcher. Maybe I’m a loose plotter, but what I really am, at this point, is a guy who can think up a scene here or there.
So why don’t I write them down? Oh, I can come up with a litany of reasons, but the top two are usually confidence and time.
My lack of confidence doesn’t mean I’m afraid of being a bad writer. My use of the English language is sound. Do I still need to consult Strunk & White from time to time? Sure, but that’s hardly a count against me.
But proper verb conjugation does not the next Jack Reacher make. All those ideas I’ve had? Most of them are scenes. I know how I might start a book, but then what would happen in the next scene? Or I know the ending, but how am I going to get there? So the internal critic says there’s no use writing the scenes I’ve thought of if I don’t know what’s going to happen next.
Then there’s the whole time thing. Who has time to write? I mean, sure, I’ve got fifteen minutes right now, but how much would I really write in those fifteen minutes? So I might as well play some Candy Crush instead, because that’s a MUCH better use of my time. Just until I lose these five lives, and then, oh wait, I have five more lives in the dream world? Okay, then I just need to see if I’ve opened the new world of Pet Rescue Saga yet…
Of course, now that I have a five-month old at home, I scoff at the silly boy who thought he didn’t have time. I’m sure he couldn’t foresee a time when the laptop isn’t cracked open until after the baby’s gone to sleep, leaving a whopping hour to pay bills, do chores, and maybe shove some food down the gullet before passing out on the couch five minutes into a DVR’d episode of NCIS.
But that inner dialogue that keeps me from writing. Let’s call her the inner nag, instead. She is the ubiquitous crabgrass that I find whenever I’m looking for the elusive Kentucky bluegrass called a muse. Why bother writing a scene, she says, if you don’t know what happens next? Why bother writing for fifteen minutes if it’s not enough time to finish the whole thing?
The logical part of me knows these are stupid points. The next scene isn’t forming in my mind yet because the current scene is taking up too much cranial real estate. And I can’t read a book in one sitting, why would I expect to write it all at once? But if I spent the next fifteen minutes writing a hundred words now, then maybe I can write another hundred the next time I am waiting for my Candy Crush lives to reset. Then, when I’m halfway through this scene and start thinking about what happens next, maybe I’ll make more time to start writing that next scene.
Stephen King writes two thousand words a day. Given his publishing schedule, I assume that’s enough to finish a 500-page book a month, right? He tells beginning writers that they might want to just start with one thousand. He also says the first one million words are practice, something akin to Malcolm Gladwell’s ten thousand hours. So maybe if I had written all of those scenes I had thought about, I’d be getting close to being an experienced writer. Maybe I would have even figured out how to string a few of those scenes together by now.
Last year I discovered National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, a challenge to write a novel in thirty days. Okay, only 50,000 words, which really isn’t a full-sized novel, but is still a sizeable chunk of one. It’s been going on every November since 2000, but this was the first I had heard of it. When all of your writing energy is potential instead of kinetic, you don’t spend much time in actual writer circles. Now that I’ve been spent a year doing some writerly type things, I don’t know how I had missed it.
But eleven months ago, an Amazon Kindle post about it on Facebook was my introduction. Intrigued, I checked out the website, and before I knew it, I had an author profile and a novel I was “working on.” I didn’t really think I’d follow through on it. First of all, it was already November 9 or 10 when Amazon posted it. Better late than never, Kindle, sheesh! Plus I had a wedding to go to that weekend. No time, but what’s it going to hurt to say I’m working on a novel.
I already had about five thousand words of a novel written down, so that might compensate for missing the first third of the month. And if that statement seems to contradict everything I’ve said so far, bear in mind words had been written over a span of thirteen years. The book was a fictionalized account of my trip to Mardi Gras in the year 2000, so it had almost been in my mind as long as my political book. Hell, had I known about the first November NaNoWriMo , ten months after the Mardi Gras trip, I probably would’ve written the exact same book I attempted in 2013.
The night before that wedding, I dusted off the old Word doc and started typing what happened next. Only a couple hundred words. I didn’t write any the day of the wedding, but the next day I did. Then the next. Suddenly, I could find the time. And those plot holes? Some of them started fixing themselves. Some of the scenes that I had been thinking about for ten years ended up going a different way than I had always assumed. Who knew that actually forcing myself to put it on paper would finally flesh it out? Then halfway through this scene I had always thought about, I would think, “Oh, I need to throw this in here because the next scene will do this.” All those things I had heard were true. Scenes I assumed could not have more than five hundred words of content actually had three thousand words of detail, exposition, and dialogue. I thought about the characters and the plot when I was in the shower.
I didn’t “win” NaNoWriMo last year. After being spotted the initial five thousand words, I only added another 20,000 or so. Only. But if any statement should serve as an endorsement for the program, it’s me, a guy who spent thirteen years writing five thousand words (and really, twenty years writing zero words of my political thriller) finished the month and said “Dangit, I only made it to 27,000 words.”
The important thing, I realized, was that I was writing. “I’m a writer now,” I thought. And this would continue. Man, now that I knew what it took, the world was my oyster. I would finish that book by the time Christmas arrived and I had ideas for other books that I’d start up in January.
As of this moment, that book is at 38,000 words. I’ve only added eleven thousand words.
Why did I write 20,000 words in one month and only 10,000 words in the following year? I could blame it on reaching a lag in the book, damned old writer’s block stopping me from knowing what happens next. But a lot had to do with how successful NaNoWriMo is as makeshift muse. I missed the pep talks from accomplished authors. The word-count widget that satisfied my desire for meaningless accomplishments (“A badge for 5,000 words? Done!”) was gone . During November, every time you update your word count, it tells you when you will finish your book based on your current pace, as well as the pace you have to write at to finish on time. The giddiness I felt when my finish date moved from January to December (“I’m going to finish this year!) was matched only by the dismay I felt when it disappeared on December 1. (“But I’m not done yet!”)
But the thing I missed most was the group camaraderie. We do write-ins at real-live locations, but even more helpful was an online chat-room. Chatting with people might seem to be a bad distraction for someone trying to type 1,667 words a day. But they are all in the same boat. The conversation ebbs and flows as inspiration strikes. There are word wars, where we all write for ten minutes, then report back with how many words we wrote. Then we write a little more leisurely until the next one.
When December arrived, all of those things were gone. I stopped off at Starbucks and Panera a few times that month to write, but could only manage another five hundred words a time. In November, I could get close to that number in one successful word war. Plus that old-fashioned lack of confidence came back. You skip a day of writing, you might get back on that horse, but another day or two of no writing and you start doubting you’re a writer. Because remember, writers write.
But I also need to remind myself that the eleven thousand words I’ve added to the book since December are probably ten thousand more words more than I had written at any time prior to last November. And that doesn’t count the short stories, flash fiction, and blog entries that might or might not count toward Stephen King’s million word starting trot. I’ve also found more of those resources that had eluded me before. Writing blogs and websites, competitions, exciting new authors. I joined Storium, a very cool website that is part role-playing, part write-your-own-adventure, where you create a character and jointly tell a story with other characters. Shoot, a year ago I had no idea who Chuck Wendig was. Now I check his website daily, have written five of his flash fiction prompts, and have bought three of his books.
This blog has been part of my attempt to “keep on writing.” This post will mark the 7th Monday in a row that I’ve submitted a blog entry. I cheated and wrote most of it on Halloween. It’s an artificial deadline, just like NaNoWriMo. If I miss a week, no hostages will be killed and I won’t miss a paycheck. But, as last December proved, if I miss one post, it will be much easier to miss the next week as well.
But now, NaNoWriMo is back, and I have to ramp up from writing two to three thousand words a week to doing that every couple days. I hope the flash fictions I’ve been writing haven’t destroyed my ability to write things longer than one scene. I guess I’ll find out with my first word war.
I will try to continue posting every Monday through November. The posts might change from my normal musings to book excerpts or check-ins. Or why there’s no way in hell I will make it to 50,000 words. Regardless, they should be shorter. Maybe I’ll just write a sentence or two.
Oh, who am I kidding? I can’t even describe a bowel movement in less than a thousand words.
And if I’m successful this year, maybe I’ll try it again next year. Maybe I’ll, gasp, try to write during the other eleven months of the year. Maybe next year, I’ll finally get around to that political thriller. Or maybe I should wait until 2016, the twenty-fifth anniversary of its residence in my head. I’ll feel like an empty nester. I wonder if I’ll solve world hunger or invent a warp drive with all of the newly vacated room in my brain.
More likely, the space will be filled with new ideas, new plots, new characters. Then al I’ll have to do…