Writing

My bad teen novels made me a better writer

It's the screaming time again, when I sequester myself for a month and desperately make bad words come out of my hands.

This National Novel Writing Month I'm trying something new which I'm calling "living like a Spartan" or perhaps "like an adult with a good sense of time management."

My rules are to be in bed by 11:30 (if I want to read, or need to write more to hit my goal I can do it from bed, but no dicking around online or playing games or watching TV allowed), and up before 7:00 to get a thousand words in before work.

It's only day 4 but so far, so good.

I've been doing NaNo since I was in high school and for a long time I thought I had gotten nothing out of it but fun times with friends who write. Neither of my published books were written during NaNo. And the books I did write with the month-long constraint... woof.

But as I tried to convince everyone I knew to join me on the NaNo journey this year, I realized that NaNo fundamentally changed how I approach writing, and more than anything, why I think it's a great idea to start young.

I've written a lot of bad books

The first time I did a writing month was actually JuNoWriMo, when I was about sixteen years old. Back then I was, against all odds, really fucking good at writing 50K in a month and let's be real, it was because it was a bad 50K. I wrote garbage that year. I wrote garbage for NaNo when I was 17. I wrote garbage with my friends, and I wrote slightly less-garbagey but still pretty garbage in sophomore year of college.

But all those reams of garbage that I wrote made me think of writing as tangible work, rather than a mystical art.

Doing NaNo changed my relationship towards word counts, and towards completing projects. And it taught me my strengths and weaknesses as a writer. And I started doing it when I was so dang young that I tricked myself into learning life lessons, what the hell.

Word counts aren't scary

I've failed NaNo more times than I've won. But those early NaNos, when I was so young and foolish and cavalier about words that I actually won fixed some things in my brain.

50,000 words became not a scary number. When submission calls I was looking at wanted books of 50,000 or more, I knew I could hit that number.

Even though I would never in my life let any of my early NaNo projects be seen by living human eyes, it was a weight off to know that the sheer volume of words was possible. That I had done it, and could do it again.

I knew I was bad at endings

Here's the other thing about my early NaNo projects: I finished 50K, but I never finished a book.

I was terrible at plot arcs; I would imagine most sixteen-year-olds writing their first book are. I'd estimate that I was around 2/3 of the way through the plot each time I got to 50K, but like, imagine the plot arc is less of a parabola and more of a pancake. 

It's because I was bad at plotting, and definitely bad at villains (these stories tended to have Villains), and definitely because I was bad at endings.

I'm really fucking bad at endings.

And again, it's good to know that. Just like I knew I could make 50,000 words appear, I knew that none of those words would be a decent ending.

In a better world where I'm a better person, this means I know to take extra time during the planning process to iron out an ending and make sure my conflicts are actually leading somewhere.

 I knew what I had done.

I knew what I had done.

In practice it meant that when I turned in the manuscript for Sparkwood and Amanda sent back edits calling me a villain and pointing her accusing finger at me from across the country, I was ... unsurprised.

But I wasn't crushed or disappointed, because years of doing NaNo had trained me to be extremely cognizant of my weaknesses, but also not to let them stop me from writing.

I had written a book before

Writing a book is really damn hard. You work long and lonely hours at it and you agonize over little things, and you make strange horrible mistakes that will have you looking back and screaming "WHO WROTE THIS?"

I know this... on a certain level. 

And on another level I swoop into novel-writing going "uh, of COURSE I can write a novel" because my idiot teen self wrote like three of them and if she can do it, anyone can.

Again I have stress for the fiftieth time these books were not good. I think people around me at the time wondered why I bothered, because it was obvious that I wasn't putting much care into what I was writing. But the fact that I could do this when I was a useless teenager, I should be able to do it now has been a backbone for me. Every time finishing a story feels impossible, the horrible evidence of my past writing crimes is there going "OH NO, IT'S POSSIBLE."

Even though it's much harder to write now, I came into adult writing knowing the elation of finishing a book. Knowing that I could cope with the sheer number of words needed. Knowing where I was going to half-ass it, and failing to stop myself from half-assing, accepting that it was going to happen and that I would be able to deal with the consequences of my half-assery.

These aren't craft skills, but they're work skills. Craft takes time to hone, but so does the ability to keep gnawing through the bad to get to the good. And that's something I learned without realizing I was learning, when I was just writing bad books for fun.