I haven’t published a new article in a while, but not for a lack of writing. In fact, I’ve been spending a lot of time writing. That is because every November it is National Novel Writing Month.
NaNoWriMo is a writing challenge to write 50,000 words in 30 days of new fiction writing. The purpose of the challenge is twofold. To encourage writers to develop a consistent writing habit. And to pile on enough pressure to push the writer into making meaningful progress. It equates to an average writing tempo of 1667 words per day. No easy feat.
I first encountered the challenge when I was fourteen years old. My first attempt was a miserable failure. That has always bothered me. The premise is simple and requires nothing more than consistency and drive. I assumed that I had both. I’ve attempted the challenge many times since and always come up short in both categories.
The cloud of these failures has hung over me for years. As a teenager it was the first time I encountered a long, unstructured, self motivated task. This is the type of work we encounter all the time in adult life. My pattern of failure was consistent. Initial motivation gave way to reluctance and eventual capitulation. I came to think of myself as one of “those people” that couldn’t finish what they started.
What better challenge then to revisit at the end of 2021. A qualitative test if any of my supposed improvements this year had worked. This poisonous self belief that I can’t commit to something and see it through has dogged me for long enough.
On the 29th November 2021, at 10:12pm on a train rumbling its way to London Waterloo I finished the 50,000 words. I brought closure to a nagging anxiety that had followed me for 12 years.
Lessons about Writing
It doesn’t matter what I wrote. To provide some context here is a brief outline the subject of the novel and the main motivation for it.
I wrote a dystopian near future science fiction novel. It took place in a post population collapse earth. Giant abandoned megacities carpet the land, known as the “countryside”. Humans congregate communities around seven space elevators. Two young heros and their master try to defeat a rogue AI that is dismantling the remains of earth for its own gains.
I came to this setting by extrapolating forward from trends in our present day. The restriction of difficult discourse in fear of ‘offending’ any given party. The degradation in ability of (western) nation states to execute national level projects. Over-regulation, conservative policy making and futurephobia leading to technological stagnation and decline. The growing power of corporations to replace government in geopolitics. The replacements of millions of jobs with general artificial intelligence. And the immediate fallout from an unprepared workforce.
All interesting topics. All divide opinion. It was interesting to write about for its own sake. An argument with myself if you like.
What you think you care about
It’s a little trite, but the first step to committing to something is finding it interesting. It seems like an obvious assertion to make, it isn’t. We want and desire all sorts of things we have no interest in at all. Universal exposure to advertising has all but guaranteed that our desires are not ours alone.
This phenomenon comes to the forefront when you engage with it in creative work. Under the strain of writing you soon discover what stirs you enough to maintain the effort. Writing is an act of self discovery, a clarification of the waters. There can be no more rigorous test of your values and interests than going to war with them on the page.
Conquering the Inner Critic
The Inner Critic is somewhat of a paradox. It is us, but also not us. It fights against our work even when we make the free choice to do the work. We know it is false, but let it become our truth regardless. It stills our pens. Silences our voices. Drys our brush. It is the enemy that we would rather avoid but creative work conjurs.
There is only one way to defeat the Inner Critic. Push it aside and move forward regardless. I would of preferred to find some easier option. After thirty days of ignoring it’s endless chatter it hasn’t disappeared. But it is much quieter now that it has ever been.
Realising that you will never be free of the internal monologue of criticism is half the battle. Like any unwanted thought, resisting it will only make it more present. The trick then (as any meditation aficionado can tell you) is to accept the thought. Accept the presence of your inner critic and do the work anyway. It isn’t going to feel great, but then again, who told you that it had to?
Good Fiction is the work of Magicians
Fiction writing is hard. Try it for yourself.
You can’t appreciate how hard until you try. Writing extended works of fiction is yet again another level of challenge. It has been the most challenging creative endeavors I have ever tried.
I have no shame in admitting my skill in it is low. I now look at the masters of the craft with a new appreciation. Their work is indistinguishable from magic, so sufficiently advanced it is. The focus of this challenge isn’t to write a good book, it’s to write 50,000 words in a month. But while you hammer away at the keyboard you get a real appreciation of the massive amount of work that would be.
Lessons about Motivation, Determination and Sticking it Out
The Inevitability of Motivation Failure
A new project begins. Motivation and excitement is high. Work progresses at a furious pace. And then it’s over as quick as it began. Your interest fades, the work gathers dust and you say to yourself “again?!”.
Motivation failure is inevitable. But it isn’t a death knell. It’s the start of the real work.
There is no hack, trick, or system that can help you. Motivation failure lies in ambush for all those that expect it to last forever. At some point it’s going to get hard and it’s going to suck. You are going to suffer. Don’t waste any energy looking for the magic pill.
In every project the work follows an oscillating cycle of excitement and drudgery. That early motivation failure is the first time the cycle flips to drudgery. If you don’t push through you never flip back to exciting. Which will happen. If only you maintain the determination and stamina to stick it out. It is inevitable that it will get hard again, and again and again.
Every time it gets hard your weaker competition falls away and you join a smaller and smaller group. At some point we start to call this small group of people “successful”.
That’s all it is. Most people aren’t sticking it out.
Don’t Negotiate with Time Terrorists
Who is the time terrorist?
Stop negotiating with yourself.
Decide what you are going to do, when you are going to do it and how long you are going to do it. Don’t give your time terrorist weapons of mass time destruction.
Weapons of Mass Time Destruction: Social Media, Video Games, Saying “yes” to everything, Autoplaying video series, Changing your mind, Not getting up early
The time you set beside to do something you care about must be non-negotiable. Be selfish with it, but then honour that selfishness by doing the right thing and doing the work.
Time Limits fuel the Fire
Give yourself all day to do something and it will take all day.
Give yourself an hour and it will take an hour.
Time limits fuel the fire of productivity. My most productive writing session were on train journeys to and from London. If I didn’t write 2000 words in the hour before I got to Clapham Junction it wasn’t going to happen today. The effectiveness of a time limit will surprise you.
I am not a proponent of scheduling ones day to the nth degree. Paul Graham’s, Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule, is excellent. But an open schedule does not mean an unbounded schedule.
The Process is as (more) important than the Work
If you want to get better at something you have to let go of the work and embrace the process.
You’ll never get where you want if you care about the result. It is hard to quantify your improvement when only considering results. A lot of work happens behind the scenes before you begin to notice it. Comparison of your beginner work to that of experts will only discourage you further.
There is a reliable, quantifiable measure of improvement. And that is your process. How many hours did you spend doing the activity? How did you review and reflect on your practice? If you want to draw a perfect circle, how many circles have you drawn today? The score takes care of itself as they say.
NaNoWriMo isn’t about the end result. I haven’t even read back my work. It’s about the process of writing a lot of words every day. It’s goal is not a publishable novel. You can’t sit down and decide to write a bestselling book. You can decide to commit to writing something every day. One day the bestseller might come, but if it doesn’t it wouldn’t matter. Rate yourself on the quality of your process not the uncontrollable result.
An Inner Dialogue of Self Belief
I had a lot of doubt coming into this challenge. Years of accumulated emotional baggage that said things like:
- “You can’t write for more than half an hour”
- “You don’t enjoy writing”
- “You are wasting your time”
- “You don’t finish things”
- “I have to do this”
The courage to act comes from self belief. But what if you don’t believe in yourself?
What if you noticed and adjusted your inner dialogue?
- “You can write for more than half an hour”
- “You do enjoy writing”
- “You are investing your time”
- “You do finish things”
- “I want to do this”
Could it be that simple? There is only one way to find out.
Will I write another 50,000 words next November? Probably not. Bringing a close to this challenge has done all that I needed it to do. It’s far from scientific but I can say with some confidence that yes, all this ‘stuff’ I’ve been doing is working.
That’s important to me. More important that writing any fiction novel. The road to any meaningful contribution to the world is long and the steps along it are tiny. Every now and then you have to zoom out and test that progress. You’ll never be able to tell how far you are along the road, but you’ll be able to see if you are moving forwards. And as long as you keep moving forwards you are unstoppable.
Until I find the next mad challenge I’ll keep trundling on with the grand challenge of life, happy to have explored another one of its many branches. It’s the end of the year and I can’t resist at looking forward to 2022. At the end of this challenge it feels as if there are more branches to explore than ever. It’s worth taking a minute to question which branches you’ve been barricading, and if those barricades are real?
It’s impossible to get bored if you are playing life on the right difficulty level.