What I Learned From a 378-Day Writing Streak

Friday, November 20, 2015

November 2nd, 2014, the second day of NaNoWriMo, I started writing. I'd done NaNo every year since my Freshman year of high school (2008), but I'd never made writing a daily habit. It was time. It was NaNo and I was in high spirits, so I decided that I was going to write at least 1,667 words a day, every day during NaNo. I could write more, but never less than that.

That’s exactly what I did. I finished the month with over 100K words of a novel—double the goal—and stars in my eyes. I didn’t want to stop, and I wasn’t done with my novel, so I just kept going. Mid-December I had almost 140K words—and realized that I’d probably been working on two novels the whole time.

After that, I worked on trying to revise the previous book in the series. That didn’t go so well. The thing is, once I know how a story goes, and I’ve figured out all the little bits of magic that make it real in my mind, the pull to the page is all but gone. I knew the thousand changes that the book needed, but it was too overwhelming for me to actually make them. Maybe someday I’ll get back to working on that series, but I learned that for me, learning how to revise might best be done on standalone novels, rather than a series. I find the complexity of a series too overwhelming right now. Once I’ve learned how revising works and I've done it on a couple of other books, I’ll be better able to break the job of revising a series down into smaller, less intimidating parts.

For July Camp NaNoWriMo, I tried writing a prequel to the same series, and again, the complexity just overwhelmed me. Add in that I was writing a story that I already knew the gist of, and it wasn’t all that interesting either.

At some point, I found the Write-Chain challenge and realized that I'd functionally been doing it without realizing it. I latched on to the "don't break the chain" idea and ran with it.  I made it to 378 consecutive days of writing before I broke the chain.  My first official goal was pretty versatile. It was something like "write a blog post, 1,667 words of anything, or revise one hour" every day. I kept that goal unchanged until October when I changed my goal to "500 words or 4 handwritten pages of fiction or brainstorming for fiction" since I was going on a trip with some ladies from church and wouldn't be able to keep up 1,667 words during that time. The focus on fiction was good since it kept me more productive in the fiction realm, but once I finished that draft and needed to revise, I had to change my goal again to "25 minutes a day working on any part of the fiction writing process."

Before I made my goals fiction-specific I spent a lot of time journaling, especially when I felt like I was too tired to think up fiction. Some of that was good and productive. I learned a lot about my personal psychology, but a lot of it was just griping about how crap my day was, how tired I was, and boring, minute details like what I ate for breakfast. I was just trying to get in 1,667 words of anything so that I could go to bed! That was a waste of time and energy. When I made my goal smaller and changed the focus to fiction, that wasn’t an issue anymore.

I took the things I’d learned about myself from my journaling and decided I was going to live life without regret, not wondering how my life would have been different if I’d not drifted apart from my middle school friends, if I’d apologized for the stupid things I remember getting them to do, if I told them just how much they meant to me—so I did. I had nothing to lose; we’d already drifted apart. My irrational fears were the only thing holding me back, and they didn’t matter anymore. I wrote several letters to old friends and to my little brother in Army basic training. The letters to my brother were longer than the letters anyone else sent him (go figure!) and my old friends were all really happy about the letters. One of them wrote me a letter back. Another sent me a lovely Facebook message. I went to visit the last one with a cake I made for her and we talked for hours.

All of that was great, but there was a point several months ago that I was really down on writing. I just didn’t want to do it anymore, I was tired of my jillion failed attempts at revision, and I went back to square one. I drug around a five-subject notebook and some pens for a few weeks. I pantsed a pretty terrible story, but I had a lot of fun with it. I just spent the last couple of weeks typing it up, and it’s full of lazy writing, redundant writing, contradictions, floating head syndrome, telling when I should have shown, and explanatory crap that just doesn’t need to be there. The characters aren’t that interesting, the reader would never care about the main character enough to care about the stakes at the end. I haven’t even named half of the characters yet. It was fun, and I hated writing a little less, but I still don’t love it.

A few months ago I gave myself permission to stop this writing streak after I hit 365 days. I didn’t want to quit right away, because I tend to have really bad mood swings sometimes where I hate something for a couple of weeks at a time and then I love it again, and I didn’t want to give up my Write-Chain for that. At the same time, I knew that if I was still not excited about writing after those months passed, it could just be that it’s time to be done with this writing thing as a serious pursuit or that it's time to approach it differently. It is with that now that I withdraw from the Write-Chain challenge. I still like writing, but I’m tired of writing every single day. There are other things that I need to get done now, like practicing my fipple flutes and getting caught up on my sewing and my TBR pile. I'm looking for other approaches I can take so that I can have a day or two off every week, like Cathy Lamb's approach. I'm planning to start again with a different approach in December.

I also learned that I don’t care about fiction as much as I used to. The bulk of my reading is nonfiction and the best piece of writing that I did all year was probably my ridiculously long review of The Art of Ocarina Vol. 1. It could be that I don’t care about fiction right now because I’m not reading fiction, or it could be that I’m not reading fiction because I don’t care about it—either way, it’s not my focus at the moment.

Before I did this, I wasn’t convinced of my ability to do something every day that wasn’t quick, mindless, and routine— like brushing my teeth. My schedule is so different from one day to the next that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to fit something in every day. I now know that I can, and that is so empowering. Now I know that I’m not undisciplined—it’s just a matter of making the habits I want to make and prioritizing the things most important to me. I can make something routine, even if I don’t do it at the same time every day. Crazy. It definitely helps to do something the same time every day and to get the things I "have to" do done earlier in the day so that I’m not stressing over them all day long, but I can still do that something every day, whether I get it done in the morning, the afternoon, or late at night. I have the confidence now to apply the habit-building concepts to other areas of my life (one at a time): devotional times, practicing my instruments, exercise… you get the idea. Lack of faith in my personal discipline isn’t holding me back anymore. I can do it and I know I can. I can’t wait to see where life takes me.

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