Monday, December 6, 2010

NaNoWriMo and Rewards

The National Novel Writing Month encourages people to attempt to write a first draft of a novel, 50,000 words or more, in the month of November. I made it, and I’ve taken some things with me. I’ll be posting them over the next few days.
When it comes to first draft writing, I’ve been shackled by the need for ongoing rightness. 

From Wikimedia, Bill Woodrow's 'Sitting On History', John McCullough
Every word, as it comes to my mind and goes forth from my fingertips, ought to be quality. This is poppycock, batfaced fantasy, but I embraced it. What I’ve learned and relearned is that striving for quality in a first draft means you never finish, and never finishing is the opposite of true quality. 
So I can’t force first-draft quality. What I can force is output. I can write a certain amount of words every day. It is hard, but not that hard. It is achievable, and make-upable: if you fail today, you can make the time tomorrow. You can write a lot in 30 days by working piece by piece, or, as Anne LaMott suggested, bird by bird. Some of those words may have life in them, and that life, along with the craft of rewriting, is the source of quality.
The NaNoWriMo experience reminded me of an article I read (and took with me, sorry about that to my doctor’s office) in Time magazine. It covered research on incentives in school. One of the things the researchers learned was that small rewards for things that a student can control are more effective that rewarding a student for grades, which are viewed as out of his or her control. 
NaNoWriMo’s website gave registered users small rewards toward the bigger goal. They provided a line and bar graph to chart individual progress; my commitment to it surprised me. I entered my ongoing word count more than once a day: almost every time I stopped writing, I would check my numbers and self-report. Watching the blue bars tick upward toward the purple line pushed me to continue. 
This became especially important on November 30th. I had failed to hit my numbers over Thanksgiving, so I wrote for the entire day, entering my counts, driving toward the end. Just before dinnertime, it appeared that I had achieved my goal. It was time to upload my story for word count verification. I’d read that this could take some time; I’d read that sometimes the word bot didn’t agree with the software. My palms were sweating, and I was laughing at myself. What kind of a dork gets nervous uploading a story? My husband called in the middle of this, so he had the pleasure of laughing at me too. While we were agreeing on my lameness, it became official. The winner’s page came up on my screen. He congratulated me generously, much more so than I congratulate him when he has a successful hunt, and we said our good-byes. 
The NaNoWriMo organizers embedded a video on the winner’s page, and I clicked it. They were cheering, and I laughed some more, because what sort of person shakes her fists in the air as a bunch of strangers in Viking helmets celebrate? I do. 
One of my boys walked in during the hoopla, and he wanted to know what all the fuss was about. I explained the whole NaNoWriMo thing to him. He asked if 50k words in a month was good, and I told him that I thought so. He asked me what I’d won. I described the prize I was most interested in (50% off Scrivener, yay!), and explained that this was not the real value of the work. 
I shared that, in a way, the prize was like climbing a mountain. What’s waiting for you when you get to the top? I asked. He said, I don’t know, an ice cream sundae? 
After dinner, I emerged from my interior realm, breathed the last of the November night air, drove out to pavement and beyond. I went to the grocery store and bought ice cream, Coconut Macaroon for me, along with a carton of vanilla and Sander’s Bittersweet Chocolate Fudge sauce. A prize to be shared, the best sort of reward.

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