NaNoWriMo Week Three: The word count vs. the Inner Editor

I won’t lie. It’s getting ugly.

I’m running about a day-and-a-half behind pace on my novel writing. According to National Novel Writing Month’s official website, the cumulative word count is supposed to be 30,000 as of today. I’m a little shy.

It’s not that the words aren’t there—they are. What’s missing are the hours in the day. There just aren’t enough of them. I physically don’t have enough time to do everything I need to do (join the club, eh?) let alone write everything I need to write.

And oh, yeah, there’s this rotten little voice in my head saying, “Fix that! Now!”

The voice belongs to a notorious entity known in NaNoWriMo circles as “The Inner Editor,” that part of our writerly selves that urges us to take great care with our work, to polish, to edit, to proof, to keep things tidy, to do it right, to self-censor.

Not that there’s anything wrong with those things (except perhaps the self-censoring, at least when it comes to creativity). But NaNoWriMo emphasizes quantity over quality, whereas the Inner Editor demands just the opposite.

“The fear of doing things imperfectly turns what should be fun, creative endeavors into worrisome tasks,” writes NaNoWriMo founder Chris Baty in his book No Plot? No Problem!.

That worry can paralyze writers, which in turn can make in nearly impossible to crank out a 50K novel in thirty days.

“Write with abandon,” NaNoWriMo advises. “Editing is for December.”

But damn, I just can’t do it. I have not been able to let myself go. As a writer, I edit as I write. That’s just the way it works for me. I can’t hammer out a draft and then go back and edit and revise and proof and polish. I have to do it as I go.

With my fiction, it’s even harder to just cut loose because I tend to really work the language. I concentrate on rhythm and imagery and description and detail. I love the words themselves as much as I love the story they’re conveying. That, for me, is where I find the fun in my creative endeavors. That, for me, is where I find the joy in creation.

To abandon that in order to “write with abandon” gnaws at me.

“I definitely understand what you mean about struggling with it,” says my friend Lizz Schumer in London. “If I write a sentence, a paragraph or a scene that doesn’t jive right to me, I can’t not go back and fix it. I know, I know—it’s against the rules. But that paragraph etc. will haunt me for days if I don’t fix it.”

Lizz’s novel, like mine, demands a keen eye for practical purposes. “The nature of my story requires a sort of alternate reality, so I’ve had to pay closer attention to consistencies in time and place than I would if I were setting the scene closer to home,” she explains. “A few times I have ended up discovering plot or setting inconsistencies as I go, and I go back and fix those.”

Is that against the rules? she asks. “Maybe. But again, if I don’t fix it when I see it,” she says, “I might not see it next read-through. So I’m a naughty, naughty NaNo-er in that respect.”

Anna Maria Ballester Bohn in Madrid, Spain, has an Inner Editor that sets in on her before she even sits down to write. “I call my inner editor Mr. Brocklehurst, after the character in Jane Eyre,” she says. “He’s the guy in charge of telling me how unworthy and thoroughly stupid everything I do is, especially anything that’s fun and makes me feel good.”

Brocklehurst starts in on Anna right away. “He gets his field day before I start: ‘Why do you want to write for? Do you really think this will ever be good enough for someone to read? What do you mean, you want to do it for yourself? Of all the selfish things to say…’ Every day, I have to look him in the eye and say firmly, ‘I’m going to do this! Step away from my computer, sir!’”

The more she writes, the easier it is for Anna to ignore Brocklehurst. “Once I’m writing, he leaves me pretty much alone,” she says.

In Cleveland, my friend Jennifer McConnell seems to have her Inner Editor tamed. “I usually don’t have a problem turning off the editor for the first draft of anything,” she says. “I give myself permission to ‘throw up on the page.’ And sometimes it’s fun to see how truly awful I can make a sentence and still get out what I’m trying to say.”

Anna seems to be finding the whole thing a great lark, too. “It’s so wonderful when you’ve done 1,000 or 2,000 words of utter crap and suddenly the magic happens,” she says. “It makes it all worthwhile.”

NaNoWriMo urges writers not to sweat the details. Details slow down your pace. Offer enough to suggest a setting, for instance. “Don’t worry overly much about lending an enormous amount of realistic detail to the tale’s backdrop,” suggests Baty. “In the same way that a theater set will use two or three potted trees to suggest a forest, so should you leave much of your setting to the reader’s imagination in the first draft.”

I happen to be really interested in my setting and want to take the time to explore it. I recognize, though, that slows down my word count. So do I hack out some words for the sake of meeting the word count? Or do I slow down and explore and experience my work?

My friend Yennie Cheung, editor of the groovy Hipster Book Club and a fiction whiz, came to my rescue with a good pep talk.

“In the first draft, the important thing is that you’re writing things that may or may not be useful to you. It’s in your revisions that you worry about the reader,” she reminded me. “I say write everything that comes to mind; if it doesn’t work, you’ll change it later.”

Anna agreed. “Anything that keeps me writing is fine,” she said. “Secret for all you NaNo-ers out there: I’m writing down entire conversations with my MC, where he asks me how my day was and I ask him about stuff in his life, AND INCLUDING EVERY WORD IN THE FINAL COUNT. Sue me. Super-secret secret: some of those conversations are not even half bad!”

I’ve come to realize that NaNoWriMo’s premium on quantity over quality—for the first draft, anyway—just isn’t designed for writers like me in mind. Its chief virtue is to impose structure on writers who need structure, but that’s something I seem to do just fine with on my own.

That does not mean I think NaNoWriMo is a bad idea. Quite the contrary: I see huge heaps of worth in the event. It is craziness, community, and creativity all crammed into one frenetic event. That it is, on some level, also some kind of global publicity stunt-meets-fraternity prank is completely irrelevant. It gets people writing.

Plus, the experience is helping me learn some interesting things about myself as a writer that have been useful, too.

And yes, I’m having fun.

I guess I just need to tell my Inner Editor to fuck off—or I need to just shut the hell up and pound out some words. I can do that. I’ve been doing it my entire professional life. I need to forget being an artist and revel in being a hack. After all, aside from the time issues, I’m having no trouble at all popping out a couple thousand words a day, even if I tend to agonize over some of those words more than I should at this point.

So I’ll keep playing by the rules and see this thing through. Just yesterday at some point, I passed the halfway mark without even realizing it. I’m on a roll, and I’m excited about what I’m doing. And if I died tomorrow, I’d leave behind something I’m not entirely embarrassed by (although certainly not anywhere close to satisfied with); finding that balance has perhaps been the most satisfying part of the adventure for me.

“Writing a novel in a month is utterly ridiculous, an undertaking for fools and those who don’t know any better,” Baty write. “Thankfully, we belong to the latter camp, which makes us dangerously powerful writers.”

So yeah, it’s getting ugly. But there’s power in it, too.