Personal Writing Challenge: fait accompli

In June I decided to write a novel in the month of July. That’s 50,000 words in 31 days. Most of you reading know I don’t – er, haven’t – written 50,000 non-school-related words in 365 days.

I did it. Over 52,000 words done by July 31st.

As with all writing, goals, or challenges, some reflection is necessary to put it in perspective. This isn’t a very pretty post. My language is flat. In our writerly varlance, I’m all tell, no show. But I wanted to share my reflections with you so you can take from it what you will.

Goals & Pragmatics

50,000 words in a month breaks out to about 1,600 words a day. I had an evening once, way back when I was a night person, when I did a happy dance at 800 words. The first week of July, 800 words was a – ahem – miracle. My goal, to get this done, was 1600 words a day. I thought between the hour in the morning and the time in the evening that it was very doable, if not easy. Not easy comes because I’m a pick-it-apart writer. I overthink everything.  So writing in the evening was my intention. The reality…evenings were my worst time for writing, despite my child crashing into sleep nice and early. On a good night I got 800 words (happy dance).

Clearly, I reevaluated.

Personal Space

By “personal space” I mean not only the physical space but also the functional time.  I was really behind on where I thought I’d be, word wise, early in the second week. Add in my husband’s random schedule (it’s his job, not a slam on him), and my son’s random wake-up schedule, and it was a mess.

I’ve recently read an article on great female writers with children. The phrase that came up over again, and I believe was part of the title, is “Shush, I’m working.” Now, I know this is a phrase you’ve used in some variation before. There are work-from-home writers in this group. But it’s usually used in conjunction with a clearly defined office, with a door, and older child(ren).

Side note on the office: I have one. The door serves to keep guests from noticing that it looks very much like rental storage. I had intended to “work on” the office this summer, but really when choosing between writing a book and cleaning out the rental storage who wouldn’t choose the book?

Side note on the child: He is smart, sweet, sensitive, and clingy. C L I N G Y. This isn’t driven by fear or anything worrisome, just a high preference for company. An example: this past Wednesday when my husband’s schedule switched from being in the office to being on the site (three hour drive) from early morning and through the night, my schedule switched from a day alone to a day with the child. We were, if not in direct contact, at least within 6 feet of each other from 4 am to 7 pm. Good thing he’s so cute.

As with this very article, I wrote the book on the couch. That’s where my son first looks for me when he wakes up in the morning. He comes out, snuggles up to me, and all too quickly asks me what’s for breakfast. It’s easy to get distracted, to forget what word comes next, how the scene’s supposed to unfold.

Something that children know and adults have unlearned (not at all exclusively, but I do think especially women because of how we are socialized) is that if you don’t demand it, you probably won’t get it. So I demanded time from my four-year-old son. “Shush, I’m working” doesn’t cut it. (Yes, of course I tried it.) My new goal was at least 1,000 words each morning and 600 or more after the boy went to bed. My son already knew I was writing a book. Again, he’s four. He has no clue what “writing a book” means, and could care less.

Still, I explained what I was doing, what my goal was, and then demanded the time to do it. That is, I told him I was writing 1,000 words every morning regardless of when he woke up and what he wanted, and the more he left me alone the sooner I could get off the couch to do something interesting, like make him breakfast or play cars. I’m proud of him. There were days he left me alone – as in alone in the room – for a whole thirty minutes. Then there were the days I had to finish my word goal while he drove cars or built legos on my legs.

Permission

I made it because of my deal with the boy, but also because when I first brought up writing a novel in July – knowing full well I wasn’t go to do it because a novel is just too damn long – my husband said, “That’s a good idea.” At the time it felt like validation. I wanted it to be a good idea, just needed to hear it from someone else. In reflection, it’s validation in another way. “That’s a good idea” meant that I not only could focus on my writing, I should focus on my writing. Somehow I forgot that in the last four years. Choosing to be a writer means giving myself permission to write; and I hadn’t done that since my son was born.

Permission to write, by the way, comes from ourselves.  It means permission to ignore the laundry until you are down to your last pair of underwear, permission to forget where you put the lawnmower, or the vacuum cleaner, at least until you’ve met that day’s goal. For me, it was permission to spend my child-free days writing to make up the loss for the days I was interrupted so much I didn’t make it past word 50. Nothing else got done in July that wasn’t absolutely necessary (note: meeting friends at McDonald’s when you have a four-year-old and a 113 degree day, IS absolutely necessary) or directly related to the book. That’s okay, I had permission.

Writing Flow, Habit, and the Internal Editor

I’ve written on the site Write Anything about my habit of starting things in a notebook because otherwise I edit as I write. This is something I worried about when I began the project but it turns out that writing a long piece in a very short period of time does the same trick. I just had to, again, give myself permission to focus on 1) writing daily and 2) focus on moving the story along rather than on the story’s integrity.

I wanted it to get me in the habit of writing every day, but that didn’t happen. The morning after I finished my novel, I started reading someone else’s. But the challenge did let me know that I can do it. I can write strongly every morning; I can write longer pieces; I can give myself permission to write and demand my family respect that. It will work out wonderfully.

What I did learn is that I like the story. Not as I wrote it, mind, but the concept is sound, and so are many of the characters. They need to not sound like each other, of course. Now I just need to figure out how to write a second, integrity-based draft as my four-year-old piles cold metal toys on my feet.

Graduating

It’s incredibly tempting to do my third-grader’s projects.

I have so many amazing ideas. She’s working on a book report for a Harry Houdini biography in the form of a board game right now, and I am way more excited about it than she is. I’m thinking about a tiny jail cell, a miniature Water Torture Cell and a darling little Sea Monster Escape model, each one small enough for the board, but big enough for the game pieces to fit into. I see a Disappearing Elephant and a game board shaped like handcuffs.

I could kick this project’s ass. I’d get not just a 4, the highest mark, but probably a 4+, something never before experienced in the third grade. It would hang on the wall in a place of honor. I’d be like Houdini himself, showing the people something they’ve never seen!

However… no matter how many fantastic ideas I have, I’ve been through third grade. No matter how exciting it is now, I’ve already done it, plus thirty years. As Glenn Close says in one of my favorite movies, Dangerous Liaisons, “One does not applaud the tenor for clearing his throat.”

I wrote erotica weekly for two years. I’m good at it. I love it.  What I love most is writing about the situations and circumstances in which two people come together and connect, and leave each other happier and more fulfilled than they were when they met. I love the raw honesty that can happen when human beings let themselves be naked, not just with another person, but with themselves, with who they are and what they truly want.

Two years is an excellent amount of practice. I can see the progression in my writing when I go back to the beginning and read through my stories in chronological order. If you give me a situation with sexy potential, I can knock out a page or two that will push you right into the action and make you react, be it with a racing pulse, swelling body parts or perhaps revulsion. Whatever it is, I can make you feel.

But what I want to do is write the novels that have been forming in my head for years. Continuing to write only erotica is the same as doing my kiddo’s projects. I would be clearing my throat. I can probably get a string of 4’s on erotic short stories, but I’d just as likely get 2’s on plot, character development, story arc and every other aspect of writing that I haven’t spent years practicing.

My third grader flops around in agony and repeatedly heaves sighs that range from the depths of the Grand Canyon all the way down to Mariana Trench. She whines, mutters to herself, finds a thousand ways to procrastinate and pouts. The closer she gets to finding the answer she’s looking for, the darker she glowers at me, because somehow, it’s all my fault.

Though I hope to act more maturely, it’s time for me to teeter on the edge of understanding something new, too. It’s time to get uncomfortable. It’s time to be open to criticism, to get frustrated, to fail and to start over. It’s time for me to add what I do best to a larger project, rather than focusing on the one piece I already know so well.

It’s time to start writing.