How I Wrote My Manuscript (Or, How NaNoWriMo Saved My Life)

There is this legendary thing I have heard tell of a writer’s passion – write or die. I’ve felt it burn through my veins only twice in my life: last November, when NaNoWriMo saved my life, and now. But the thing that got me to finish my manuscript wasn’t exactly that. And when it comes to winning, what the fox says is particularly applicable: “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” – The Fox in The Little Prince by Antoine Saint Exupery. Here is what happened.

The Legend of Write or Die

I think it was three years ago in Manhattan, under some sidewalk scaffolding on the gray pavement of East 54th Street, when I had an uncomfortable conversation with a Dear Colleague. We were taking a break at our “open air office” next to Rothman’s Steakhouse. It was either ten at night or sometime in the middle of the afternoon. Our conversation drifted from conference programs to writing. The conversation might have taken place during NaNoWriMo 2011, my first sorry attempt at writing a novel.

I gave up early on that one with a measly 1,288 words of complete nonsense. I had tried to uberpants it but failed miserably. It was definitely years before I had this crazy notion of seriously writing a book. I couldn’t even write more than 300 words of anything on a normal day. My brain was full of CEO, finance minister and economist names.

Dear Colleague was talking about her sixteen-year-old sister who wrote. Her sister had written things – fully finished stories. Her sister had this drive to write – a crazy need to get her stories down on paper. It was as if she would explode if she didn’t. The story went something like that.

The conversation was uncomfortable because I was a little jealous. Here I was, a 30-year old writer wannabe who talked big about the dream but never did anything about it. But I wasn’t jealous because I couldn’t finish writing a story. I was jealous because I didn’t have that drive to write. That desert-stranded thirst to tell a story. A thirst that wouldn’t be quenched until my plot had played out on paper. But Dear Colleague’s sister did. At the age of sixteen. It was impressive. What was I doing with my life?

Reality Bit – Hard

After having reflected on and revised some of my NaNoWriMo 2013 manuscript, I realized that

NaNoWriMo 2013 saved my life.

On the eve of November 1, 2013, I was unemployed for the first time in years. I struggled to adjust to a daily disjointed and unproductive life. I had resigned from my amazing job to come home and spend Dad’s last few months alive with him and the family. I was also planning my wedding. And the whole time, Dad was shriveling up to skin and bones. Cancer was taking him away from us with every second that passed. As if all of that weren’t bad enough, things took a turn for the worst in my personal life.

So I went into November 1st in 2013 with a leaden heart, numbly miming my way through what just barely passed as life.

I didn’t know what else to do, so I autopiloted into what had become an Annual NaNoWriMo Fail. I had never written more than 20,008 words before, which I had done as a Swiss WriMo in 2012. As far as I was concerned, as long as I got even one word past that, I would be a winner in my heart.

Then I had to decide on a storyline. I picked up a dream I had one night in 2011 or 2012 and went with it. I chose that sci fi storyline because it was far enough away from my life that I could lose myself in a different world. A world I could build and destroy as I pleased.

How NaNoWriMo 2013 Saved My Life

On November 1st 2013, I plunged in one more time. I leaned heavily on my daily word count target. For the first few weeks, I struggled just below the benchmark bar of 1,667 words a day, trying to figure the plot out as I went. On the fly, I made up how I was going to get my random cast of characters from “once upon a time” to “the end”. To my relief and delight, sometimes the players moved the plot forward themselves. I wrote every day, even if it was just a paltry 200 words.

I had two big supporters and a cheerleader when I wrote. Most of the time, Dad would sit beside me at the wrought iron and glass table in the lanai and leaf through C! Magazine or similar while I wrote. He named the President of the United States in 2081, conceptualized a key minor character, provided an overarching plot arc, and advised me on the amazing cast of cars in the book. My ex-boyfriend, who had never read an entire novel in his life, read along as I wrote. He gave me constructive feedback that helped my writing and story improve with each passing NaNo day. My sister, ever a pillar of support, cheered me on.

But my writing ecosystem wasn’t perfect. My mother didn’t really understand what I was doing, and neither did my brother. Novels weren’t really things that interested them. And I wrote by myself, anonymously, in a quiet corner of the internets. I shared mysterious FaceBook updates that only a handful of people understood. I didn’t join any WriMo events except for one online word war.

I slogged miserably through some semblance of life in what happened to be the month of November. And because it was November, I wrote.

My heart was shattered and I wrote.

Daddy was dying and I wrote.

I was numb and cracked open, and I wrote.

“And” I wrote. Not “but”. Because it was only my story that was keeping me from curling up into a little heartbroken ball and disappearing under a dense mound of earth. My creatures, my monster, my laser gun, my forcefields and gangs and brain scanners and S-Classes and Jeep Rubicons of the near future – all of these things were saving my life.

The Turn and The Finish

About halfway through the month, I lost myself in my story. I finally knew what I wanted to say and how. A feeling came over me. Yes – that legendary one. Finally, two years after that conversation with Dear Colleague, I understood what it was like to write or die.

I just needed to write. If I didn’t, I would burst.

This need crushed the word count target. My daily bar broke through the benchmark line and I started to write exponentially, in snatches of time throughout the day or night. Then, at around midnight on November 30th, I typed my 83,148th word, validated my manuscript and won NaNoWriMo 2013. This is what my chart looked like:

Broke through the benchmark bar in mid-month.
Broke through the benchmark bar in mid-month. (Click to enlarge)

I crossed the finish line and Daddy stood up slowly with a big but sallow smile on his face. He opened his arms up to wrap me into the biggest hug a frail man could give. With what flesh and bones he still had, and despite the throbbing, continuous pain he was in, Daddy embraced me with strength, joy and pride.

Dad loved stories. He always told me to follow my dreams. He never gave up on the prospects of me finishing a monumental project like this one, despite having watched me in agony throughout much of my life start a project like this and lose interest quickly.

After winning NaNoWriMo 2013, I wasn’t quite done with the story yet. But I had to stop just after the turning point in the plot when Dad’s condition worsened and the complex administrative tangle I was in choked me. I put the whole thing aside.

At Daddy’s wake in February – a five-day dream of kind words, blurred vision and bleary eyes – someone from our town whom I didn’t know – an old employee of Mom and Dad’s, maybe – told me that Dad was puffed-up proud of my novel. I was surprised. The person explained. “She wrote a book,” Dad had said to the person, beaming. “This is what she’s going to do, she’ll make it good.”

And then I went to Rome, to be with my ex for a while. My characters started appearing on the streets around me when I wandered the city. Josh, Riley, the Creatures – everyone, really – in different groups at different times. They would all be doing the same thing: sitting or standing here or there, looking incredibly, agonizingly bored. They reminded me that I still had to get to my dream ending.

So over the last two weeks of March 2014, after we lay Daddy to rest in the Philippines in mid-February, I cranked out another 30,000 words and brought my first draft manuscript to a finish at 113,000 words. I wrote in Rome during the day, between cooking, cleaning and Italian language classes. I finished writing before my ex came home for dinner.

Then, when April dawned, there it was. It happened.

I finally finished the manuscript.

Things Are Different Now

It’s now the middle of NaNoWriMo 2014, and I’m writing the missing half of last year’s story. I’ll strip out about 50,000 words of the 2013 manuscript, toss them into a bin, and replace them with the ones I’m writing now. Then I’ll squish the two manuscripts together, cut away more fat, and sculpt the mashup – rewrite, rework and revise.

This year, as it goes with life, some things are the same and some things are different.

I’m no longer breaking, but mending.

I’m employed doing fun projects.

I no longer hide in anonymity. I blog, Tweet, Instagram, and FaceBook updates on my NaNo 2014 adventure. I’m an active Pinoywrimo now – I even went to a Kick-Off party and organized a tiny Write-In. I meet new people again. Me and fellow WriMos support each other in this crazy 30-day novelling madness. I have a Techno (Technical) Advisor.

Friends from all over the world – old and new – throw in words of encouragement. My sister still cheers me on, and my brother has started to. Mom is beginning to appreciate what I do. She sees a show on published authors on TV and tells me about it. We actually talk about my writing a little now. She’s learning.

The ex-boyfriend who never read a novel in his life is now my husband. And he has read his first novel ever – my manuscript. He continues with love to lift me up or give me a gentle swift kick as needed so I can reach that purple win bar for NaNoWrMo 2014 – and beyond. We will start our life together, finally, soon.

But Daddy’s not here next to me now. His chair is empty but for the cushion my sister finally got us just before Dad went into the hospital for the first time. Dad won’t be here to hug me hard with wasted arms when I cross the finish line on November 30th, regardless of how many words I will have then.

Where Daddy used to sit
The chair where Daddy used to sit

A Lifeline for Life

Today is November 15th – the halfway mark of this month of licensed insanity – and I’m at 31,317 words. My chart looks like this:

Now it's about the story.
Now it’s about the story. (Click to enlarge.)

That’s because something happened early this morning. At 2:30 am, after I broke the 25,000 word mark and shut my laptop with trembling, Pepsi-Maxed hands, just as I lay down to sleep, I hit that sweet inflection point. Again. For a second time in my life, it happened.

It stopped being about the word count and started being about the story.

I need to write it, or I’ll explode into bloody and fleshy bits like a creature trying to get through a forcefield. Because of NaNoWriMo, I realize that no matter what I do, where I go, and whether I get a full time job or not again eventually, and when my husband and I start a family, I will always be able to write. And now I know that I can finish.

Here’s the kicker, though: it’s not actually necessary to have that legendary need in order to write. The main lesson I’ve learned is that if I never let two days go by without writing even just a handful of words, I will have made progress. If I write every day, even if it’s just one word, I will have made progress. Eventually, the legendary need will spark and drive me to a finish. It’s not so much about the goal. It’s not so much about that purple bar. It’s about maintaining a system.

So really, what I need to do is

keep writing.

As long as I write, I will always have a lifeline.

And Finally, What is Essential

I’m racing to November 30th to get every last bit of my story out. And when I cross that finish line, no matter what that word count will be, no matter whether that bar is the green not-win or the purple win, I know this much: I’ll have my husband, my Mom, my brother and sister, my dear friends – and Daddy, in spirit – there to welcome me as a winner.

With that kind of love, and the fire of the story burning inside me, I feel like I’ve already won.

NaNoWriMo is my launch pad, my diving board, my training wheels, my incubator and my global support system. Unless I abandon it, NaNo will always be these things to me.

Now I just need to keep writing and rewriting, regardless of whether the fire is burning or not, until there’s nothing more I can learn about myself and life – until there’s no fat left to squeeze out of the manuscript. And then I’ll truly be finished… until I start the next one.

2 thoughts on “How I Wrote My Manuscript (Or, How NaNoWriMo Saved My Life)

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