The month isn’t quite over yet, but I’m done with NaNoWriMo. I fell 7000 words short of my goal, give or take my ability to do simple subtraction in my head. But I learned so much from my modified NaNoWriMo. A lot of what I learned is still fresh and personal, but the most important thing I’ve learned is that for me being a novelist and doing NaNoWriMo don’t align.

When I force myself to sit at my desk and write until I’ve reached a certain word count, bad things happen. I get focused on reaching that number and forget the story. At the beginning of the month, I thought it was just a matter of expecting too much of myself. If I gave myself a small enough word count goal, everything would be different, but I was wrong.

For me, writing a novel is like taking a road trip. 

bikers on the road in West Texas
Courtesy of JimNTexas

You might know that the journey is going to be 6,000 miles long, but you don’t sit there counting the miles. Every once in a while, you might notice how far you’ve gone and wonder at how far you are from home, but, really, the number’s just trivia. Every traveler knows that you cannot measure an experience in miles.

A novel is like a road that you’ve never traveled before. You might be in the middle of West Texas in a place so rural the map is completely blank for hundreds of miles. Then you stop at a gas station and meet a stranger whose story changes your life.

Now, there are some people who write very quickly, who talk about the process of writing a novel the way truckers who drive cross-country constantly talk about the road. For them, it’s a matter of efficiency, getting from page 1 to page 250 as quickly as possible. They take the Interstates and know the route from the beginning of a novel to the end better than they know their home town. They might do something like NaNoWriMo several times a year.

Others only write novels in November. They spend the rest of the year planning and scheming, and in November they take everything they’ve saved up the rest of the year and write like the devil’s on their tail.

I respect people who write like that. I envy the ability to write a novel through sheer force of will, but that’s not how I write.

For me, writing a story is about walking out my door and hitting the road not knowing where I’m going. I might point the car at Boston and pack enough provisions on the way to get there and end up spending all of my time in New Mexico chasing UFOs and petrified wood and cheesy roadside attractions. It’s a risky business and means being open to taking a 500 mile detour that ends in a dried up riverbed and a porta potty.

But that’s life is, isn’t it?