Cheers to Horrible First Drafts

It's National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), where thousands of established and aspiring writers sit down and wrangle the plot bunnies that have bounced around their heads for the past year. I love NanoWriMo because the effort is about quantity, not quality. 1667 words a day for 30 days totals a whopping 50,000 words by December 1.

The goal of the month isn't publication -- it's a finished product. People crank out novels, screenplays, memoirs and even fanfiction that may never be read by another living person. Regardless of the destiny of your writing, the process is absolutely worth the sense of accomplishment and the welcoming community of whiny writers available to you through the platform.

How difficult is it to write 1667 words a day? Lassoing a good idea or witty dialogue isn't the challenge. The hurdle is writing like your life depended on it. It's about showing up every day, butt-in-chair and seeing what happens. It's about carving space in your head by evicting the disparaging voices that mock and catastrophize. I christened the literary critic in my head with the name "Carl," and boy does Carl has a lot to say this time of year. With enough time, I've learned to dismiss him like a stray Internet comment.

Last year for NaNoWriMo I wrote a non-fiction book that had been floating around in my head for some time. Despite work and graduate school, I committed myself to typing 1667 horrible words a day, for better or worse. I wrote on the subway, in boring conferences and after Thanksgiving dinner (apologies to my grandmother). Gone was the need for sacred Starbucks space or a decent sentence structure. It was all about the numbers.

Fast forward a year and I have an agent and am working on the book proposal for publication. This November I'm back at it again, not with an idea for a novel but the determination to write my dissertation proposal in a single month. My allies are my fiction-writing friends who race along beside me, and my motivation is not to be left behind in the dust of their progress.

"Every first draft is perfect," wrote American novelist Jane Smiley, "because all a first draft has to do is exist." Worrying about whether a nonexistent novel is publishable is like worrying about your child's SAT scores when you're five months pregnant. An idea has to be born into the world first and simply admired for its existence. And then, with thought and patience, we nudge it in the right direction.

So we sit, we listen and we type those awkward first sentences. We put two characters in a room and see what they say. We imagine our pets and loved ones being kidnapped and held for a ransom of 1667 words. We do whatever it takes, and we celebrate those horrible first drafts for being perfect just the way they are.

If this kind of dedicated agony sounds like just your thing, then I suggest you head over to NaNoWriMo, find a writing buddy and start typing. You can start December with a twinkle of an idea, or you can bulldoze into the future with 50,000 more words than you had yesterday.