By Kyra Wilson Cook, Founding Director of the MetroWest Writers’ Guild.
I know that not all writers enter the field this way, but I started thinking seriously about pursuing writing/storytelling as a career after participating in a NaNoWriMo event. I enjoyed the excuse and then the experience of setting aside time to write a story. What I really appreciate about those first few years of trying and “winning” NaNoWriMo, even while never finishing those three early projects, is that it taught me the heft of a novel-length work. This is the texture of 50,000 units of text. That was a big thing for me. It’s still something I think about from time to time.
For me (and I suspect for many), NaNoWriMo was the gateway to a lovely that set me on the longer journey to where I am now: my debut short story is coming out in an upcoming anthology! Along the way, I had to do the inevitably arduous and totally worth it learning and growing in my voice and craft. I wish there could be an 80’s montage inserted into this substack so you could see it all, but alas, that’s not how this works.
One of the first professional writers I started reading on the internet is the esteemed and amazing Chuck Wendig. At the time, he regularly wrote advice for aspiring writers and invited authors publishing books to write guest posts on his blog so they could promote their books. (Remember when that was a regular part of Book internet culture?) His love of the F-word still tickles me to my very Millennial core. Every Friday, he used to post a flash fiction writing prompt and challenge us to post our creations to our blogs with a link back in his comments. I started doing that and sharing with my little digital writing community at the time, and that’s when it hit me: this is a real thing I can really do.
Chuck has a very clear instruction for new writers and it delivers that instruction in colorful language that is not safe for work but you should totally read it anyway if you need it: finish what you start. Get into the habit. It doesn’t matter how many words you’ve written–if you’ve finished what you started, you’ve actually done something.
This was a revelation to me at the time. Because of the gate through which I stepped into this creative life, I came to believe that my productivity should be measurable and that unit of measure should be the words I wrote on a daily basis. My early drafts went on for thousands of words longer than they should have because the heft of a work held more water for me than the depth and intention of it. These would become the craft level-ups of the years to come.
I write mostly short fiction now, but I am spending 2023 outlining a novel I plan to write in 2024, and writing short stories in the universe I’ve built so I can rebuild my composition muscle. It’s been a while. I, frankly, need to relearn what it’s like to start and finish, to enjoy the heft of the work and the earned joy of “the end.” In this time of composition, my eye won’t be on the counter at the bottom of the screen, but on relearning that authorial feeling of completeness.
When I founded the MetroWest Writers’ Guild in 2019, it was thanks to NaNoWriMo. Just completing my first year as a Municipal Liaison for my region, I received a few requests from a group of writers who wanted to keep going after the event ended. I got in touch with the libraries we’d worked with during November, set up some write-ins for the year, and kept the creativity going. We’ve grown year over year thanks to NaNoWriMo, which we do a lot of programming in support for, even as we do events all year ‘round. During November 2022, our region, the MetroWest Massachusetts region, wrote over 2 million words in November. I’m so proud of that number. We’re so proud of that number.
Matter of fact, I was so proud of that number, I started writing programming around it. I was going to fundraise off of it to support our 2023 programming. Put a public spreadsheet together. Prepared to issue a 5 million-word challenge to our community to write over the course of a year.
And then a Guild member, said something really important to me: what’s the point of all this word-counting if no one finishes the projects they start?
It was a “well, damn,” moment. Well, damn, he was right.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of counting words as the sole unit of measuring progress as new writers.
I should start this segment with a bit of a hedge: when we think of that first step in writing as “put your butt in the chair and just write,” then word count as the unit of measurement for progress makes perfect sense.
The tricky bit is: when does word count become a crutch? When is the time to look beyond word count?
I’ve met many new writers who have manuscripts that have reached 80,000 words but are still going. “I just don’t think I’ve reached the end yet,” a writer told me once. “Maybe I’ll go to 120,000 or so.” They said it with a shrug and a smile. I smiled back. I wondered then and I wonder now if part of the reason why the words are piling up is because the writer doesn’t want to leave the characters or the world they’ve made. Which totally makes sense.
Finding the end-point of a narrative doesn’t have to represent the end of characters or their world.
This seems obvious, but I am writing it out in bold anyway as reassurance for the new writer. Meandering through a singular narrative that doesn’t end doesn’t make your characters live any longer. Dropping an adventure and picking up a fresh new one does. Choosing to make a character change and grow, complicating their actions and bringing them to a conclusive moment provides you, the writer, with more opportunities to contemplate consequences and see them play through in other narratives (past, future, or adjacent with other characters!)
Would you rather keep writing than confront revision?
I wonder if this is another reason why some writers can get an epic story up to the 100,000-word mark without coming to a conclusion. If the story ends… what happens next? What do I do with it? Well, revision could be a powerful next step, even if you’re a casual writer who never intends to publish your story or otherwise distribute it.
I used “confront” in my question on purpose. Revision forces you to confront the state of your story and evaluate it. Suddenly heft will become less of a marker of accomplishment in the face of logical progression and depth of characterization. Can you read a scene in your story and find satisfaction in it? Does the dialogue meet the expectations you bring to stories you read out in the “real” world? Where do elements of your craft fall short? Can you make them better right here in your manuscript?
More importantly, after you’ve confronted your manuscript in revision and taught yourself how to make it better, can you write another story? Better than the last one?
The challenge of the next story could provide you with creative energy and joy if you let it.
Athletic culture always speaks to the next challenge, the next race, the next record. Internal competitive spirit. And maybe that doesn’t speak to you, but I’ll bet that your internal storyteller, your Muse, whispers new stories to you from time to time. Do you ever feel excited about them? Do you ever think, “I’m going to really enjoy writing that… if I’m ever done with this one?”
When we finish what we start, we get to start again.
It’s a beautiful cycle, really, when we let it happen.
The MetroWest Writers’ Guild has been challenged to finish 50 projects in 2023. Doesn’t matter the length of the project: flash fiction, short fiction, epic novels, screenplays, poems, whatever. We’re a community on a mission to complete projects and celebrate those completions. For added challenge, we’re also on a mission to collect 50 literary rejections as a community. Writers who are receiving rejections are writers who are submitting their work. Writers who are submitting their work are writers who are starting new stories, finishing them and revising them. We celebrate that! (We celebrate the acceptances, too! Don’t worry!)
Are you looking for an active writing community that can support you as you learn the craft and reach your writing goals? Check out the MetroWest Writers’ Guild. We are on a mission to support writers living in MetroWest Massachusetts and beyond. Our community members hail from 26 Massachusetts communities, three states, and two European countries. We are excited to welcome you and your storytelling journey.
photo attribution: Joshua Hoehne via Usplash under the Usplash license.