On Not Looking Back

November 27, 2009

A couple of days ago I hit the 50,000 word count for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). The story – a horror western set in the Montana territory in 1880 – is barely halfway through, and it’s undeniably first-draft quality. It has characters suddenly appearing without prior setup because I realized they were necessary, several scenes that don’t particularly make sense, and enough cliche to pad a whole Roland Emmerich movie, but that’s okay.

It’s okay because 50,000 words of terrible first-draft is better than no words at all.

Anyone who has participated in NaNoWriMo has probably had the experience of someone asking them what it’s all about. When you explain it most people nod politely, say “cool”, then go away thinking you’re insane, but some folks say exactly what’s on their mind. The conversation often goes something like this:

“NaNoWriMo is where you have to write 50,000 words in a month.”

“Cool, what do you win?”

“Err, Nothing.”

“Then what’s the point?”

Well the point is to spend an intensive month training yourself in the most difficult (and most important) discipline of fiction writing: The fine art of NOT LOOKING BACK.

Some authors might be able to write scene-by-scene, revising and polishing each one as they go, but in my experience such people are about as rare as the Dalai Lama. In the vast majority of cases to stop and look back before you reach the finish line means certain death for the story.

During a first draft, you have to write like the hounds of hell are nipping at your heels. You have to write like that big wall of fire from Independence Day is only ten feet behind you, throwing cars and people around with CGI abandon. You wouldn’t stop and look back in those situations. But what many people don’t realize is when you’re writing a story, there’s something coming along behind you too, and it’s just as dangerous as hell hounds or tidal waves of flame. It’s a huge wall of procrastination and perfectionism, and if you let it catch up with you well, there goes the neighborhood…

My wife (bless her genius little heart) put it very succinctly. She said that writing a story is like giving birth to a baby: You can’t stop to clean up a baby halfway through the birthing process. You just have to push and push and push. What comes out will be ugly and bloody, but then you can clean it up and start to nurture its growth from there.

I can’t stress enough how important coming to understand this concept has been to me. I’ve been an aspiring writer my entire life, and as a younger adult, I completed countless finely-imagined, beautifully-polished single scenes. I have a big box full of them. Any one of them could have been part of a decent story, if it wasn’t for the fact that I killed them by stopping and looking back.

So to all aspiring fiction writers out there, I implore you to participate in NaNoWriMo next November. Because it doesn’t matter how beautiful your prose is, nor how perfect your grammar, nor how unique your characters, nor how well-imagined your scenes. If you don’t learn the fine art of Not Looking Back, you risk forever being a writer of unfinished work.