John Everson: NaNoWriMo winner and inner-critic squelcher!

Packed with drama, suspense, and even a prize t-shirt, the NaNoWriMo challenge entices the best of us. John Everson tells all in this full spread companion post to his snippet of writer’s block advice on last week’s NaNoWriMo series. Did you know that most of his second novel, Sacrifice, was written during the NaNoWriMo of 2002? John is living proof that all aspiring writers should try tackling so worthwhile a challenge.

Now sit back with that double espresso, clear off the empty energy drinks from your desk, and settle in for a true success story.

Throughout the ’90s, I was mainly a horror short story writer.  I published dozens of short pieces in scores of tiny magazines and anthologies, and they were fun and easy to knock out— a couple hours on the weekend and they were done. But over the course of five years, I had also slowly developed (over many stops and restarts) my first novel, Covenant. I finished the first draft in 2000, and spent the next couple of years trying to sell it, being rejected, going back and trying to polish it some more, then sending it out yet again.

By the end of 2002, I still had not sold that first novel, and hadn’t started a new novel in the 2+ years that Covenant had been languishing on many slush piles. All writers know that the worst thing you can do is finish a project and then wait for it to sell before starting the next one. You need to get back on the horse. And it had really been seven years since I had started a novel project, since Covenant was begun in 1995. I knew I needed to either decide that I was just going to stick with short fiction, or I had to begin a new novel, whether the first one ever sold or not.

I needed a kickstart.

Someone steered me to NaNoWriMo that fall. The group wasn’t quite as ubiquitous in 2002 as it is today—it was just three years old—but it was growing in leaps and bounds each year. I liked the fact that, unlike many writers critique groups, it was strictly a solo challenge. You either made your 50,000 word deadline or you didn’t. People could join together at coffeehouses and commiserate or cajole each other, and there were message boards to help connect, but you didn’t need to. I’m a pretty independent creature in that sense and wasn’t interested in the community aspect of the challenge. I just needed the writing challenge. And the hard deadline.

Just one problem. My day job pretty much owned me the first week of November 2002, because I had to work a convention (anyone who’s staffed a national convention knows that after those 14-16 hour days, there is nothing left of you but a husk that needs sleep).  So I began my NaNoWriMo challenge already exhausted and a week late… leaving me just three weeks to write 50,000 words.

And in October 2002 I didn’t even really know what I wanted to write about. But while I was out of town during that start of November, I figured it out.

I wanted to do a really stupid thing—I wanted to write a sequel to my first novel, the book I couldn’t sell!  I had a whole different kind of story I wanted to explore within the world of the first book, so I knew the second novel, while a sequel, had to be self-contained, in case the first book never sold.

Somewhere on or around November 8, 2002, I wrote the first chapter of Sacrifice. I realized quickly that in order to meet the November 30th 11:59 p.m. deadline, I had to average more than 2,200 words per day for the next three weeks. The admonitions on the NaNoWriMo website were key to achieving that—edit later, write now.  I still find myself whispering that advice to myself today when I start slowing down on a project.

Squelching your inner critic is probably the hardest thing a writer can do. The inner critic is the voice in the back of your head that says everything you’ve just written… or wrote yesterday…or are about to write is utter tripe. Your inner critic can make you stare at a blank screen for those few precious hours you have allocated for writing, or it can make you waste 45 minutes wrestling with a single sentence or paragraph that just doesn’t feel right.

Your inner critic is your biggest enemy to rampant productivity. And rampant productivity is what NaNoWriMo is all about.

So I dug in. I wrote before work. I wrote after work. I probably wrote at lunch sometimes. And during every session, I had to keep saying, “don’t worry if it’s crap— just get your 2,200  words down today.” It’s the same sentiment as the movie adage, “just get the shot, we’ll fix it all in post.”

I didn’t have an outline when I started the book— this was a seat of the pants endeavor. I really only had a vague idea of where it all was going. But every couple days I took a few minutes to “backwards outline” what I’d done before, so I remembered the crazy things I was coming up with so I could tie it all together later. Because when you’re forcing that word count, you come up with all sorts of weird ideas and plot departures at 11:45 p.m. that you don’t even remember writing  the next morning.

In the end, I got 50,000 words of Sacrifice written (about 2/3 of what the final novel would become) in three weeks, working right up to the last minute. I uploaded my file, and it was validated. I have the t-shirt to prove it!  I also was sick with a horrible cold for the next two weeks because I had burned the candle at both ends for so long.

But it was something I wanted to prove to myself I could do. I proved that I didn’t need to take five years to write a novel. I worried that I’d written 50,000 words of crap, and honestly, it was months before I re-visited the project to find out. When I did, I  spent 2-3 months writing the other 40,000 words, and found to my surprise that I actually didn’t need to change much in that first half. By gagging my inner critic and just forcing myself to write and not critique, I’d set loose creativity that might never have surfaced if I’d tortuously over-thought the book. I honestly think that Sacrifice is the better novel of the CovenantSacrifice duo, though it was written the fastest of any of my books.

I’m now finishing up my 6th novel, and I have to say, I still think Sacrifice may be my quickest moving book. And that’s got to relate in part to the environment it was written in.

So what happened to the books? Covenant won a Bram Stoker Award for a first novel thanks to a small press release in 2004, and both Covenant and Sacrifice were sold in a two-book deal to Dorchester’s Leisure Books imprint in 2007 and released in mass market paperback in 2008 and 2009 respectively. It was a happy ending!

I’ve never taken the NaNoWriMo challenge again. I don’t need to—I know I can do it. And I still use the lessons I learned that month to this day.  I don’t write books in a month, but I’ve never taken over a year to produce a novel again.

NaNoWriMo taught me how to silence—or at least stifle—my inner critic. If you just start running, you don’t have time to study and get lost in the cracks in the sidewalk!

Now if that story doesn’t inspire you to tackle NaNoWriMo with four weeks to spare, I don’t know what will!

Signing off—

Jillian, The Zombie Intern

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One Response to John Everson: NaNoWriMo winner and inner-critic squelcher!

  1. Dottie says:

    Thanks for the great advice John! At this point, it’s really needed! And Congrats on your continued success!

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