Since I’m returning to the Writer’s Digest Conference this week, I spent some time today thinking about my experience last year. It’s been a wonderful year. A wild year. A wish-granting year. Since the last conference in January of 2012, I shelved the manuscript I pitched there, penned an entire new one (or two and change…:) ), dived into the Query Trenches, and wound up with an agent who loved my book as much as I did.
So this week I’ve been thinking about what launched all that. And as much as I did in the fall of 2011, nothing pushed me further onward than the Writer’s Digest Conference in January of last year. It gave me new perspective on the craft of writing, honed my expectations about my career, and showed me that agents are people — real, live people — instead of just gavel-slammers in the clouds. 😉
As I embark on an entirely new stage of this journey, I’m heading back to the conference in a different place than I was last year. That said, one of the most important messages that came from last year’s conference still rings true. And as Carolyn Charron (@CarolynCharron) stumbled across the very blog post I’d spent some time milling over this week, written last year after I returned, I thought I would share it with you again. Even if you’re a reader, a carpenter, a singer, a basket-weaver, a businessperson, or anything else that is not writer, I hope you’ll take something away from this today.
I know a lot of my blog days have themes. Monday Man, Wednesday Woman, Thorsday, Friday Fellows, Saturday Salaciousness, Sunday My Prints Will Come…
Yes, gentle viewers. I do know there are seven days and not six in the average week.
Tuesday is conspicuous in its absence. Or inconspicuous if you happen to hold an anti-Tuesday bias. I had conceived the idea for Terror Tuesday a while back, but it never seemed to fit before today.
The idea for today’s blog politely tapped me on the shoulder on Sunday, during the closing address for the Writer’s Digest Conference.
You might wonder what was so scary about that closing address. Yep. Keep wondering.
First, I’m going to tell you a story. It’s not my story, gentle viewers. It’s the story of someone quite important, though I rather think he doesn’t think of himself that way. Many, many people think he is. You might be one of them. By the end of this story, you most likely will be.
Once upon a time, in a faraway state (this statement is relative), a young man had an idea. It was an ambitious idea, full of zeal and plenty of sparks. He had an idea to write a novel in a month. And he bamboozled 20 other people to do it with him.
Sound crazy? It is. But it’s also a little bit magical.
They got together to write. They dragged their giant laptops around — he said they were the size of washing machines — and they wrote through week one. They wrote through week two. Somewhere in week three, someone found the cord dangling out of those novels and plugged it into a wall.
When electricity starts coursing through a work of writing — it’s a feeling like no other.
Suddenly novels were happening. Characters started doing what characters do. They get up and move when you ask them to sit still. They might pick their noses in public. That one just slept with someone who is actually in love with his best friend. That one grouched at everyone for the first half of the book before unexpectedly rescuing a chihuahua puppy before it could be hit by a careening van.
The twenty people of doubtful sanity kept writing. And by the end of the month, they had novels. How did these twenty people do it? How did they manage to scribble or type out 50,000 words in a month? I don’t know how they did it. I wasn’t there. But the next year over 130 people were. And the next year more than that. And on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on…and during that last “and on” there were over 300,000 people who wrote billions upon billions of words. Around the world, on every continent (maybe even Antarctica), novels were born. Some of them may have been nervous little novels at first. Shaky and trembling. Others may have started out with a bang so big that the rest felt like a fizzle. Some might have meandered around like one of Pooh Bear’s Pooh Sticks in a river — and perhaps not come out the other side of the bridge.
Who are these people? Are they the elusive novelists of the world?
Novels are not written by novelists — they’re written by every day people who give themselves permission to write a novel.
Millions of people have been touched by this phenomenon in some way or another. Whether they participated or just watched wide-eyed, full of sympathy or scorn or bewilderment — the fantastic, insane spark of an idea that kindled itself in one guy thirteen years ago has spread, leaving fire in its wake.
This is where the story caught up with my story. Because for most of that, I was oblivious. Then in 2008, I met a woman named Fly in Nashville who spent November glued to her keyboard. She’d show up to Borders with a handful of others, and they would go into a tunnel while I quirked an eyebrow.
In 2011, I decided to give it a go. I joined those 300,000-odd writers and try-ers and want-ers around the world, and I set out to write 50,000 words in a month. I blogged every day. If you’ve been around since then, you’ll know we had a wee challenge here in Emmieland, the NaNoRebel Challenge. We three, we happy three, plodded along and prodded ourselves, and we got our bar to turn purple together. I met with the Corridor Writers and spent many-a-day at Panera with our hourglasses named Sandy and Butch. Together the Corridor Writers passed 1,000,000 words together (and about 10% of that was Mollie…making the rest of us feel like slackers).
Including my blog, I wrote around 80,000 words that month. It began as an exercise in discipline and motivation. To teach myself that I could train to be a better writer, a more consistent writer. To convince myself to reach my arms out and take hold of what mattered to me. The end result was my second finished novel and a third begun with about 30,000 words.
During that month, I learned that the person responsible for this incredible journey, the one who inspired so many of us to just do it — this was his last year running the show.
I also discovered that he would be the closing speaker for the Writer’s Digest Conference. Yeah, that thing I attended over the weekend. That’s the one.
I walked out of my last planned session aiming to get some water and take a break before the closing address. Who happened to be standing right outside the door? The guy who founded NaNoWriMo. Chris Baty.
I walked past him and then turned on my heel and said, “Hey, so I did NaNo for the first time this year, and I won!” We started talking. I was struck immediately by the pure authenticity of this person. He shook my hand warmly. He made eye contact and asked about my book and what I had written — even reacted in a flattering way when I told him I’d done it “Rebel Style” and finished one book and started another. I told him that I thought his leaving NaNoWriMo was bittersweet — that he would surely be missed, but that I was (and am) so excited for him to be moving forward with his dreams.
He grinned and shifted his feet and said it was terrifying but exhilarating. I could relate to that — perhaps more than he knew. I told him that it feels good to be standing at the top of that hill, ready to just…kick the ball and get it rolling. See where it lands. Hope it doesn’t run over any chickens.
Soon all of us filed into the ballroom for Chris’s address. And what an address it was. I want to share it with you, gentle viewers, because I think it applies not only to writers, but to all of us. All of the strange containers of impulses that make up the human race.
Chris told us his story, about how NaNoWriMo began. That’s the story I’ve told you, of course. That’s why it’s not mine — it’s his. And then he said this:
I did one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. I cleaned out my desk, turned in my keys, and I left. Monday — tomorrow — I start my new job: full-time writer.
Take a moment and let that sink in. Imagine for just a second that your dream — whatever that dream happens to be — suddenly must be fulfilled. Imagine cleaning out your desk or turning in your badge or uniform. Imagine walking out the doors of the familiar and safe, with only your dream in front of your face.
When he said those words, I teared up. I longed to do the same. Immediately my brain made a thousand excuses why I couldn’t do it too. But the next thing Chris said made something glaringly clear — it won’t be long before I must do it. Chris quoted John Shed and said something very, very true.
A ship in a harbor is safe, but that’s not what a ship is built for.
-John A. Shedd
It’s as true for you as it is for me, gentle viewers. Your ship may not be a writing ship. It could be any ship, bound for waters on the opposite side of the world, or an island no one has discovered. Maybe even Atlantis. But you’ll never get there if you don’t leave the harbor.
I’ll close this with one more bit of wisdom from a man who gave thirteen years of his life to a movement that has affected the world.
Get your dream in your mind’s eye. Think of it. Hold it there. The words “book” and “writing” are in this quote, but I’m still looking at you when I type it — all of you. Whoever you are and whatever dream floats in front of your face right now. Are you ready?
Your voice is important, and your stories matter. Someone has waited their entire life to read the book you are writing.
Now. Get to the top of your hill. I know it’s terrifying up there. It seems like you could fall and just roll down, possibly encountering some chickens. But there’s a ball that’s growing moss because it should be in motion. Kick the ball. Get it rolling. And try not to kill a chicken.
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