I Dedicate November to Short, Ugly First Drafts

Photo by Anna Zavileiskaia

By Cate Stevens-Davis

Here in the USA, writers of all stripes are gearing up for National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. NaNoWriMo challenges writers to pen a novel of at least 50,000 words entirely within the month of November. The point of the challenge isn’t to write a great work of fiction, or even a good work of fiction, just to get the first short, ugly draft out of your head and onto paper.

I participated in 2006 and found it a grueling 30 days, but not without merit: as cheesy as it sounds, I learned a lot in the process. I’d heard writers talk about “letting a story go when it needs to go,” but it never made sense to me until I found myself 36,000 words into a story with no resemblance to the detailed outline I’d composed. Most of all I learned about discipline, about forcing myself to sit in front of my computer every day, even when I didn’t want to, even when I’d rather take a nap, even when I didn’t feel that mystical creative spark. Some days all I did was sit and stare and re-write the same sentence for two hours. Other days I flew through 5000 words. By November 30, I’d reached the end of the challenge and the end of my novel, exhausted but victorious.

There are plenty of criticisms to make about NaNoWriMo, but my biggest issue is with the featured form: the rules explicitly state that if you want to participate your project must be a novel. Not a nonfiction project. Not poetry. Certainly not a collection of short stories.

Thus, as a short story writer whose interest in novel-writing lasted exactly 30 days four years ago, NaNoWriMo fails to excite me.

So I’ve issued my own challenge, between myself and no one else, to strive for personal glory. Instead of NaNoWriMo, instead of a novel, I’ll be working to write 50,000 words worth of short stories in November. Oh, sure, I don’t have a funny name for the contest or a network of fellow participants or any cool prizes, but I do have plenty of ideas and half-formed characters to explore that I’ve been too lazy to write out. I’ll most likely need every one and more, considering 50,000 words translates to between 10 and 20 stories, depending on word count.

Will it be difficult? Absolutely. Will frustration drive me to tears? Probably. Will the stories be good? Not a chance, but first drafts don’t have to be. That’s the message of NaNoWriMo that I fully celebrate even as I refuse to participate: just write. Put the bones of the beast together and worry about muscle and skin and soul later. This isn’t about polish or finesse, it’s about the dirty work – short, ugly first drafts.

So here I go. Will I reach my goal of 50,000 story-words in 30 days? Well, let’s talk in December…

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2 thoughts on “I Dedicate November to Short, Ugly First Drafts

  1. Good luck Cate. For entirely different reasons I’ve pushed myself to enter as many contests as possible and I’m exhausted. I know this isn’t the same but we’ve both entered a race. Between my full-time job and other obligations, it’s tough to find time to write – as you well know. The heck with the house, and I do the minimum possible – enough so that I “act” and “look” normal to everyone else. As I tell friends who ask what I do on the weekends- I write. The stories are not going to write themselves. Like you mentioned, if you have the fortitude you can accomplish it but the secret ingredient is the willingness. Let us know how you do!

  2. Good luck with your challenge, Cate. I did try NaNoWriMo one year, but novel-writing really isn’t my thing either. I don’t think I’m quite up to 50,000 words of short stories this November either. But with National Short Story Week coming up in the UK I might manage a resolution to write a short-short every day for the week.

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