NaNo has taught me many things over the years since I started doing it. Mostly, these things are about writing, specifically my writing process. I’ve learned my strengths and weaknesses, and sometimes I can plan around them. Usually, NaNo is a humbling experience that shows me how little I’ve managed to overcome my weaknesses in first drafts, then a triumph as I crush them under my heel in revisions. *cough* pacing *cough*
The biggest thing I learned right away with my first NaNo involves the concept of a First Draft. Like many would-be-but-not writers, I always thought that novels sprang from mind to page in a nearly perfect state, requiring only minor tweaks and grammar fixes. After my first NaNo, that illusion was shattered irretrievably. It’s like being told Santa Claus is just a cultural construct used to convince kids they need to pretend to enjoy Thanksgiving in order to get presents a month later.
This year is no different. I finished the first draft of Backyard Dragons on Monday, and boy is it a steaming pile of crap. I’m now working on the first draft of Chowndie, and it’s alright, but far from brilliant. What I have to share now are a couple of analogies about writing that entertained me when my brain came up with them, so I thought I’d pass them along.
A novelist’s brain is really a giant cauldron of bland stew simmering over a fire. It’s got the minimum of things to make a stew: vegetables, meat, and water. To spew out a First Draft, the writer dips in a ladle and fills a bowl. We’d just work with the cauldron, but we’re fussy and like lots of different types of stew. They add a few herbs and spices, taste it, add a few more, and then pass it on to a beta taster. Ideally, that taster makes some additional herb or spice suggestions, or maybe would like a cracker or biscuit to go with it. Great! Soup! Sometimes, the things the taster suggested sound like they’ll go well with any iteration of the stew, so the writer tosses an herb or two into the cauldron and lets it simmer, or maybe makes biscuit dough ahead of time before repeating the process.
I might be hungry.
Anyway, on to analogy number two. Baseball!
Stay with me, because this one is good. Anyone can throw a baseball, right? Sure. To be able to actually pitch, you have to learn the rules and all the pitches. To pitch for the high school team, you have to practice some, but not a whole lot. It’s high school, after all. You can maybe ride on your talent, even. Most people who try could learn to pitch this well if they wanted to. The skill set is kind of particular, though, so it might not be worth the time and effort.
To become a minor league pitcher, you have to practice a lot more. And probably spend money on a trainer or coach, some equipment, that sort of thing. A lot of people could manage this if they wanted to, but it’s a lot of work to get this good at something, and even when you are this good, that doesn’t get you much because there’s plenty of others playing at the same level.
You see where this is going, I’m sure.
Then there’s the pro players. They pitch in the MLB. They’ve devoted a significant portion of their lives to being good at pitching and they do it all the time. It’s their job. Though they may not execute perfectly all the time, they know all the rules, they know all the pitches, and they know all the tricks. They do well enough to earn their right to the spotlight.
And then there’s Nolan Ryan and Orel Hershiser, and those other really famous superstar hallf of fame pitchers. I don’t know their names because I don’t care. The point is, writing is baseball, swimming, playing an instrument, coding, detectiving, drawing, etc. It’s a skill. Even if you have a natural talent for something, it takes practice, learning the rules, and probably some investment in yourself and/or gear & coaches (editors) to be genuinely brilliant at it.