Before now I would have said the scariest thing I’ve ever done is…um…well, I guess I haven’t ever really done anything I would label scary. Maybe swim with sharks once? But they weren’t even scary sharks, they were nurse sharks that just loved to rub up against your leg like a cat and eat rotisserie chicken.
And then I did NaNoWriMo. For those of you who don’t know, NaNoWriMo is National Novel Writing Month, and the goal of the event is to write 50,000 words in one month. It takes place every November, that busy month of Thanksgiving and, this year, the release of Pokémon Sun & Moon and, oh yeah, the emotion-filled election. This is, by far, THE SCARIEST THING I’VE EVER DONE! For the whole month of November, that looming word count goal was staring me in the face like this:
To make matters even more frightening, I was writing a Young Adult manuscript for the first time. I’m a picture book and middle grade dude. I can write about unicorns and kids battling trolls all day long, but love, angst, emotional firsts as you head into genuine adulthood? The only time I’ve written about love was in regards to a squirrel who discovers he loves candy, soooooooo.
But I decided I would face my fears, because doing so has paid off before. *Insert flashback noise and sepia filter* Back in 2012, I started an internship with a children’s literary agency. The awesome agent I was working for asked me to look at picture book manuscripts, and I just didn’t get them. How could you write an emotionally resonating story in under 500 words? And how was I supposed to tell what a good manuscript was without accompanying illustrations? PBs scared me to death!
So I started taking picture book writing workshops in my spare time to figure them out. These workshops led to me writing picture book manuscripts of my own, and I fell head over heels for them. Cut to today, I’m now a bona fide children’s book writer, my first picture book coming out in July! *Insert flash forward music, there’s no more filter*
When November was rolling in this year, I said to myself, “Self! Time to face another fear,” and I dove into NaNoWriMo. First I had to figure out how I was going to tackle the word count on a day-by-day basis. To stay on track, you need to write 1,667 words a day, but I knew that I would be traveling for a week for Thanksgiving, so I tried to write more than that to add some wiggle room for the holidays. I made a nifty calendar in my office so my horrible failures (or successes!!) would stare me in the face.
Then came the matter of an actual plot, which I guess is important. I plotted that whole sucker out at the end of October so I could write bullet point by bullet point in November. This helped me immensely. I pantsed my first middle grade manuscript a few years back, and all the drafts I had to do to go back in and get a storyline that made sense totally has converted me into a plotter. My little plot road map became such a trusty friend for those 30 days because for the first time ever, I wrote non-linearly. When I got stuck in one scene I could look at that map and say, “On to the next one!” That was crucial in meeting my word count goals, especially when writing in a genre that I don’t feel exceptionally comfortable in yet.
The other crucial element? Writing. I know that sounds really obvious, but what I mean by this is just write everywhere. Don’t limit yourself to one environment, write wherever and whenever something strikes you. I wrote in my office, I wrote little scenes on my phone notes app when something popped in my head and I was waiting for coffee, I wrote on the airplane when heading to see family. And it worked! This was the final word count on my little calendar:
I made it! But here’s the weird thing about achieving this goal: At first, I did not feel excited about writing a first draft so quickly at all. I was like, “Well I faced that fear of doing NaNoWriMo, but now I have this draft that needs a ton of work, just faster than I would normally have a first draft.” Writing non-linearly helped me get the word count, but my transitions are a bit fuzzy in places. Those bullet points were a lifesaving guide when it came to reaching 50K, but some of them morphed a bit as holes developed and now I have to go back and fix those holes. On the night of November 30, my head was swimming with what still had to be done on the manuscript and not on the achievement.
Then I thought back to facing my fears with picture books. I went to multiple workshops, wrote a few manuscripts, but that didn’t instantly make me a success. I still had to submit to agents, hope one signed me, hope an editor liked one of my stories, hope bookstores buy it, hope people buy it, the hopes—some of them now realized, others TBD—go on and on, and it’s a loooooooong process to see how those hopes turn out.
So here we are now, two weeks after NaNoWriMo ended, and I am feeling Jazzed with a capital J about it! I’m so glad I did it, I’m so glad I jumped into my first YA project and let that word count goal drive me to type, type, type, type, type and not think too hard about making something perfect from the start. No manuscript is ever perfect from the start, and in a publishing world where every step forward can take quite some time, why not try to write a first draft quickly? It can speed up the whole process. And who knows, maybe facing this fear will help me someday see a YA book on the shelves with my name on it, something I never thought would happen. Just like I never thought I’d see any book with my name on it, but, here we are 🙂
Jason Gallaher is a picture book and middle grade writer who loves to create stories that mix the flamboyantly whacky with the slightly dark. His debut picture book, WHOBERT WHOVER, OWL DETECTIVE, releases on July 18, 2017, from Margaret K. McElderry Books. When not writing, Jason zips about Austin, Texas. Things Jason fears include rats, an empty fridge (he gets hangry), and dying without meeting Anjelica Huston. Jason is a self-described Hufflepuff, and he is actively looking for an Andalite friend. (Photo Cred: David-Gabe Photography)