Those who know me appreciate how much I like a challenge. I decided to double-major at university because giving myself a bit of flexibility and breathing room throughout my degree felt too slack. It's why as soon as I graduated, I applied for full-time work in an industry in which I had no experience, and began at the office within a few days of being offered the job. But this persistence to get my responsibilities out of the way before allowing myself any fun often means that once my duties are done, I'm grouchy from the knowledge that I have been working too hard, whilst simultaneously hankering for some new way to burn through my days because I'm bored.
Naturally, the challenge to write 50,000 words of a new novel in November through National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) seemed a perfectly sane idea for me to do within the same four weeks that I was already slated to both move house, and jet interstate for five days. I approached the challenge with military precision, dutifully packing up my laptop to tap away on the train to work each day, befriending the perky English girl that worked at the cafe near my offices so I could have a chai and a type in peace (although, miser that I am, I never returned after she overcharged me that one time), and ensuring that I was awake an hour earlier than I needed to be every single day so that I could hit the word count before 8.30am... and if I decided to write on the train home as well, so much the better.
To clarify: normal people do not do NaNoWriMo. Every person I met at the first social event of the season was lovely, switched on, and desperate to get started. That night, I stared at a sea of people in bunny ears, oversized band t-shirts and overalls, and saw, vainglorious creature that I am, my own emo-loving, pubescent awkwardness reflected back at me, ad infinitum. But the people I met that night didn't need to be normal. No good writer is. After an hour of chatting about our stories, and becoming increasingly excited by the diversity of minds around us, my friend and I departed from the meeting feeling genuinely bolstered for the month ahead. The countdown from then to November 1 was an arduous one. I couldn't wait to begin.
I didn't stay up to partake the midnight write-in. Heck, I didn't make it to another NaNoWriMo event, social or work-related, for the entire month. But the invaluable company of my fellow writers for one evening motivated me to push on when I felt my feet dragging in the dirt for every one of those thirty days.
My commitment to NaNoWriMo did not cease for anything short of calamity. I allowed myself one day off, and that was to move house. By the next day, I was writing furiously from the early hours of the morning with atonement on my mind, spurring myself as if I had something to prove for the absence. I wrote on the plane interstate, and tapped away furiously on my creaky hostel bed at 10pm on a Saturday night when seemingly everyone else in Sydney was partying at the nightclub just downstairs, making out with adorably-accented foreigners. But I had taken this trip with a very particular agenda, and I wanted my weekend's quota out of the way before the main event on the Monday evening.
I had gone to see the King of Fiction, himself, speak. He answered questions from the audience about the religions and minutiae of his world, and bantered merrily with the actresses from the television adaption about whether winter was truly coming. He held the entire Opera House in the palm of his hand, and we barely dared breathe, so desperate were we to catch his every word.
After the panel discussion, those who had paid six hundred dollars for the privilege of receiving autographs, having a chat, and being photographed with he and the actresses were instructed to line up on one side of the building. The cheaper-ticket holders were told that they could line up along the other side of the great Opera House for an autograph... if they wished to try their luck, and if the man himself felt so inclined as to hang around. It was evident that any autograph-dispersing on his behalf was utterly subject to whim, and not to duty. I contemplated not lining up for all of thirty seconds. Only when I recalled that I had nowhere better to be did I search for, and find, my friend in the line. By the time I reached the tail, it was already over a hundred people deep.
The people in the queue churned ahead of me silently, silent with a deferential awe as they approached the little table of the most renowned living fantasy writer on the planet. He signed each book placed before him with frenetic energy and within moments, the expectant fan would make for the front door, clutching their oh-so-cherished, autographed merchandise in shaking hands. As my book was handed over by an Opera House employee, I instinctively thanked the man himself for his time. He actually raised his gaze to look at me and my brain went crazy, urging me to be cool. I was so excited that I almost missed our entire conversation. He asked me if I had had a nice night, to which I replied: "Absolutely, it was amazing. I'm an aspiring author, and hearing you speak has made me want to go home and write like mad."
And George R.R. Martin said to me, "Then write! Never stop writing. Persevere, persevere!"
From then on, the challenge was not to simply "win" NaNoWriMo, but to write as much as I could and with as much energy as I could possibly muster. After all, George R.R. Martin himself had charged me with the duty.
The bare bones for my second novel, Love, Inc., was finished within a week of that moment. Though I harbour a subconscious terror that I am encountering a sophomore slump, I granted myself the permission to edit at a reasonable pace, one conducive to my time-poor lifestyle. I am no longer in a desperate hurry to prove that I can "finish", though by no means is that something to turn one's nose up at. Because the few throwaway words of advice from my favourite author reflect the equal blessing and curse of the writer: there is no finish line, no point whereupon we really feel that we have said enough. We write because the story is clawing at our insides, desperate to spring from the confines of our mind onto paper. And we want to be rid of it as if it were a parasite sucking us dry, because to hold onto it too long evokes the same dread as if we were squeezing an infant too tight. We love the story desperately, but until it is rendered in ink, it is not permanent, or fixed, or safe. To simply hope that we will remember its nuances is to guarantee forgotten details, or lost insight into the characters. When we are so cripplingly scared of putting our baby into words and rendering it vulnerable to criticism, we have already failed. The alternative is agony but it's the sweetest struggle there is.
Now that NaNoWriMo is over, I'm exhausted. Looking at my manuscript, which required an additional 7,000 words to pass my benchmark, I felt no desperation to churn the final, filler pages out. It is not the satisfaction of completion that motivates me, though it is an amazing sensation to see page upon page materialise by your hand. The process itself is magic. There is no feeling in the entire world quite like when the right words appear onscreen unconsciously, as if your fingers have been hijacked by a third party, and your characters are reacting to the world around them in ways that surprise even you. It's the writing that I hunger for, not the completed project. No matter how many books I write, there will only ever be one story: the one I am writing now.
So yeah, I guess I did conquer NaNoWriMo... but in many ways, NaNoWriMo conquered me, too. Because it slaughtered the pedant inside of me, allowing me to disregard deadlines or expectations of myself, and simply write. And given that the first tome of A Song of Ice and Fire was released the year that I was born, and the series shows no sign of being completed soon, I think my hero would approve.
Scarlett Hawkins writes novels... But in her spare time, she writes rants.