Gretchen Atwood took part in the Book Writing Cycle last year. She blogs about “Sports Race Politics America” and has written a profound and important book (see below).
Last year I wrote the first draft of The Lost Championship Season, my nonfiction book about the racial integration of pro football in 1946, with the help of Elizabeth Stark’s classes and National Novel Writing Month. I can’t remember most of the details of that experience and for that I heartily credit both Elizabeth and the wonderful folks at NaNoWriMo.
Let me explain.
Early last fall I had been lurching this way and that trying to get traction with the draft of my book. I am a hard-headed midwesterner and thus prone to both “go it alone” on projects and beat my head against a wall with the fervent belief that if I just keep adding more effort to a goal I will get there.
Turns out I was wrong. For some people writing works as a completely solitary pursuit but I needed more. I needed structure, community, and inspiration. The Book Writing Cycle and NaNoWriMo provided that.
NaNoWriMo identifies one of the biggest blocks to actually finishing a draft–worrying that it isn’t good enough as you go and shouldn’t I really tweak that section more before moving on?–and bludgeons it with a sledgehammer. The only rule? Hit your word count. Doesn’t matter how good it is, how much you’ll rewrite it later, whether you’ll cut the entire scene or say, “Screw writing!” and join a convent afterward. Just get the words out and move on to the next day. Don’t look back, don’t hit the brakes, just write.
So 1667 words a day was my goal. And Elizabeth’s daily check-ins, weekly phone calls, and online message boards were the perfect complements to NaNoWriMo. I could have tried NaNoWriMo by myself and I would have failed. Why? No additional structure and accountability, no community of writers to struggle with and be inspired by. My goal of completing a draft had now been committed to other people. I loathed the idea of failing in front of my peers. And I got great suggestions from Elizabeth and the other writers when I got stuck. We even developed some friendly competition and gently egged each other on to greater accomplishments than we would have achieved otherwise.
And the exercises, though geared toward fiction, were a great help to my writing as well. The essentials of good storytelling apply whether doing narrative nonfiction or fiction…compelling characters, tension, movement (action or emotional), etc. The exercises helped me increase narrative tension (both within a scene or within a segment of the story), address weaknesses in the pacing of my book, craft compelling scenes and improve the dialogue. Sure, I couldn’t make up whatever I wanted to but I could choose to describe someone’s conflicted actions or draw attention to what he/she did *not* say in a similar way a fiction writer could.
I don’t remember the specifics of the day-to-day writing of that first draft because I achieved the mindset of “whatever happens, keep writing” and so I did. I hit snags and I wrote some strong passages and it all just kept flowing into the draft. To this day it is one of the writing accomplishments I am most inspired by. Sure, finishing a book is also challenging. But getting the first draft done, in a month no less, shows how incredibly *possible* writing a book really is.