Well, that's over.
Last month was my third consecutive November participating in National Novel Writing Month, an annual 30-day sprint towards an uninhibited 50,000 word first draft. Being a very deliberate outliner and obsessive wordsmith, not to mention otherwise busy, I never actually expect to reach 50k. Instead I use the month as practice to get into a regular writing habit: a habit which I still have never sustained.
Both previous attempts were short-lived as I went into it just trying to get as many words down as possible but quickly fell far behind the quota and lost motivation. This time, I planned ahead to maintain 333 words/day for a total of 10k: a manageable one-fifth pace. (This wasn't my only act of rebellion; the "rules" state that you should start a new work with nothing written prior to November 1 but I continued my perennial work on the epic realistic-fantasy concept that I've been kicking around for several years.)
I held up pretty well for a while with this slow and steady approach, but I got derailed in Week 3, and then I was away on vacation for all of Week 4... which I should have known would result in exactly 0 words. All said, my word count topped out at 5342, just over half of my personal target. That's my best so far for NaNo, but still hardly impressive for a month's work. However, I did come to a few helpful conclusions.
1. A writing habit takes more than just time. Even though I forced myself to sit down with my laptop every day for most of the month, I didn't automatically start pouring out words. I fidgeted, I brainstormed, I chatted up the wife, I agonized over where to start. I did just about everything short of the one metric that counted: putting words on the page. Time in the chair doesn't mean anything if you don't have a word count to show for it. This is something that NaNo specifically aims to address, but I didn't do so well. Maybe I need to bump up my quota to something more demanding.
2. I haven't found my voice as a writer. Obviously this will only come with lots of practice but it's something that stuck out to me as I wrote new scenes each day. A few passages were rich and evocative, but most read like screenplay. I tend to use a very factual, narrative style. It doesn't feel engaging. It sounds nothing like the kind of books that inspire me. Which brings me to the last point:
3. I need to read more. A lot more. For all my love of a good story, I read very little fiction these days. I have multiple bookshelves both real and virtual full of novels that I have yet to read. You can't develop a skill in a vacuum, and I know that the first tip for beginning writers is to read read read. I already have more books in mind than I'll probably ever be able to get through, but I've only completed one novel all year. I can't hope to finish a book of my own if I don't finish the ones that are already written.
So that's what I've learned in addition to my modest 5,342 words. Now I just need to keep reading, and keep writing.