Some time in the past couple of months I started receiving emails about this year’s NaNoWriMo. For the uninitiated, that’s short for “National Novel Writing Month,” which is a bit of a mouthful. I had one immediate thought when those emails started popping up.
I’m not ready.
Actually, I don’t think I was ready when I signed up to do last year’s 30-day writing marathon. The purpose of National Novel Writing Month is to pound out a minimum of 50,000 words in 30 days. The brainchild of Chris Baty, NaNoWriMo began in 1999 with a mere 21 participants, and in just over a decade had ballooned to over 200,000, from all over the world. Signing up is free and as easy as setting up an account on the website, where pantsers (those who “write by the seat of their pants”), planners (the more methodical sort, armed with outlines and notes) and rebels (those who like to color outside the lines) promise to the world, or at least their family and friends, that they will spend the month of November writing an average of 1,667 words per day without editing. Quantity, not quality, is what counts in NaNoWriMo: the object is simply to get it on the page, no matter how lousy it is.
THEN you can worry about editing. Because as Papa Hemingway so famously noted: “The first draft of anything is shit.”
For writers like me it’s a real challenge to spill copious amounts of words without occasionally groaning, “This stinkin’ SUCKS!” Yet that’s one of the very few rules of NaNoWriMo, and it’s a necessary one.
So what’s it really like to try to write a novel—or a minimum of 50,000 words—in 30 days?
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I prepared myself for my laptop marathon by purchasing Baty’s “No Plot? No Problem!” kit months before I committed to the journey. Sure, I was eventually going to get back to my novel idea, which had its origin in a short story I’d written decades earlier, but never expanded beyond a first chapter. I was going to get back to it…in 2014. Because 2011 was the year dedicated to completion of Poetry Chapbook #1, while 2012 was assigned Poetry Chapbook #2, and 2013, Poetry Chapbook #3.
The following year, so my reasoning went, I would be tired of poetry and ready to devote myself to fiction again.
It’s a creditable schedule for someone like me who’s not noted for their writing speed, or, frankly, for writing much at all. What is not to my credit is that to date only one phase of said schedule has actually been completed—Poetry Chapbook #1.
And that’s what spurred me to take the NaNoWriMo plunge. I had a pretty strong suspicion this novel wasn’t likely to get off the ground without drastic measures. So I bought the kit, read and signed the Noveling Affidavit, had my mother witness it (I was a lot less likely to quit with HER signature hanging over my head), taped my daily progress chart to my closet door, bought a NaNoWriMo coffee mug to make me feel more official and inspired, filled it with tea each evening, made sure I kept myself accountable by posting my progress on my Facebook page, and set my hand to the plow, or rather, my fingers to the keyboard.
Have I mentioned that another of NaNoWriMo’s few rules is that no previously written material, aside from notes or an outline, is allowed? That hurt. I couldn’t even use that great prologue I was so crazy about, which I was sure would make the reader want to read more…the mysterious scene where a man takes a rowboat out to the middle of a pond in the early morning, before the town is awake, and in the unmarred silence, unravels a…
Yeah, THAT one! I was going to have to write the whole thing from SCRATCH.
Which turned out to be not so bad. I came up with a new prologue that I liked even better than the first one. And I managed exactly 1,667 words that first evening. Which felt like a triumph.
Until I realized, aghast: “You mean I have to do this again tomorrow?”
Uh-huh. And not just tomorrow, Lucie, but for the next 29 days.
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The path to writing a novel has been brilliantly described by Edith Wharton as containing three stages. The beginning: a ride through a spring wood. The middle: the Gobi Desert. The end: going down the Cresta run. Although I have no idea what the Cresta run is, I will testify to the truth of Wharton’s statement. The second week of November is when reality typically sets in and the majority of participant dropout takes place. Week Three is best not spoken of, other than to say that it’s painful. (Okay, I may be exaggerating a little. But not much.) Week four? A downhill coast indeed! Characters have taken on flesh, plot lines have twisted and turned in sometimes astonishing ways, the climax has been reached and the finish line is in sight.
I almost joined the ranks of quitters during Week Three, when, felled by a bout of bronchitis, I lost three days at my laptop. My weakest point came at about 4:30 one morning, when, unable to sleep and spread out in my bedroom recliner under a blanket with a handful of tissues and Fisherman’s Friend Extra Strength cough drops, I lamented to myself that there was probably no way I could finish at this point…I had no energy, no enthusiasm, and I’d lost at least 4,995 words. How would I ever catch up?
In case you have not yet realized this for yourself, 4:30 in the morning is not an ideal time to make decisions. Especially in the throes of illness.
Fortunately, I come from a long line of strong-minded women, so the next day, as I began the slow emergence from my fog of bronchial misery, I decided to give it one more try. I wasn’t going down without a fight.
I had, after all, signed that Affidavit…and had it witnessed. By my mother.
So back I went to my recliner with my laptop, where I proceeded to type…and type…and type…through meal times and cough drops, hour after hour. I’d never written that much or that long at a time in my life. I was on a roll, and it was exciting. Even more, it was fun. For perhaps the first time.
I set a new word count record that day.
And finished on November 30 with a total of 53,000 words, composed in a total of 27 days.
Man, did that feel good.
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Writing has been called the loneliest profession, and in some ways the description is accurate. But one of the good things about NaNoWriMo is that help is always just a mouse click away. Participants can choose buddies to help keep them on track, find factual information in the forums, receive weekly pep talks from organizers, attend a local “Write In”—or a “Thank God it’s Over” party in December—with other participants in their area, and, of course, buy lots of cool NaNoWriMo merchandise, including the “Winner” t-shirt I felt entitled to as a visible badge of my accomplishment. For everyone who completes at least 50,000 words, as verified by the website’s word counter, is a Winner.
And I learned a few things during those 30 days: most importantly, that if I just showed up, the words would eventually come. The characters would eventually speak. Many nights I sat at my keyboard with absolutely no idea what I was going to write…but I showed up, in faith, and the words came. In fact, that little phrase, “Just Show Up,” became my mantra last November. I learned that even I, who wrote sporadically at best, when the planets were in perfect alignment and the air was at exactly the right temperature and, you know, I felt like it, could discipline myself to write for 30 days with little knowledge of what was going to happen, or how. I learned to forge ahead without all the answers, which meant a lot of informational gaps, but was rewarded with character revelations I could never have expected. And somewhere along the way, I was even hit with an idea for a second novel.
For all that, I say: Thanks, Chris Baty.
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How about you? Have you ever tried to write a novel draft in 30 days? If not, would you be willing to give it a try? I’d love to hear your thoughts and experiences.