Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Why Would Anyone Want to Write a Novel in a Month?

I've had a few people ask me about my participation in National Novel Writing Month, which I wrote a little about here. Officially, the best place to get your questions answered is to read through the tongue-in-cheek FAQs on the official site.

Unofficially, as a five year veteran of NaNoWriMo, I have some thoughts of my own to share with you.

One question I always get is, "Can you really write a whole novel in a month?" The unspoken part of that question is, "And if you can, how good could it possibly be?" Well, here's the thing: the beauty of NaNoWriMo is that it gives every writer, and every wannabe writer, a way to just start writing.

NaNoWriMo is a challenge. When you sign up on the website you are effectively putting a goal in writing -- and everyone knows how important it is to do that, and how much more successful people who write down their goals are than those who don't.

You "win" NaNoWriMo by meeting the goal to write 50,000 words in one 30 day period. If within those 50k words your story has a beginning, middle, and end then it is, indeed, a complete novelette. Is it perfect, and ready for publication? No, it's a first draft.

In order to reach 50,000 in 30 days, you need to write 1667 words a day. That's about 3 typewritten pages. Looked at that way, it's not such a big scary goal, is it? The key is in the doing it for 30 days in a row.

I love Anne LaMott's book on writing, Bird by Bird. In one chapter, she describes an exercise where she started writing about her days in the schoolyard; she described the sights and sounds, and wrote about the games she liked and how it felt to be sprung from class and able to run around at recess. Then, in all that writing, pages and pages of it, she began to write about that kid who used to stand next to the fence and kick it; that boy who was always left standing when choosing teams. When her exercise was all said and done, the best thing about the pages of writing was that last bit about that little boy. But, all the rest wasn't wasted. It took all of that writing, you see, to find the little boy.

That's how I feel about doing NaNoWriMo. During my first year participating in 2002, I thought I had a great story. It was a story I'd wanted to write for years and years. It was based on something that I'd experienced in high school, a tragedy that happened within my circle of friends during one school year. (As an aside, I should mention that often the first story amateur novelists will write is semi-autobiographical -- it's sort of a rite of passage for writers!) Anyway -- I wrote the story and I found out at the end that it wasn't very exciting or interesting, after all. At least, not the way I wrote it in that first draft. It lacked some of the elements that make a story good, and I hadn't yet learned how to inject those in.

So, yes, I'd quickly written a novel, but it wasn't a very good one. But I'd gotten that nagging story out of my head, and "made room" to imagine something different. In that way, it was an invaluable experience.

I also learned that I could really handle the writing life. It was exhilarating, and fun, and satisfying to get the chance to sit down at the computer every day and face a blank page. It was where the rubber meets the road. Some wise writer once said, "Talking about writing isn't writing. Thinking about writing isn't writing. Neither are outlining, researching, or making notes. Only writing is writing." And not everyone can do it.

Something else happened, too: I'd often heard from published authors is that at some point in your writing, your characters might "take over" the plot and you'd begin to write things that weren't your idea -- they came from your characters. I thought those authors were kidding themselves, or me, or else that they were very out of touch with reality, or took themselves way too seriously, or all of the above. I was sure I'd never have an experience like that.

Well, you know what's coming next, don't you? When I was writing that first novel, there was a point where a group of my characters "decided" they wanted to take a road trip to go to a concert. It came out of nowhere, and wasn't part of my plot. I had the distinct sense that it wasn't my idea, it was theirs, and that there was nothing I could do to stop it except to go along for the ride and write it down. I. Am. Not. Kidding. It was the most incredible experience! It was pure creative joy.

During my second year of NaNoWriMo I wrote a story that was completely fiction. It started out being the story of a woman and her mother. But very early into the novel it became obvious that the antagonist, a guy, "wanted" to be the main character. And about a week into the writing, the focus of the novel changed from the woman to the guy, and the story was so improved. Not only that, it was crazy interesting getting to know that male character in depth. Again: pure creative joy!

The other thing that happened as a result of doing NaNoWriMo is that I trained myself to sit and write everyday. That first year I finished my novel early, had nothing left to write, and really missed it! So, I looked around for writing projects and found one in a magazine I received which was having a writing contest. I sat down the next day and wrote a short story for the contest. I finished it literally in about an hour. I edited it, sent it off, and darn if I didn't win! It was published a few months later, and became my first "clipping" for my portfolio.

I never would have entered, much less won, that contest had I not just finished NaNoWriMo. My writing muscles were bulging. I was in "the zone." Here's that story; if you click on the photo it should become big enough for you to read it.

Why would anyone want to write a novel in a month? Maybe I need to write 50,000 words to find the few thousand that really matter. Or, tell one of the stories inside of me and listen for the voice that most needs to be heard. Or, perhaps I just need to get into that "writing zone" and get my writing muscles back into shape.

It's day 3 of NaNoWriMo and so far I'm on track with just over 5k words.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I have to tell you. it was your first post about NaNoWriMo in October that my husband is doing it. I read your blog since I follow it, when I noticed it was about writing I sent it to my hubby. I am going to be sure to have him read today's post:) He writes many really good short stories but yet wrote a novel. Despite nerves he signed up. He is already started. Thanks for a great blog:):):)

Ann Flowers

geocrasher said...

Laurie thanks for posting this. I'm already quite behind on NaNoWriMo, I've only got 800 words down. I will catch up, and I *will* finish it. Reading your experience here is great. I don't have the time to search through the forums on NaNo's site for jewels like this one. I'm sure glad Ann sent this to me!

Linda Sue said...

Love this post- love the creative process and writing does it all! Your MOM story - so worthy! You are a very cohesive smooth writer, easy to read, easy to hang with, easy to love.

Sandra said...

Laurie, Thank you for sharing your "first published story" I really loved it. Good luck on completing your goal for this month. I sure know that I could never do that, but anxious to hear how you do.!!!

Anonymous said...

Came to you via Linda Sue
Congrats on your wonderful novel writing effort.
50,000 words in a month sounds possible but very daunting indeed!
It generally takes me about ten years (don't laugh) to write 90,000 (with reseaarch etc.)
If you like Anne Lamott and I think she is wonderful, you will love Brenda Ueland's
written in the 1930's it is so inspirational and lovely.

Miss Sandy said...


I just learned something new about you! Your a writer too! I read about this novel in a month deal over at Bonita's ~ Encouraging Words for Writers. I had the very same thought and comment, if you wrote a novel in a month would it be any good? I have never had the inclination to write a novel but it might be fun to give it a try someday.