On Wednesday night, I sat in our oversized brown chair and wrote a scene involving a double-cross, a sniper, a scientist, a Samoan, a former government spook, and a bronze pig. 1,439 words later, the scene was mostly finished and, with about an hour to spare before midnight, I pasted 50,462 words into a text field and clicked Validate.
I’d written a novel.
NaNoWriMo—National Novel Writing Month—is a crazy endeavor shared worldwide by hundreds of thousands of people during the month of November. It’s a basic idea: Write a 50,000 word work of fiction in 30 days. For anyone who has thought, I should write a novel someday, NaNoWriMo is all the impetus you need. It’s crazy, but not unobtainable. Write 1,667 words per day and you’re set. Some people write 100,000 words.
It’s also vital to remember that quality is pretty far down the list of attributes for a NaNoWriMo novel. You’re writing to hit word count, not a Pulitzer, so it’s not unheard-of for weepy dramas to suddenly experience alien invasions or to have every character die in a freak warehouse fire—halfway through the story. And, if you can possibly resist, there’s no editing. Rewriting happens later.
After you pass that 50,000 word mark, you’re a “NaNoWriMo Winner,” and you get to take home…the image you see on this Web page. And, of course, the feeling of accomplishment of having written a freaking novel. In a month!
Right now, I couldn’t honestly tell you if my novel—which has no title—is good or not. I think there are good parts, certainly. I think the story is intriguing. I have no idea if the central idea that propels the plot is even scientifically possible. The story isn’t yet finished, and although I have an idea for the last scenes in the book, they don’t exist yet. Two women are abducted, but we see only one of them, and I don’t think the other is even mentioned again until that last scene I wrote, and then in passing.
But when you’re forcing yourself to write, those details don’t really matter. It’s a first draft, with equal emphasis on “first” and “draft.” I am happy that I never felt I needed to go completely off the rails to juice the plot or pad the word count. No unexpected zombie onslaught from me.
Except that’s not entirely true.
If you talk to fiction writers, they often talk about how the characters pull them through a story while writing; or, things end up happening that blow all to hell a lot of hard work outlining and plotting. In 2008, my first NaNoWriMo attempt, I started with a completely blank slate. Inspiration is a wonderful thing, but when under the gun, I found myself flailing. Other pressing work projects came up and I abandoned the novel that year.
So, this time around I prepped in advance, taking a novel idea I’ve had clattering around my head for years and working up a rough outline, just enough to provide guideposts. I quickly realized that the novel in my head couldn’t be written in 30 days. I did consider throwing a raging herd of dinosaurs at my two main characters at that point, but then realized that my 2008 story was calling to me. After some creative manipulation here and there, I figured out how to combine the two chunks into a way they could share the same overall story.
And this is how I really only “almost” won NaNoWriMo this year, despite submitting 50,000 words. The official NaNoWriMo rules state that the novel must comprise 50,000 words written during November. You can certainly add what you write to a larger piece later, but the point is to write those words, not to have written them.
In 2008, I wrote a little more than 12,000 words before throwing it in. This year, I wrote about 38,000 words. Interesting how that math adds up.
NaNoWriMo has a special category in its comment forums: Rebel. Some people choose to be rebels by writing something that isn’t fiction: memoirs, non-fiction, and the like. In my case, I went ahead and merged earlier material to push myself over the 50K bar.
There are no stakes. I won’t have my writer’s license rescinded. I didn’t plagiarize anyone. I just have to live with myself, knowing that I “cheated” to “win.”
If it helps at all (or maybe it just helps me), I put a lot of deliberation into whether I’d go ahead and include the previous material. Two things pushed me over the edge.
First, although I’ve been a writer all my life, I haven’t written any fiction in…well, let’s say it’s been far too many years. This was the first time, aside from the effort in 2008, that I’ve attempted to write any book-length work. So just the fact that I wrote 38,000 words (approximately 135 printed pages, or about 103 paperback pages according to my writing software, Scrivener) is an enormous win to me.
It’s even better because writing a NaNoWriMo first draft is almost exactly opposite to how I write everything else. I tend to do a lot of pre-writing in my head, so when I do commit words to the screen, they’re in pretty good shape. My internal editor works side-by-side with my internal writer, which is great for writing technical articles and books (although not great in terms of how long it can take sometimes), but terrible for writing fiction. With NaNoWriMo, half of my battle was telling that internal editor to go find someone else to annoy for a month.
The second reason was the continued influence of my late officemate Kim Ricketts, who inspired me (and others) to get off my ass and chase a goal, even if it’s difficult or unlikely or crazy. She loved books and all the things that revolved around them, and built a business of putting on innovative book events that put writers and readers in the same room, over and over again. Her business flourished despite pressure from the publishing industry, local short-sighted booksellers, and all the hundreds of things that get in the way of realizing a dream.
Kim died this year at the age of 53 from a rare type of bone marrow disease and cancer that pulled her away too quickly, and too young. She doesn’t have the opportunity to see her goals made real, like the opening of Book Larder, an all-cookbook bookstore started by the woman who purchased Kim’s business.
So what’s my excuse? Writing a novel is something I’ve wanted to do since I was in high school, and here I am at 41 without any great excuses for not having done it yet. Sure, I’ve been busy. I’ve built a career as a freelance technology writer, married the woman of my dreams, had a kid, and am generally happy with my life. But have I been too busy to follow a dream?
Chris Baty, the founder of NaNoWriMo, wrote this in his book No Plot? No Problem:
“[I]f you want to get something done, you should ask a busy person to do it. … A rough draft is best written in the steam-cooker of an already busy life. If you have a million things to do, adding item number 1,000,001 is not such a big deal.”
Now, I’ve found the time and written a novel. (Without crowding out my everyday work. I didn’t have the luxury of spending my days working on the novel.)
It’s possible. I can do this.
And that’s really just the first step. Next I need to actually finish the story, then edit and rewrite it. Or, if it’s really bad (and it might be—I don’t know yet), chuck it all and start on something fresh. Probably the other novel idea in my head, which has been gestating long enough.
But I know I can do it. I’ve absorbed myself in the writing process and gotten back to that state where words appear without conscious will, and I remember, through doing, what an interesting, exhilarating feeling that can be.