A Novel in a Month? Am I Crazy?

Absolute Blank

By Ana George

I think I first became aware of National Novel Writing Month in 2002. Several people on a community site I frequented at the time seemed to be doing it, and I’d been writing little vignettes and short stories. Chris Baty decided in 1999 that it’d be fun to get a bunch of people to all write 50,000 word novels in a month, and so he declared November to be National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). It’s still going, stronger than ever.

I’ve started three of these things, and finished two, in 2003 and 2005.

In my case, going into November the essential ingredients I had on hand are a few characters (but feel free to make up more of them as the need arises), an idea for a plot or at least a situation, clearing one’s schedule as much as possible, and a writing buddy. Note that this list does not include communion with the Muse.

If you wait for the Muse to whisper something in your ear, you’re not going to make it. Lightning strikes are nice, and they can make for some rip-roaring tales, but they’re rare. Just write. Something will happen, often something rather nice, or even wonderful. I found myself sitting down wondering what comes next. Putting myself into the head of one character or another, and watching what happened next. The NaNo thing is really about getting past writer’s blocks, the need to edit everything to death before going on

I found this approach rather incompatible with plot outlines, or writing scenes out of order. The characters have a way of peeking over my shoulder at what’s already been written, and then can’t resist a certain foreknowledge of the plot, which changes how they react. So, for me at least, the discipline of writing the story linearly, in the same order I expect it to be read, was an important survival strategy. Your mileage may vary; I tend to write character-driven fiction. But I found it hard enough to keep track of what all was going on in a linear story, let alone juggling several story threads and trying to remember who knew what in which scenes.

That said, I found I’d left enough threads untied that I could figure out who-done-it at the end, and, during the long Thanksgiving weekend, pull out a rather interesting tale. Then, in both cases, I had to go back and plant the gun (metaphorical) in the drawer in chapter 3, so it’d be available when someone needed it to straighten out my tangle of plot lines.

It’s a good thing try to wrap up the tale at just over 50,000 words, because the steam tends to decrease dramatically once one has met the quota. If you’re planning on “finishing it later,” I’ll warrant you never quite get back to it. Everybody who writes 50,000 words in November and verifies this on the site is a “winner” (and you even get a PDF plaque to prove it).

Having a writing buddy is a Great Thing. Somebody who’ll wake up each morning, read what you’ve written, perhaps make a comment or two, but most of all be disappointed if there isn’t anything there to read. If they’re also writing a NaNo, all the better, but you probably don’t have time to read along in more than one or two other novels if you’re writing one of your own. I’m not sure if this is a unique thing for NaNo writing or not; I’ve never really had a writing buddy as such for ordinary writing. Don’t expect in-depth critiques, either giving or receiving. I think the most useful comment I got in the middle of things was “Hey, it was Christmas and now it’s Spring Break already.”

Let’s run some numbers. The goal is 50,000 words in the 30 days of November. This is 1,667 words per day. I type 30 about words per minute, so I can write 1800 words per hour, which means I should plan on at least an hour a day, day in, day out, no exceptions. In practice, it takes me a bit longer if I’m also making up the story as I type. I think I spent around 50 hours on each of my two successful NaNos.

Of course, when there are rules, there is the urge to bend them. If the only thing you’re being graded on is word count, you tend to use 10 words where one would do. And to save and run a word-count after ever sentence or two. These are bad habits, but you’ll develop them anyway.

Sometimes a plot line or a stack of prose just goes bad. When you have a deadline, you sometimes have to just go on, or throw out a chapter or two, in hopes of patching the hole in the edit, later.

It’s a good idea to keep track of everything you invent. The first time the neighbor shows up, you make up a name for him. The second time, he already has a name, and you should have it recorded somewhere so you can find it. There are a number of software tools that help with this kind of bookkeeping. Tastes vary, and finding a tool that works well for you can be frustrating, or as simple as a web search. I used a TiddlyWiki, which is a one-person, local version of a wiki, the software underlying, for example, the Wikipedia. I wish I’d kept track of more information in it.

The NaNoWriMo website has a number of aids as well. There are forums where you can ask things like how fast smoke signals propagate, and whether the ancient Chinese did anything with gunpowder. You can also register your daily progress and monitor that of your friends. Competition is a good thing. There’s also a NaNoWriMo forum on Toasted Cheese, where you can make fun of your favorite editors for failing to write a novel.

The point of the exercise, really, is just to get a draft of a story written down. To convince you that you are, in fact, capable of writing a long story. You can edit later (yes, Virginia, there’s also a NaNoEdMo in March).

And what’s become of my two draft novels? One’s still sitting in the drawer where it went at the end of the month. The other’s still got some ideas swirling around, for ways to make the plot clearer, better motivate the action, and explain the relationships between the characters. Perhaps one day I’ll dare to submit it to an agent or a publisher. The handful of people who’ve seen them seem to like them, so perhaps there’s something worth saving. It’s a long strange ride, but I now know that I can put together a story that’s pretty coherent over 200 pages or more.

Final Poll Results

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