News: Winning NanoWriMo

15 December 2008

nanonovember120x238Ten years ago, a merry maniac by the name of Chris Baty decided it would be a good idea to try to write a novel in a month.

This is obviously ridiculous.

But he did it, and got people to join him.  The event is called National Novel Writing Month (aka NaNoWriMo), and it takes place every November.

To clarify, the challenge is to write a 50,000-word first draft of a novel entirely in the month of November.  It doesn’t have to be perfect.  It doesn’t have to be edited.  It doesn’t even have to be finished.   It does have to be nonexistent until midnight on November 1 — no starting early — and at least 50,000 words long no later than midnight, November 30.

Last year, my darling wife did it — starting late and finishing early, even — and I made taquitos and encouraged her when she thought she wasn’t going to make it.  It looked like so much fun I decided that I’d join her this year, circumstances permitting.  Well, circumstances didn’t really permit, but I decided to join her anyway.  I could always quit if I was failing horribly.  And besides, 50,000 words sounds like a lot, but spread over 30 days it’s only 1,667 words a day, which is not all that bad.  After all, I’ve banged out 10,000-word position papers in an afternoon; 1,667 words a day should be easy.

I was behind from the very first day.

1,262 words behind, in fact.  The next two days were so busy I didn’t even try to write — which put me even further behind.  By the morning of November 4, I needed to write 6,263 words by midnight just to get caught up.

I didn’t.

Don’t get me wrong; I wrote a very respectable 2,007 words that day.  But it wasn’t close to enough.

It got worse from there.  When I went to bed on November 21, I  still needed almost 28,000 words — more than half the total — and I had only 9 days to go.  Meanwhile, I had no idea where my plot was going, and my wife was in worse trouble than I was.  Her writing process is to talk about what she’s writing.  A lot.  As she talks, and people comment and ask questions, ideas come to her, and then she goes and writes them down.  Last year, that worked wonderfully, because I was supporting her.  This year, though, I was writing.  My writing process is to say nothing, and write in utter solitude and silence.

Cracks were beginning to appear in the domestic bliss.

The spectre of failure loomed.  We began to discuss whether we’d have to alternate, with one of us writing at a time, and the other in a support role, and then switching places next year.  We decided, though, that we were going over the cliff with all our flags flying — either win together, or not at all.  We needed a way to work together.

We didn’t have one.  We talked about both our projects, which helped Kimberly immensely and — to my delight — helped me some, too.  But it was costing me valuable writing time.   Thinking that we were going to succeed became a conscious discipline rather than a belief.

That lasted for days.  Just before bedtime on the 25th, with just 5 days to go, I was struggling along at 31,000 words, and Kimberly was just behind me.

Then a friend introduced us to Write or Die.  It’s a web-based app with a simple text editor.  If you stop writing, it turns your screen angry colors and plays nasty sound effects — crying babies, Hansen, and worse — on the theory that an immediate, negative consequence motivates better than a distant, positive one.

If it sounds like this doesn’t allow for sober reflection and careful attention to what one is writing, then you’re getting the idea.  The goal is to WRITE — editing can come later.  Bad writing can be edited, but blank pages can’t.  It works better than you’d think, and both of us found surprising twists of plot and characterization arising from “mistakes” we made under pressure.

It was the tool we’d been waiting for.  We instantly went from 1,000-word days to 3,000-word evenings, and better.  We would write for 10 minutes at breakneck speed, churning out 300-600 words, then compare word counts so the winner could celebrate.  A quick break to shake out the hands, get a bite to eat, talk character and plot on our respective projects, then back to it for another ten or twenty minutes.

All of a sudden I could spare the time to talk as much as Kimberly needed so she could write, and still get my own writing done.

nano_08_winner_largeWe made it.  Together.  Rather handily, actually — we both hit 50,000 words with time to spare.

Needless to say, we’re pretty happy with that.  Kimberly’s book is nearly done.  Mine still needs some serious surgery, and probably another 20,000 words or so.  I’ll have something to do over the Christmas holidays.

But for us, the most important thing to arise from NaNo 2008 was gaining the ability to write together.  Still on separate projects, but in the same house, at the same time, with two very different writing processes.

The domestic bliss is back.

News: NaNoWriMo Begins!

1 November 2008

The merry maniacs at the Office of Letters and Light are off and running again, assisting thousands of volunteer lunati…er, writers all over the world.  The challenge?  Write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days, specifically the month of November.

Just the first draft, of course…

To give you a vague notion, 50,000 words is the length of Brave New World, Of Mice and Men, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.  In other words, a little on the short side for a novel these days, but plenty of room to express literary genius, if there happens to be some lying about.

Not any too likely, in my case, but you never know until you try.

My darling wife did did it successfully — in 21 days, too — last year.  It looked like so much taquito-fueled mad fun that I’m joining in this year, in my Copious Free Time.

In between moments of sheer panic, I intend to have a rollicking good time doing this, but there is also a larger end in view.  When I was in high school, I read the essays of the existentialists, and had an awful time trying to figure out what they were saying.  I remained mystified until I read The Stranger, Metamorphosis, and The Fall, particularly the first of those three.  Fleshed out in story, the pieces of the philosophy began to fall into place.  Then, as now, existentialism struck me as a bad idea — not merely a misstep, a sticking-a-roman-candle-in-your-eye-on-a-drunken-bet bad idea — but the real lesson wasn’t about existentialism at all: no amount of exposition brings an idea to life as well as a story.

I had read enough bad fiction with a moral, though, to be suspicious of deliberately trying to convey a message with a story.  Surely, I thought, it would be impossible to do it on purpose.  One would have to tell the story for the story’s sake, and let the moral leak out as it would.

That romantic delusion came crashing down when I encountered the work of Andrew Vachss.  He’s a man on a mission, and meant his first published novel to be “a doctoral dissertation without the footnotes.”  Did I mention that he’s now published more than twenty, plus a couple collections of stories, the odd graphic novel, and so on?  Clearly it’s possible to do it on purpose and succeed.  (By the way, Vachss’ work is not for the faint of heart.  I believe in what he’s doing, but I was compelled some years ago to purge my library of his work because of the way he goes about it.   Fair warning.)

Like Camus, Kafka and Vachss, I have some things to say that I believe are better conveyed in fiction than in my usual essays and articles.  The ability to actually write more than a scene at a time has been an elusive target for more than ten years, and NaNoWriMo has a reputation for turning people like me into novelists.

I’d appreciate your prayers.  If you want to make taquitos for me, I won’t say no to that, either.