It’s been a week since I submitted my “manuscript” for validation on the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) web site. Such an understated climax, pasting what you hope will be recognized as 50,000 words into this tiny, two-line text box and then pressing SUBMIT. And what a feeling of … what, a little jubilation and a lot of relief when this WINNER banner comes back at you.
As I explained in my last post before I started on this journey, NaNoWriMo Newbie, I had never planned to write a “novel”. I wasn’t one of those people who’ve always said they’ve got a novel in them. Quite the contrary, actually. I like writing for my grandchildren, but adults? I don’t think so. But somehow the idea slowly took hold that this could be an interesting challenge. And November in Atlantic Canada doesn’t have a lot of competing attractions. Thus began a novel November for me.
Making the commitment
Telling someone else that you have set this goal is a lot more powerful than just telling yourself. With NaNoWriMo, I thought it was an intriguing concept, but when I made the mistake of mentioning it to my husband, the die was cast. He’d say things like, “Do you know what Mom is doing in November?” Once a few people know, you can’t back out. My husband is a smart man!
Being prepared – kind of
It dawned on me as summer approached that I needed to have some kind of game plan in place before November came or I was going to be in deep … trouble. So I took out some of my favourite books on writing, plus some of my favourite blog posts from One Wild Word, and read their advice on getting started. This time I was reading with intense focus instead of casual interest. Their advice was especially important for someone who had no idea whatsoever what she’d write about, just that she was going to write 50,000 words in 30 days.
Elizabeth George and her advice in her awesome book Write Away made November possible for me. Others backed her up, but she was so convincing about developing your characters first and foremost. If you have your characters well developed in your mind then any plot will unfold as you go along. You need to know your characters inside out and you need to have conflict within and/or between characters; your plot springs from these conflicts. That was my take-away and I ran with it. I spent about two weeks in the summer working away at this, deciding on my characters, then making some of them a bit meaner than I’d originally intended so there’d be conflict. Does this sound like a homework assignment to you? Yup, that’s what it felt like. But it was captivating all the same. I found myself thinking about how my characters would approach different situations and whether certain phrases would fit within the period of time I had in mind. For experienced writers this is second nature, but for me it was all new.
Sorry, I can’t stop and think, I have to write
One of the most intriguing parts of NaNoWriMo is that you can’t stop to rethink anything. You can’t hesitate with your beginning, you can’t stop to edit dialogue or check to see if your dates make sense or if you’ve used the wrong name for someone, and you can’t stop to doubt the direction you’re headed in. You don’t have that luxury of time. If you have all thirty of the days of November at your disposal, you need to write an average of 1667 words a day. That’s tough enough. But most of us have a few days when life gets in the way, so 30 days is a bit of an exaggeration. I was away for two days at the end of the first week of November and I panicked as I wondered how I’d get the missed writing done; I was mentally prepared to get it done by the time I realized I’d be away the last two days of November as well. This is very different from the commitment to a running marathon. If you find yourself unable to fit in a run from time to time when you’re training for a marathon, you don’t need to add that distance to your next run day. In fact, you shouldn’t. Usually, it’s good for your body to take off an extra day every once in awhile. Missing one or two days in your schedule has no negative impact on your ability to complete your marathon. This is decidedly not the case for a month-long writing marathon. For every day you miss you have another 1667 words to add to the next day – and you run out of days amazingly quickly. This is a very sobering reality. What you need to tell yourself is, “Shut up and write.”
Don’t worry, your characters will do all the work
The truly fascinating revelation for me was that the claim that your characters will write their story themselves is true. I had done the homework of developing these characters and was expecting a few specific things to happen to them. I didn’t have time to think about how things would follow, I just had to keep writing. I have to say, watching my characters deciding pretty much for themselves what they would say and even what they would do next was completely unexpected and very cool. And, may I say, thank God, since heaven knows how it would have got written otherwise. So, thank you, characters.
Needless to say, 50,000 words – well, 50,086 to be exact – written in this seat-of-the-pants manner does not actually constitute a novel. It constitutes a good start to an eventual novel if on closer inspection it seems to have enough merit to continue. As with any first draft, it needs many more drafts: corrections, improvements, deletions, further development, consistency checks, and a really strong conclusion – the works. The effort of getting this far has been a rewarding exercise. I’ve written research papers, technical reports, children’s stories, and non-fiction blog posts, but trying a long work of fiction was new to me. Committing myself to NaNoWriMo gave me the opportunity to experience the writing process from a very different vantage point. With that in mind, I think it behooves me to continue this journey with my characters through a solid editing process at least. When you run a marathon, you have succeeded when you cross the finish line. With NaNoWriMo, it’s a great feeling when you complete the 50,000 words by November 30, but the real finish line is when your characters have finished telling their story and you are satisfied with the way it has been told. There’s still work to be done and lessons to be learned. After Christmas!