I took a leave of absence from my teaching gig to write my first novel. At the time I was burnt out on teaching, but at least when I was teaching I knew what I was doing. I didn’t know how to write a novel, but I started writing anyway. It took about five months to write the first draft. It was over seven hundred pages long and it was a mess! Parts of it were brilliant, but that stuff eventually got deleted.
All told, I’d say it took me ten years to declare that book done. To be honest I’m still tinkering with it a bit. In the meantime I’ve written four more first drafts. For that progress, I have to thank Nanowrimo. It’s been during Nanowrimo that I’ve taught myself to write novels.
Nanowrimo is the cutesy acronym for National Novel Writing Month, which takes place every November. It started years ago when a group of friends in the bay area challenged each other to write 50,000 word novels in a month. Well, actually not a finished novel but as Anne LaMotte would say “a shitty first draft.” Btw–cuz I know you’re wondering–50,000 words is approximately 180 pages.
Within a few years, this group of friends had taken their challenge to the internet and before too long tens of thousands of people were joining in.
When I first heard of Nanowrimo I thought, “I would love to try that. But not while I’m working.” Then I realized that November would not be such a stressful month at work. We had Veterans’ Day and the entire Thanksgiving week off. I had nobody I had to cook for. So why the heck not? I decide to take the plunge.
At that point I had an idea for a second novel, but I couldn’t seem to get it on the page. I’d come home exhausted from work. I’d wolf down dinner then start writing. Suddenly I’d stop in mid-sentence and think,
Oh, it shouldn’t start this way.
This is boring.
I don’t like this story.
I don’t know where it’s going.
And then I’d eat something unhealthy, watch something stupid on TV, go to bed, get up the next day and do it all over again.
But Nanowrimo is about quantity not quality. Your goal is to write 50,000 words. You hope at the end that you will have something resembling a story but that’s not required. Just keep writing. As Natalie Goldberg would say, “Keep your hand moving.”
This emphasis on quantity allowed me to turn off my internal critic. What happened next? My imagination took over. Ideas popped up and a plot formed. That was the most astounding thing to me: my imagination leaned toward story. I didn’t have to force it. It led me there.
Sure, some nights Samantha (my main character) made a pie, and I pasted in a recipe I found on the internet. Other nights Samantha had had a day just like my day. Did I forget to mention that Samantha was a special ed teacher just like I was? Well, if I’d had a really rough day at school, coincidentally Samantha wanted to complain about her day too. Funny how that happened.
But when I hit 50,000 words, I had a real story. In later drafts I’ve edited out the recipes and the venting, but that stuff got me where I needed to go.
In the three years that followed I have been amazed where my characters have taken me. Not one of them wants to pretend to be me anymore. They have their own stories that they want me to write. Letting go of perfectionism and fear of failure has allowed me to hear my characters more clearly. They tell me where they want to go.
This year Nanowrimo didn’t go as I expected. I was working with brand new characters and I didn’t know them very well. In my first novels, the main character was based somewhat (somewhat!) on my own experiences. Hey, I’ll admit that. In later books I’ve taken minor (and completely fictitious) characters and made them major characters. That’s been fun. This year I wanted the challenge of brand new characters. Let me say this as delicately as possible: I don’t know who these characters think they are, but they haven’t been as cooperative as I would have liked, okay?
Then I got sick. It was just a cold, but it was pretty bad. And then, one of my very best friends had a heart attack and died very suddenly. It’s been a rough month!
After Craig died, I didn’t feel much like writing, but my main character, Cecelia, was in big trouble and I couldn’t abandon her. So I soldiered on. The fact is the story didn’t have enough juice to make it to 50,000 words. I finished up at forty-two thousand and something words. If I’d had the energy, I would have gone back and fleshed it out, at least another eight thousand words worth. But Cecelia and I considered ourselves blessed to have made it that far. She and I have a lot of work still to do, but we’re taking a break right now. And hey—she really surprised me at the end. She opened the door to a sequel. I was not expecting that.
Anyway, that’s my rambling way of saying I LOVE NANOWRIMO!! It’s been an amazing and crazy process for me. I feel blessed that someone else came up with this idea and that people like me have been benefitting from it.
If you’re interested in writing a novel, here’s the link to nanowrimo. Check it out!