Becoming A Novelist (featuring a salute to Nanowrimo)

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!

5 thoughts on “Becoming A Novelist (featuring a salute to Nanowrimo)

  1. Interesting description of the writing process.

    I’ve just finished grading some essays and it was painful – as usual. I have to admit I was focused on those who had submitted the poorest work but it always amazes me how poorly some college students write. Even when the assignment is design for them to write and submit drafts before the final version they still submit what shouldn’t not even be a draft.

    Maybe we go about teaching writing incorrectly. I’m not sure how to correct the problem when the student to teacher ratio is so high because it is difficult to get students to put in the effort when most of the motivation to do a good job has to be internal. Without a great deal of one-on-one tutoring it is hard to convey to the average (college) student how to improve and it is hard to motivate the students unless they have some type of positive personal relationship with the teacher.

    1. After 30 years in elementary education, and forty years as a serious writer, I’ve seen many ways of teaching writing. However, I’ve not seen any research on how effective any of these methods are. Lately I’ve noticed some FB friends posting articles on how we boomers have spoiled the younger generation with too much emphasis on awards for work completed rather than teaching them to toughen up and get the work done because it has to be done! But I’ve noticed that these articles rely on anecdotal evidence rather than any well constructed study. As a special education teacher, I am very aware that the research shows that positive reinforcement works!–and I can cite my own experience. But that doesn’t address the problem you face of motivating students to want to turn in quality work.

      I’m wondering if part of the problem isn’t just how we teach writing, but how we teach everything–as discrete subjects, rather than as a complex whole. I would love to see elementary education embrace the notion of teaching writing across the curriculum: students should be able to write a sentence or paragraph explaining how they solved a math problem, or how they conducted a science experiment. But instead our most important job is teaching kids to pass multiple choice tests. There is virtually nothing more important in K12 education today!

      In this age of texting and 140 character social media, many no longer realize how important writing is as a skill, and how vital and soul satisfying it can be when pursued as an art!! Our children deserve better.

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