What is it like to write a novel, and accomplish that task in a month?
I’d never thought I’d experience this, to tell a very long story, and get it down, in some fashion and in some sort of order. All within a month.
I’m much more of a non fiction kind of writer—essays, poems, op ed pieces for the local paper. In my legal career, I kept in the non-fiction category, though the cynics among us might disagree about how to label what those lawyers write.
My creative non-fiction book, Mentoring Boys to Men: Climbing Their Own Mountains, is in copy editing at CreateSpace, and is going to be published in several weeks. That work took more than two years, though the times I was writing had a lot of interruptions. No real deadlines and pressure, unlike the idea of writing a complete book in a month. So, why put myself under this kind of pressure?
November is National Novel Writing Month, and there is an organization out there (http://nanowrimo.org ) that gathers people together, at least in cyberspace, to hunker down over their computers, or their papyrus and quill pens, and put together a rough draft in four short weeks.
I joined over 300,000 other writers, including 80,000 students and educators, all with the goal of putting down 50,000 words, creating a book. Well, at least a rough draft.
That’s 1,600 plus words a day, on average, assuming you don’t take a day or two off, and that you write a couple of hours every day, plodding along, headed to 50,000 words.
The idea of writing a book, along with 300,000 other similarly obsessed writers, intrigued me.
I joined a regional group, over 50 people strong, for moral support. Our leader sent out regular e-mails, and even scheduled a weekly collective writing session at a coffee shop, hoping to inspire us and perhaps, guilt us into meeting our goal. I never made it to the coffee shop, seventy miles away, but I felt their collective spirit, their angst, and their drive. We were family, fellow missionaries.
After a day’s writing, you can post your word count to the website, getting feedback on where you are at, as far as the number of words go, and how much closer you are to the 50,000 word goal. The 50,000 words was formidable, and I preferred to concentrate on the daily goal, of 1,600 words.
I started with a character, a setting, and a general idea of the journey that I wanted my character to travel. I had a good list of the supporting cast, and a number of stories to tell, stories that would move my character along in his life, and his journey for self understanding and real change.
I even wrote out a page of sentence fragments and words, which sort of plotted out the journey. It was less than an outline, and more than a short description of the book. Authorities in the know would label it a synopsis, which sounds impressive, like I really knew what I was doing.
When November 1 dawned, I sat down in front of my laptop, and invited the Muse to sit with me, as I started out. Like a weaver, it took a while to set up the framework, and fill up the shuttles, beginning the weaving process, and actually making some whole cloth. At the end of a few hours, there was actually something there, a bit of a story, and more than the bare skeleton of my character. I felt good, even satisfied.
“I’ve started,” I bragged to myself, and to my wife, who was an early cheerleader to my efforts.
But, then there was that next day, and the next, thirty in all. The trail looked long and lonely. So, I only worried about this day, and getting something done every day.
The daily word count wasn’t impossible, and it was large enough that I had to do some serious writing and move the plot along, every day.
When my wife had surgery, I lost a few days. Waiting in hospitals is not conducive to the Muse, even though you have plenty of time to do nothing, nothing but wait. My attention span withered.
Yet, the first full day my patient and I were back home, the Muse awakened, and I churned out 5,000 words in a day. I guess I had been thinking about the character, and the plot, and had some ideas of where it was all going. The Muse is persistent.
It has helped that my character is probably certifiably crazy, and so is the antagonist. And, over thirty years of experience dealing with folks who are mentally ill, emotionally abused, and incarcerated gave me a large cast of characters and a plush library of stories to tell.
The day before Thanksgiving, it was time to write the climactic chapter, and to bring a lot of the things I’d been developing to a rich froth. It was time to let my character find his freedom and achieve his destiny. My scratched out laundry list of the chapter’s frenzy laid there, next to my coffee mug, and I wrote, and then wrote some more.
The final product went a slightly different route, but then, the good chapters do that. My character has a will of his own, and I needed to listen to where he wanted to go in the telling of his story.
My fingers smoked, or so it seemed, and at last, I was drained. The coffee was long gone, and I needed a martini.
The next day was Thanksgiving, and giving thanks for being at 46,000 words and having the end in sight was my offering at the family table for our annual tradition of giving thanks.
I needed a day off, a day of family and eating and being lazy, to recover from all of that angst, and then, on to the last chapter.
My writing is chronological, orderly. But, that last chapter, I wrote it backwards. I had awakened with the final paragraph already drafted by my subconscious.
Fortified by coffee, I typed that last paragraph, starting with the last sentence. Then, the paragraph before it, and then the one before that. After an hour, the last chapter was written. My lawyer mind screamed in agony.
This is not the right way.
But, it was. It worked. It flowed. It made sense. The last chapter wrapped up all the loose ends, well, except for one or two, but then, that’s the fun of writing. You need to not answer all the readers’ questions, though you can figure out that the remaining questions will get resolved, and in a good way.
There was another chapter that needed writing, and that came out onto the computer screen, too. It would fit in nicely just before the climactic chapter.
And, it was done. The first draft. It is a draft, a work in progress. But, the meat and bones are there.
Then, time for some computer work, putting all of my chapters, my daily writes, into a giant file. I’d been keeping track of the word count all month, but when I had everything all in one place, I realized my count was wrong, by about 10,000 words. 10,000 in my favor, though. I’d actually written 60,000 words! Yikes!
With excitement, I went to the NaNoWriMo website, and updated my word count. And, then, I pasted and copied all of my month’s writing into the “word count validator”. Its job is to count all the words, again, and give me an official word count.
Yes, 60,000. Well, 60,650 to be exact. I wanted to be exact. Every word counts, and every word took a bit of my energies this month.
The screen flashed that I’m a winner. I can order the winner’s T shirt, and put the “winner” NaNoWriMo logo on my blog.
I’d also been eying some rather cool writing software, that several writers had recommended. I’d checked it out and it looked very useful. The price was very reasonable, and, if I became a NaNoWriMo winner, I’d get it for fifty percent off.
Now, I have my new software, my new “winner” logo and I think I’ll order that T shirt, too.
But, most importantly, I have a new piece of work to reflect on, revise, and rewrite. It’s a good first draft, and I think it will evolve into a respectable story that needs to be told, out in the world. I’m going to publish it, and get it out there.
My second book. My first novel. All that sounds good. It’s been a good month.
—Neal Lemery 12/2/2014
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