Nov. 1, 2010. Hundreds of thousands of writers around the world – thousands in Central Ohio alone – fire up their laptops, brew caffeinated beverages and perform whatever rituals they (think they) must perform to awaken their inner wordsmiths. It’s not the dawning of just any month; it’s the dawning of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), the annual competition that, since it began in 1999, has challenged millions of scribes worldwide to crank out 50,000-word drafts of their novels in just 30 days.
It’s a daunting goal, but not an impossible one. At least that’s what three Columbus NaNoWriMo participants, called ”Wrimos,” told me in the early days of November. As their work progressed through the month, these aspiring authors kept journals of their NaNo experiences, reflections on the joy and pain of birthing a book. Here’s some of what they went through to bring their stories to life on the page and some of what they learned in the process.
Nov. 11, 2010. “I have friends — maybe they’re not friends — who pooh-pooh the challenges of writing,” journaled Karen Austin. ”One said, ‘It’s just writing. How hard can it be?’ When I finish, I’m sweating, my heart is pounding, and I’m pretty sure endorphins are included in the experience. I wonder, is this that thing runners claim to feel when they get ‘in the zone’? Anybody who says writing isn’t hard work isn’t a writer.”
Austin, 53, is a former newspaper journalist, a self-described “word geek” and the author of Suicide Sibling, a darkly humorous novel/fictionalized memoir-in-progress about her brother’s suicide thirty years ago in the attic of their family’s house. Austin says she wants to write the novel to open a dialogue about suicide, which she calls one of America’s “last social taboos.”
“In this novel you can very clearly see that my brother’s life stopped, but nothing else did. The end result is that I’m still here, I’m still telling the story. And the story is that we need to as a society begin to discuss this,” Austin said.
Like many writers faced with what seems a herculean task, Austin lowered the stakes of her project in her own mind and eliminated distractions that could have eroded her writing time and daily word count. The daily quota of 1,667 words – a far kinder goal than the monolithic 50,000 words - coaxed her onward. She also started using My Writing Nook, an app that eliminates the visual distractions of on-screen text formatting that might tempt a wayward scribe to tinker, fidget and in other ways procrastinate. What remained were Austin’s story and 30 days in which to tell it.
“National Novel Writing Month gave me the opportunity to kind of sit down and realize, I can just do this. I can at least have something at the end of the month that I don’t have now,” Austin said.
And in the course of working on Suicide Sibling, Austin has also made some striking realizations about herself.
Nov. 20, 2010. “Writing gave me a revelation today. Before Butch’s suicide, I used to sing. Sang all the time in that house, especially when I was doing chores, cooking in the kitchen or cleaning in the bathroom. Until I wrote about it today, I had forgotten my singing. I must have left it in that house.”
Monica Bower, 40, is a professional marketer and a veteran Wrimo who has participated in the contest each year since 2003 and produced eight 50,000-word NaNo novel drafts. This year, she drafted Two Sacraments, a fantasy novel set in Byzantine Europe. Bower’s journal reveals that her secret to finishing a novel draft in 30 days was to keep writing despite her characters’ unexpected moves and self-indulgent nattering.
Nov. 9, 2010. “I still struggle with the problem of excessively introverted main characters too busy jabbering silently in their minds about how everything reminds them of everything else to just shut up and get ON with it. That’s a mantra worth repeating, in fiction, in life: Shut up; get on with it.”
Bower says she’s not too concerned about getting her novel drafts published. Instead, she uses NaNoWriMo as an opportunity to explore her story ideas and the craft of writing. She says finishing the contest gets easier each year.
“It’s phenomenally easier now. The first year I was lucky, I had a great (story) idea. The next year I thought it was going to be a breeze (and) it was just terrible, it was a chore to get through and there are big passages of ‘I don’t know what to write next, I don’t know what to write next, I don’t know what to write next.’ You have to kind of let your muse throw a tantrum here and there and keep going,” Bower said.
Then there’s Terrance R. Allen, 29, fulltime illustrator and bartender working on a young adult adventure novel titled Elixir. Last month, he’d come home from work at the bar in the wee hours of the morning, unleash his nocturnal muse and scribble away.
Nov. 25, 2010. “I never expected it to take this many gallons of Mountain Dew, but I did it!” Allen journaled five days before the competition’s last day. “My draft hit 50,604 words today!”
Allen says he didn’t care that the plot of his novel kept veering off course and that unplanned characters kept showing up. He just kept writing through all the surprises, something he found easy after he told his inner critic to “be quiet for a little while.”
“You do get to those points where you’re stuck and you’re like, Oh, I don’t know what I’m going to do next with this part, how am I going to fix this? But then you brainstorm a little bit and you move right along,” Allen said.
So who won this year’s NaNoWriMo contest? According to contest rules, Allen, Bower and everyone else around the globe who produced 50,000 words of novel prose before the end of Nov. 30, won. Austin did not. But Austin still has 20,000 novel words today that she didn’t have before November rolled around. And she also has a song to sing.
Nov. 30, 2010. “Today I cleaned the carpets. And as corny as it is, I sang while I did it. I sang not only because I suddenly realized I had stopped singing 31 years ago and that’s just not acceptable, but because I found Butch’s voice, too, and got it down on the page.”
And in case the idea of drafting a novel in a month still sounds like a literary Mount Everest, Allen has some words of advice for you: “Just get some gumption and go try.”