November is National Novel Writing Month — or “NaNoWriMo” for short.
The idea is that you start writing a novel on Nov. 1 and, even though the month is one day shy of “normal,” you will produce a novel by midnight on Nov. 30.
The organizers, a “tiny but mighty” nonprofit called the Office of Letters and Light, calls it a novel at 50,000 words, which is a bit shy of normal (70,000 to 100,000 words).
But literary rumor has it that these days novels are getting shorter (Exhibit A: Colm Toibin’s 30,000-word, 104-page “The Testament of Mary” was just short-listed for the Man Booker Prize), so we won’t quibble here. Anything close to 50,000 (about 175 pages) is a lot of words for a working attorney to crank out in a month.
For most of us, turning out 1,666 words a day, every day, is an ambitious goal. At 300 to 500 (literary) words an hour, I consider myself a fast writer, but to “win,” I’d have to keep up that pace for three to four hours a day every day of the month — at least a hundred non-billable hours.
In 2011, 256,618 people started this race; 36,843 finished — that’s 6.97 percent. So, you ask, if you might not finish, why should you start?
Well, like Mount Everest, it’s there. Unlike Everest, though, you don’t have to have any prior experience to tackle this mountain, you just go for it as best you can. The “overcaffeinated yahoos” who founded OLL promoted NaNoWriMo as “30 days of literary abandon,” and they confess to valuing “enthusiasm and perseverance” over “painstaking craft.”
In other words, NaNoWriMo is a month of writing for the fun of it, and the organizers provide ways to make it fun. They keep your word-count log, declare “winners” and, most importantly, advertise events at coffee shops, bookstores, libraries or bars where NaNoWriMo participants come together for the fun of writing together — just so you’ll know you’re not alone on the trail. You sign up for free at nanowrimo.org.
I’ve participated in NaNoWriMo twice, and while I didn’t cross the 50K finish line either time, I did get 36K+ into two novels, both of which I did eventually finish at a slightly slower pace. Even though I didn’t “win,” there were several benefits to accepting the NaNoWriMo challenge.
Most importantly, it made me start. It was also good writing practice. It made me slow down and extend scenes into longer passages than I might not have written otherwise. It gave me working clay.
Starting a novel can be a big deal. It can feel like marriage to someone you don’t know. The NaNoWriMo commitment is only a month. If it doesn’t pan out, so what? You’re not stuck for the rest of your life.
NaNoWriMo gave me the incentive to start working on something I’d been thinking about which hadn’t yet gelled into an idea and to push forward until it did. When I didn’t know where my story was going, it had to go somewhere just to meet the day’s word quota.
Don’t worry that pushing towards a word goal will cause you to “overwrite” a scene. Overwriting is not the most common fault of new writers, especially lawyer-writers who’ve been trained to get to the point as quickly and succinctly as possible. We may tend to rush through scenes when the drama of a scene would be better served by slowing down.
As I’ve said before in this column, I recently reverted to writing by hand in order to slow down, and that has kept me in a scene longer. Similarly, a daily word goal encourages me to try to get a few more words out of a scene, tagging on a few more paragraphs exploring the character’s feelings or motivations. Being in a scene longer — “extending it” — often leads to an unexpected insight that deepens the novel or moves it in a new direction.
NaNoWriMo is good exercise. In order to become a writer, you have to practice, the way you might practice the piano or train for a marathon.
If you take the challenge in November, you’ll write hundreds of sentences — many of them clunkers — and you’ll learn from your mistakes. You don’t have time to correct them during November, but you’ll learn that you can write past your mistakes and still turn out something worth working on.
The goal is not to write a publishable novel in a month, but to write.
As Chicago writing coach Enid Powell of BreakThru Writing says, once you have the clay, you can spend the rest of the year (if need be) shaping your material.
Unless you write that “very bad first draft” (Anne Lamott uses a word relating to excrement which I doubt the Daily Law Bulletin would allow), you have nothing to work with. Last year, NaNoWriMo writers generated a lot of clay — more than 3.3 billion words!
Participating in NaNoWriMo helps you re-commit to the habit of writing every day, and may encourage you to grab all those odd moments of the day to write a few paragraphs (note, in NaNoWriMo time, you’ve got to think in terms of writing paragraphs, not just a few words) in order to meet the goal for the day’s output.
They say it takes 90 days to form a new habit, but 30 is a good start.