If you’ve never heard the acronym Nanowrimo, it stands for National Novel Writing Month. Each November half a million people worldwide write 50K word novels in 30 days.
Let’s take a second with that sentence. Half a million people. 50k words. 30 days. And this year I was one of them.
Nano has a really cute origin story, which I won’t retell here, but suffice it to say, there is nothing scientific about any of the choices, from novel length to time frame. Nothing is asked of you except you don’t write before November, and you write 50K by the end of it.
So as an author of two books (one nonfiction, one semi-fiction) why would I sign up for such a ridiculous enterprise? Couldn’t I just do what I did before?
No. I couldn’t.
I was stuck. Mired in anxiety after the success of Radical Focus, I couldn’t seem to get going. I wanted this book to be good so badly, I couldn’t write a word of it. Every time I opened the Scrivener file, I felt the pressure of my expectations, my audience’s interest and worst of all, my nascent hope I might be able to make a living from my writing.
Then one day I was having a glass of prosecco with a friend of mine, and was talking about the new book as if I was about to start it, and she said “haven’t you been talking about that book for awhile?”
So I signed up for a Nanowrimo class taught by its founder, Chris Baty. If anyone could get a book out of me, he could. He’s done 16 of the things!
In October, the class was great fun. I was shaping the plot, making character sketches, and in general making friends with my story. The first week of November was also fun and I made the daily word count handily.
And then the election came. This chart tells the story.
The first couple days after Trump was elected, I was in a weird denial. I still wrote each day.
When the reality of it hit me, I stopped doing anything. I fell behind in grading, writing, cleaning house. I was on Twitter too much, lost in the churn of social media fury. I felt helpless and guilty. I wished I had done more to stop something I never believed could happen.
Then I saw an image of Woody Guthries’ guitar.
I decided I could make a difference with my writing. I would write characters that were diverse and completely human. People reading my book would see the other as themselves. I came across a podcast that week that said that people who read Harry Potter passages on diversity showed more empathy for people different than themselves. I could do this. I could fight fascism with fiction.
A thousand words or so later, I was prepping for my daughter’s birthday sleepover. She wanted to roast marshmallows in the firepit so we bought wood. I was carrying it to the car when the bottom fell out of the box. I jumped away to avoid a foot crushing but I twisted something my back.
I recognized the pain from years ago, when I’d ended up with back surgery, and it scared the shit out of me. I assumed the healing position: flat on my back, pillow under my knees. I couldn’t type lying down, but I maybe I could dictate?
Another woman in my class had broken her hand at the beginning of the class, and dictated her novel. She had learned effective dictation in her former life as a journalist. She would dictate then send the file to Rev to transcribe. She found herself flying past 50K words after week 2.
I burned with jealousy.
I downloaded the apps, and read books on Dictating Your Novel, but I couldn’t get my brain to do it. I had word counts of under 100 when I tried to dictate. Apparently (as my friends could probably tell me) I can’t talk and think at the same time.
My back got better with rest. The book didn’t.
The book was in the doldrums, the miserable 20ks where nothing makes sense and you can see no way out. This was extensively chronicled in “No Plot? No Problem!” Apparently week two (and for me, week three) is the valley of the shadow of death. I was warned the only way out was through. But it’s hard to believe when you have 20k words of apparently nonsense. You become sure you are one of the losers who produces useless drek. I had too much riding on this book and I was writing too much awful. My darkest fear was becoming my reality: I didn’t have another book in me.
In a class I teach, The Creative Founder, students work in teams on a single project for an entire semester. They learn a lot in that class, including that you can’t work with just anybody, you can’t work on just anything and making a product people actually want is much harder than making one that is beautiful or usable.
It’s a hard class. Midway through the semester, every team almost gives up. They feel doomed, they despair, they want to throw it all out and start over. But they keep going, and they find a way through.
I have come to believe that this is the very nature of any large undertaking. In game design they call it “wandering in the wilderness” and it’s notorious. You’ll have all the elements of a good game but it refuses to be fun. All you can do is keep tweaking and playtesting. When asked when the game is shipping, my game designer pals just shrug, and say “We’re wandering in the wilderness” and refuse to predict when they will be able to find their way out. But they know they will find it.
I looked at my 20k disaster of too many characters, too much plot, so much horrible exposition and despaired.
And then I got an idea. I dug in my files, and found the Beat Sheet, from Save the Cat. And I opened up Scrivener.
I created cards to hold the beats, then drug the cards holding the scenes I had written so far into the beats. Suddenly I could see the novel clearly. It was no longer a muddy mess. I took advantage of this to create a ton more cards of scenes that fleshed out each beat, and then wrote little scene descriptions at the top of each one. That way when I had time to write, I’d know what to write.
The middle is miserable. The only way out is through.
I went to Brooklyn for Thanksgiving. I would write a little before my daughter Amelie woke up, but the rest of the day we were bouncing up and down the avenues, socializing and shopping. I fell more behind each day. The Nanowrimo stats page kept telling me when I’d be finished, and it was deeper and deeper in December. And it told me how many words I had to write each day to finish one time. 3K. 4K. 5K.
It was too much.
So Amelie and I are sitting in a hip Brooklyn fusion restaurant, eating oyster bacon pad thai with our friends Donna and Erika and their new six month old baby Max. And I’m telling Donna I think I might give up. Change my grade to no credit, quit the class, put the novel aside for now, because how can I possibly write 24k words in four days?
And Amelie, who is always listening, the way kids are always listening, says, “No, Mama. You can’t give up.”
She looked very serious. “You have to write. You want to be a writer.”
“Will you help? No TV? Make me stay on the computer? You won’t mind if I’m on the computer all the time?”
Her dad is on the computer all the time and it is not something she approves of. We’re divorced, and when she is with me, I’m with her, NOT half with her, half with the internet.
“Yes. You write.”
It’s possible this was a bid for unlimited ipad time but I decided to take it in the spirit it was offered. We flew home Saturday, and on Sunday I was on the computer all day long. I’d wander out into the living room, and Amelie would look up from her iPad and yell, “Go write.”
Monday I wrote, then taught, then wrote, then watched Supergirl with Amelie before bed.
(Caltrain is fine for writing if you don’t mind the typos from bouncing up and down.)
Tuesday I started the day writing. I went out to lunch with a friend and suddenly two hours was gone. I had to get Amelie to afterschool and buy groceries … instead I ordered pizza. I pounded at the keyboard until Amelie yelled it was time for The Flash. (We like superheros in our house.)
After I put her to bed, I eked out another 2k.
I woke the morning of the 30th to a small crises with my students, and lost that writing time. I pulled out another 1K on the Caltrain up, followed by 2 k on the Caltrain home. I had 3K to go and was wondering if I was going to make it when Chris Baty sent an email: we would be writing in class.
I thought, “oh yeah.” Because sitting around with a bunch of people typing does wonders for motivation.
Chris brought in a bell from his schoolteacher mom and we were invited to ring it when we hit 50 k. Someone brought wine. Someone brought cupcakes. I ate sugar to get energy, drank wine to stop the inner critic and wrote like the devil was on my tail. The bell would ring, and I’d write harder, ignoring all rules of grammar, spelling and coherence.
I was the second to last person in the class to ring the 50K bell but I rang it.
I think about how I almost quit. I know in my heart that it would have been a very long time before I returned to that book. If ever.
But now I’m past the messy middle! I have a giant pile of prose that I can’t show to anyone, but I LIKE to revise. The horrible rip-your-eyes-out-so-you don’t-have-to-look-at-the mess first draft is done. Now it’s all tweaking, fixing, adding, subtracting — the good stuff.
I write like a painter.
A friend of mine says, how you do anything is how you do everything. When I learned to paint, I learned to work the canvas, i.e. block in the key shapes, refine here and there, keep pushing the image forward, but do it evenly all over the canvas, moving from foreground to background.
I discovered that’s how I write. I lay in an architecture. I move from scenes in the middle to scenes at the end. I add in arcs. I start sloppy and gestural, and I slowly put in detail that tells me what the rest has to do. I work the canvas.
At this point, hopefully you’re asking yourself, should I do Nanowrimo?
Yes. But don’t do it alone.
The best part of the class was watching everyone’s journey. I knew what I was going to write about, I just didn’t know how I was going to do it. Although I had many surprises along the way, met new characters and found new plot twists I started a premise, and outline, and character sketches.
Other people just wrote. They wrote memoir and fiction, fantasy and political commentary and they all found out things about themselves and the world they couldn’t have known any other way. It was like group therapy with your various selves. It was like trust falls and bungee jumping for introverts. It was mad and it was good.
The amazing thing is, Nanowimo works. About 400 authors have had their November creations published, including my favorite, The Night Circus. And it worked for me. Dec 1 I woke up with a 50K novel that’s not quite done but know who it want to be when it grows up.
I can’t imagine any more Novembers without a novel now. I’m jealous of those who got to write fantasy, and next november I will playfully explore more sides of myself. I want to write the book I love to read, and there is a giddy freedom in being handcuffed to an idea for 30 days.
I can’t wait to do it again.