Monday, May 20, 2013


Writing a novel isn't that hard. This is the theory, at least, behind the National Novel Writing Month--a program successful enough that a good many people know what you mean when you say "NaNoWriMo." Putting a word like that into the language must endow its creator with a real sense of pride.

The premise of NaNoWriMo is that you don't need to quit your job to be a novelist. You don't need a particularly fancy computer, or to be an English major, or wear special clothes, or drink special coffee (or bourbon) to be a novelist. You needn't be on anti-anxiety, anti-depression, anti-psychotic, anti-inflammatory, or anti-ballistic medications to be a novelist. The only thing you need is to carve enough time out of your life to type out 50,000 words, or so.

Even though I clearly failed in this effort, I did write 19,541 words of a novel in November, which is precisely 19,541 words more of this novel than I have any other month. In fact, months later, 19,541 is still the count. In my defense, I do have a little baby in my life, and did take a graduate school class in that time, but the whole premise of NaNoWriMo is that no one has the time to do this. You just do it anyway.

While I didn't "win" in NaNoWriMo parlance by getting to 50,000 words (they don't seem to care if you just type "kill Flanders" a whole lot at the end, so winning really is an achievable goal), I did learn some things in the process that I think are worth mentioning.
  1. Writing a novel isn't that hard - This bears repeating, in part because most of us assume otherwise. We may be confusing writing a novel, which isn't hard and isn't especially rare, with making money from a novel, which certainly is. For me, it was simply a matter of thinking up a premise, inventing a character (somewhat autobiographical, so as to skimp on any kind of research), and following where he goes. 
  2. Writing a novel is probably easier for Slackers - The idea is to write a first draft of a novel, not to end up with anything polished. Much of what I wrote was terrible. Much of what I wrote will be deleted, but my goal was to spend all of the time allotted to writing engaged in typing. When I encountered a point in the story where I needed to make a decision, I just picked something. When I wrote myself into a corner, I just started somewhere else. I wasn't even aiming for 50,000 words--I was hoping for 40,000, or a B-.
  3. Writing a novel in a short amount of time helps - Another brilliant aspect of the NaNoWriMo concept is, in the words of Duke Ellington, "I don't need time, I need a deadline." I've written about deadlines before (see also: here) but the most helpful aspect with this program is the idea that you won't still be living this lifestyle on the first of December. Forgoing Facebook (which I did, somewhat), Twitter (which I did, somewhat), and housework (which I excelled in, let me just say) is hard, but less so if you know it's only temporary.
  4. Writing a novel can provide more self-discovery than a journal - I'm a terrible journal writer. I have a dozen or more journals dotted around my life that have two or three entries each. In fact, lots of people are like this as well--do a random search of Blogger and see how many entries begin with "I haven't written in a while." I haven't yet read what I wrote in November, but I do know that the things my character faced, and what he did in the face of those things, will tell me something about my true self--at least the one that existed in November. Looking inward in the process of ostensibly doing something else can yield a more honest assessment than setting out to do self-examination. I recently heard a piece on dreaming that explained that our minds are doing much the same thing throughout the night.
Which brings me to the lame excuse portion of this post. Why didn't I win NaNoWriMo? Why didn't I even meet my own depreciated goal? Why is the word-count still stuck at 19,541?

I think part of it is that November isn't such a good month for this--at least for me. For example, I think  Thanksgiving break is meant to be a helpful chunk of time towards the end of the month in which to do a final push. It probably is for young, hip people who are sitting on long flights home, and then trying to fill time between coffee dates with old friends in the morning, and get-togethers at bars with old friends in the evenings. My Thanksgiving break involves cooking a turkey, and then preparing a house--as well as later recovering a house--where that turkey to be eaten. I also needed to do a concert program, and final rehearsals, and a few other things to keep my job(s) at the end of November.

More generally, though, I think it tells me something about the power and limitations of goal-setting, particularly for Slackers. Specifically, I blame the little graphic above, and my relationship with it throughout the month. As you can see, assuming your eyesight is pretty good, and/or you're not reading this on your iPhone, I started off pretty well. In fact, given that I started a few days late, I started off really well. Then, things bogged down. Each leveled-off spot on the graph represents a day that I didn't do any writing. That meant that even if the days I did write were "on pace," I realized I was never going to make it. NaNoWriMo provides additional statistics, like how many words per day you're doing, how many needed to finish, and when you'll finish at your current pace. Each passing day, those numbers got worse and as things got worse, I apparently gave up.

I'm watching lots of my friends and colleagues get master's degrees these days; others seem to be undertaking serious weight-loss programs; still others preparing for grueling physical challenges (triathlons, marathons, mud runs, etc.). Each of these endeavors seems to have parallels to NaNoWriMo, except that success could possibly actually get you somewhere. Watching the various strategies to these large tasks is interesting, and I'm curious to see how each works out. Some post regular updates on their progress to Facebook, while others are very quiet unless you ask a direct question. Some have given themselves hard deadlines, others seem to put their heads down and don't look too far toward the horizon. Perhaps some have quietly given up, and I haven't noticed yet.

One day last summer I let MapMyRide know that I was riding my bike around the neighborhood so that I could use it to keep track of the miles I'd ridden, and the calories I could then indulge (one Hop Wallop = about five miles, in case you're wondering). Over the winter I've gotten increasingly desperate emails from them that started with "Sean, why aren't you tracking your miles?" and have progressed to "Sean, are you okay?" and most recently "Sean, why have you descended into this spiral of self-loathing?!?"

I don't know if things would have gone better if I'd let MapMyRide announce to all of my friends what I was up to. I don't know if writing in a virtual community (or a real community--NaNoWriMo hosts writing marathons at the coffee shop one town away) would be helpful. I do know that the ways in which they set, tracked, encouraged, and generally participated in my goal was very helpful. Or it wasn't. Figuring out which may be an important ingredient in the next big goal.

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