NaNoWriMo: Proust, Hemingway, Toybox

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Novels. Could you write one?

Since the end of November I am officially the author of a novel. A fifty thousand words novel. All written up within one single month, no less1. But why, and how did I do that?

For those in the know, November is NaNoWriMo   — National Novel Writing Month. The point is for participants to write a 50,000 words novel between the 1st and 30th of November. There are few actual requirements: the novel has to be written from scratch (preparatory story outlines are allowed), and repeating the same word fifty thousand times is forbidden. Apart from that, you can do more or less what you want:

We define a novel as "a lengthy work of fiction". Beyond that, we let you decide whether what you're writing falls under the heading of "novel". In short: If you believe you're writing a novel, we believe you're writing a novel too.

It is not a competition, except possibly against yourself, and there are no real prizes, except for kudos and a pretty certificate. Anyway, this is not the place to discuss the general whats and whys of the whole event. I just want to give my own experience of it.

Head first into the cold water

Why would I participate in the first place? Basically out of curiosity, to see if I could indeed churn out 50,000 words in less than 30 days. Although I had been aware of NaNoWriMo for a couple of years now thanks to hootoo discussions, it is only this year that I considered participating. So there I was, in early October, thinking, wouldn't that be a nice thing to do, maybe, maybe not, I have time, but no ideas, etc. Eventually, at the pretty much last moment, I took a deep breath and officially registered!

Now, having registered late meant I was very much unprepared. Plot? Character outline? Story documentation? Eh?

And all of a sudden, a day or so before November, I just stopped caring. What a relief! I cannot stress this enough. After all I didn't register to write anything interesting, meaningful, funny, entertaining, nor indeed anything that would ever be read by anybody2. The purpose was simply to sit down and produce 50,000 words, hopefully arranged in a coherent sequence of grammatically correct sentences, but nothing more.

So I started writing, not caring at all what was coming out of it. It did not matter. Fifty thousand words is what mattered. No idea where the novel was going to (if anywhere)? No problem. Don't care about the characters? No problem. No raunchy sex scene? No problem. Just the distant 50,000 words target and me.

From that point, I was pretty sure I could do it3. Not caring about the novel has its upsides. For one thing, the legendary "Week Two Curse"4 was completely alien to me: no week was worse than another. And while I'm almost envious of more proper participants5, if I had wanted to write something good enough, I wouldn't have lasted two days, three days tops.

The Writing Machine

So the novel-writing exercise turned into a text-churning procedure, or even a meta-writing exercise. I mean that it was the writing process rather than the novel that mattered. It seems retrospectively that the point of my participation was this very account you are currently reading, but how could I write the account without painstakingly participating first?

Because conflicting commitments meant I couldn't write every evening in November, I had to get somewhat organised. So I came up with a schedule: 2,000 words almost every evening, and 4,000 in the week-ends6. Oh, and most important: to stop writing as soon as I reached the 50,000 words target. In the middle of something? Doesn't matter, give me another hundred words and I can wrap up the story.

And there I was, trying to come out every day with 2 or 4,000 words of something relatively coherent. This means I had to use Recipes, and the following rules. First: one day, one chapter. Second: decide for a Recipe before starting to write, and stick to it for the whole chapter. Third: never, ever stop before reaching the day's target.

While following this routine eased the writing a little, it was still hard enough to get going every evening. However there would also always be a moment where I knew I could reach my daily goal – sometimes enough story ideas to keep writing till the required amount, or following the Recipe till the end, would just make enough words.

20 : GOTO 10

So what are these famous Recipes? Since I lacked ideas and inspiration to write a novel, another driving force was needed. This force was of oulipian nature: think of some constraint, and write your chapter accordingly.

For example, a few chapters were written "in the style" of various authors, getting inspiration from their works. I think there was some Lovecraft7, Michel Butor8, Fred9, Topor10, providing the novel with a most peculiar melange of genres. Other examples of constraints were: a logo-rallye11, an acrostic12, or wandering in a lexical field13. In the weekends I also resorted to cheap tricks to boost the word count with little effort: playing My Aunt's Garden14, or just write a half-length chapter, then go over it again adding after each sentence a second sentence meaning more or less the same thing15.

All of this helped churning out the few thousands of words every day and reach, eventually, the 50,000 words Grail.

The journey is the reward

On the one hand the whole experience is an illustration that more is not necessarily better. This not-quite-1500 words report has taken me more time and effort to write as any chapter of my novel!

But it was, all in all, a quite satisfactory experience. As the NaNoWriMo organisers say: now I know that I am able to come up with a full size novel (a short one actually, but hey). It made me realise again that reaching a distant target can be achieved by small, relentless steps, and not even that many of them. It made me slightly more confident with writing. And finally, I learned a few tricks to artificially increase the length of a text on any topic, needless to say, within reasonable bounds.

Plus, "my novel" sounds kinda cool smiley - cool

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1And with a cat lying on my keyboard.2Not even by me, in all likelihood.3Wisdom of hindsight here. At the time it was more a feeling of not being utterly convinced I would fail.4Week two is said to be the hardest, and many participants give up during that week.5If I had produced anything even remotely publishable I would try hard to send out the manuscript somewhere. Yes, I am that vain.6As some of the commitments were unexpectedly cancelled, and (more surprisingly) I never declared, "let's just skip this evening for once", in the end I was even ahead of schedule.7Long winding stories which don't make sense and where you keep saying that things are "mysterious", "terrible" or "forbidden".8Endless sentences where you keep describing the same meaningless details over and over again.9Surreal comic strip author. Just read his works.10More precisely, his short stories in Café Panique.11You have to use a sequence of predetermined random words in a given order.12The first letter of each paragraph spells out a verse of Apollinaire13Taking a list of perfume names, or keywords from Maigret novel titles, and work them all into the text in any order.14A French party song which goes something like this:

In the garden, there is an apple tree

It is the apple tree of my aunt's garden

On the tree there is a branch

It is the branch of the apple tree of my aunt's garden

On the branch there is a nest

It is the nest of the branch of the apple tree of my aunt's garden

and so on.
15I got up from the hard chair. As my bottom was hurting I couldn't sit on the wooden seat any more.

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