My First NanoWriMo 2010

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Novels. Could you write one?

Question: How long does it take to write 50,000 words?

Answer: About thirty times as long as it takes to write 1,667 words.

Last month, I was one of the 200,530 people who took part in NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month activity that has spread to a worldwide phenomenon. The goal is to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November. Anyone who accomplishes this feat is deemed a winner. Those of us with less than 50,000: we were the participants, the also-rans. Excuse me for a moment while I mock myself by holding my forefinger and thumb in the shape of an "L" against my forehead.

Okay, I'm back to address the next question. Why am I not among the 18.6% of NaNoWriMo 2010's winners? How come I didn't manage to pump out 50,000 words last month?

I blew the goal for the month because I didn't meet daily targets. Writing at least 1,667 words each day during the month of November would have put me over the 50,000 word target.

NaNoWriMo novelists, also called NaNoWriMos or simply WriMos, need not write everyday to win. Ten 5,000 word days may work for some. Very fast typists might be able to rattle out 50,000 words in a day or two.

No one worries overmuch about the quality of a NaNoWriMo novel, or so-called NaNovel. WriMos value quantity over quality. WriMos need not fuss over spelling, much less employ such tools of a novelist's trade as plot, story arc, or character development. A NaNovel does not necessarily have a climax and denouement, a conflict and resolution, or even a beginning, middle, and end.

Nonetheless, a winner should be proud of pouring out 50,000 or more words. Such a profusion of poorly punctuated prose represents the kind of discipline that can lead to literary accomplishment, in much the same way that regular exercise can lead to physical fitness and practising scales to musicianship.

Starting anything can be a lot of heavy slogging. By the end of the first week, I wrote just under 3,000 words. Halfway through November, my word tally hung below 10,000.

My transmutation took place November 19. I took a break from my NaNovel to scrape together a little dinner. Standing at the stove, I thought, "Good thing I'm eating alone so I can read at the table. I can't wait to get back to my book to find out what happens next."

Then it dawned on me, I wasn't reading a book; I was writing one. Even though the characters I cared about were my own creations, I had no idea what was going to happen next. They had unexpectedly developed their own opinions, interests, quirks, and relationships. How exciting to discover that writing was as imaginative an adventure as reading!

Unfortunately, I was still falling behind.

Question: How long does it take to bang out 1,667 words?

Answer: About eight and one-half times as long as it takes to write 200 words.

Meeting the NaNoWriMo daily target of 1,667 words, enough text to cover about four and three-quarters pages of a paperback novel, is no mean feat. I admire well-organized writers who use outlines and carefully plot their stories. I was, however, unable to emulate them, since I had no idea what my characters would do until I started writing. As long as I kept writing, my characters said things I could transcribe and did things I could describe. If I wasn't pounding out my NaNovel, my characters sullenly went on strike, refusing to do anything.

With less than a week of NaNoWriMo to go, I suddenly remembered a previous life in which I had been pretty good at writing about 250 words at one sitting. That's right, you remember too, don't you? That formulaic five paragraph essay, good for homework assignments and in-class exams alike. School essays didn't have to be inspired, they just had to be done on time.

Decades later, armed with all the technology of the modern age, I set a timer for ten minutes and started writing. At the buzzer I had just under 200 words. I reset the timer. Ten minutes later, and I had added just over 200 words. Eight or nine such word sprints every day would have met my minimum daily NaNoWriMo requirement. Writing for 42 hours would have put me over the top.

No doubt inspired by the encouraging clatter of my keyboard, my characters got back on the job. Some worked together, others at cross-purposes. They argued, reconciled, and got drenched in the rain. As I wrote faster, they had parties, nightmares, gigs, colds, dates, heartaches, hangovers, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Some of them got so excited they replayed the same scene differently. I couldn't write fast enough to keep up with their activities. They loved, lost, grieved, begged, borrowed, and stole. I got up early and stayed up late. They struggled against mighty odds and put everything on the line. Suddenly, with their grand scheme at a crisis, their hopes to be either realized or dashed, I ran out of time.

NaNoWriMo ended midnight November 30. I had written just over 42,000 words of absolute drivel, half of that during the past five days. Misapplying Sturgeon's reasoning1, as many as 4,200 words might not be crud. The first few days of December, I took a break from writing to catch up on housework and other neglected duties, and my characters shouldered their picket signs.

So here I am, wiggling my fingers above my laptop's keyboard, and already two of them are leaving the picket line to go out for coffee. Perhaps I should follow them and find out what they're talking about.

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1Science fiction author Theodore Sturgeon once said, "Sure, 90% of science fiction is crud. That's because 90% of everything is crud."

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