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National Novel Writing Month

National Novel Writing Month

Note: This was originally published on the now sadly extinct blog “Favorite Thing EVER!” In 2010. I might re-post a few of my other FtE! writings in the future.

National Novel Writing Month has a simple premise. You write 50,000 words of fiction in November. Got that? Okay, good. Go to it.

You might have some questions. Something like this:
Q: I’m not an author!
A: You are now. Write.
Q: I’ve never figured out sentence structure!
A: Not important. You can edit later. Write.
Q: Why? What do I get out of it? Is there a prize?
A: You’ll figure that out when you get to the end. Write.
Q: What I write will probably be terrible!
A: I’m sure it will. Write.
Q: So…I should just write?
A: Right.

This is real, pedal-to-the-metal time. You’ve been saying for years now that you’ve got a great novel inside of you. You’ve plotted scenes, maybe you’ve even written a few character sketches. But you’ve never actually sat down and pounded through a real draft, from beginning to end.

Now’s your chance, and you’re in good company. Every year tens of thousands of authors sign up, in essence promising that they will do what it takes to get to 50,000 words by December 1st. The forums on the NaNoWriMo official site are a great place to talk with people who are just as–or, if you could use some Schadenfreude, much more–stuck than you. The tone on these forums is usually friendly and helpful, if a bit terse; because everyone’s got a novel they need to get back to.

You’ve also got some good tools. Scrivener (have I mentioned Scrivener before?) is free for the month of November, perfect for NaNoWriMo, and will give you 50% off the price of a permanent license if you meet your 50,000 word quota.

There’s no pressure, no external warnings, no coach urging you to make it to the next goalpost. Just your own personal drive. The site simply provides a place for you to record your progress and shows you where you should be if you’re keeping up a nice, even pace. In reality, there’s nothing stopping you from just walking away. But you’ll keep writing, because something inside of you will not give up.

There will be bad days. There will be days where you don’t even want to look in the general direction of your computer, knowing that if you sit down that…that thing will want you to type words again. There will be the bewildered looks of your loved ones, trying to figure out what happened to that person they used to know and who this sleep deprived interloper is. There will be nights where you absolutely can’t look at the line above your cursor, because you know that if you read that sentence you just wrote you’ll have no choice but to delete your entire novel and move to the deep woods in a vain attempt to hide from the shame of having written such dreck. But you’ll keep writing, because something inside of you will not give up.

There will be gray days. So many gray days. Days where it’s all you can do to keep putting one word after the other. Days where you know what your characters need to do, but for some reason they insist on metaphorically picking up the dry cleaning, washing the car, and paying some bills first. But you’ll move on. You’ll write your 1,667 words (a number that will become synonymous with both “freedom” and “prison” over the course of the month) and leap from your chair, desperate to do anything else. But the next day you’ll come back and keep writing, because something inside of you will not give up.

But there will be good days as well. There will be days where your brain is on fire, racing a million miles a second as you see your characters start to come to life and tell you what they’re supposed to do next. There will be the moments of pure, blinding brilliance, when you can see the end from the beginning and everything in between and it’s all beautiful and right and good and you can’t understand why you don’t already have a four-way bidding war going on for your book.

And then there will be the best day. The day where you paste your entire novel into the validation box and your word count bar turns from workaday blue to a sublime shade of…light purple. But who cares? It’s the most beautiful light purple you’ve ever seen, because it means that you are a winner. You did it. 50,000 words. You are a Winner. This isn’t like finishing a video game or putting together a jigsaw puzzle; in those you’re walking a trail someone else blazed. This is something new, something unique, and you created it.

From here the world is open to you. Despite what your output looks like, you have proven to yourself that you can do hard things. In addition, you’ve spent a month forging a habit of really zeroing in on something for an hour or two every day. Now you can re-work your novel, shape it into something you want to publish. Or you can start a different story, this time focusing on the brand new character that snuck into your story as an extra and kept trying to steal the show. You can create that new app for the iPhone. You can go back and get that graduate degree. You can do hard things, and you’re a better person for it.

And now that you’ve done it (or at least made it to the end of this bombastic article), please consider making a donation to keep NaNoWriMo running. Let’s make sure that other people get a chance to feel what you’re feeling.

Prism, Not Mirror

Prism, Not Mirror

My story, To: The Lady on the Train has gotten a lot of praise, for some reason. I’m still learning what people actually like in my writing, and sometimes things just catch.

But the criticism that has been leveled against it is that it’s not really fiction, because it’s so clearly based on something that really happened. This is somewhat confusing to me, because everything I’ve ever written is based on things that have really happened. Sometimes I put dragons or spaceships (or dragons on spaceships) in the mix because I like dragons and spaceships. But the core of every story is the world around me.

It’s been said that art holds a mirror up to life, but I disagree. If I had tried to directly reflect the experiences that seeded To: The Lady on the Train the piece would have been a lot longer and a lot less focused. It would have contained all the little pauses and moments where I had to say “I’m sorry, I couldn’t hear you, what was that?” Things like that are real but not good fiction. I took a forty-five minute conversation, edited out all the parts that didn’t fit the narrative I was trying to relate, simplified and clarified the things that made my point, and that’s what you got.

Instead of a mirror, I would say that art acts as a prism. Any work of art refracts out a part of the artists’s experiences. Life doesn’t fit on the canvas or the page. Ideas, feelings, themes; those are things you can distill out and communicate. If an artist of any stripe has done their job the authenticity of that idea, feeling, or theme will resonate with you and you will feel the truth of it.

Perhaps, if you take all the creative output of our entire species, every story, every song, every sculpture, every YouTube video, every podcast, every painting, every drawing, every poem, every hastily scribbled love letter; perhaps then you would get something approaching a “mirror”. But, like a reflection, it would still be a shallow, flat copy of an infinitely deep reality.