Why I’m writing a novel this month

Jamming the keys is the most fun partFor the third straight year, I’m writing a novel in November. It’s a national (really, worldwide) challenge: 30 days, 50,000 words in a single work of fiction. Did I mention that I’m really not into fiction? And that I’ve never written a word of the stuff in my adult life, outside of NaNoWriMo (as it’s called)?

When I tell people, they usually have questions like “What is your novel about?” – which surprises me, because their question really should be “Why?!?”

NaNo really takes over November. Thanksgiving puts a wrench in the works but I try to be far enough along by then that I’m not worried about my word count. I spend between 1 and 2 hours per day on it, not counting the time I spend planning in October. Yes, I do this on top of my regular job, child care duties, roller derby practices, and so on.

I do it because it’s an amazing productivity exercise: sit down, pound out the words, and be done for the day. I track my words to date, words per hour, how far ahead I am, my projected total by the end of the month, and so on.

When my “real job” is made of writing that matters and has to be done carefully, it’s easy to procrastinate, to work slowly, to pretend to myself that I’m already working at top speed and it’s just that the work is so tough. I might struggle all week in my day job to squeeze out the number of words I get in two hours of noveling. It’s a real productivity wake-up call.

I also do it so I can surprise myself with my creativity. The thing that got me to try my first NaNo was Chris Baty’s description (in the book “No Plot, No Problem”) of how his characters, once half-written, took on lives of their own and turned the jumble of words into a story:

That’s the beauty of novel writing. A panoply of strange characters, spread out over cities or continents, will somehow end up banding together midbook to construct your plot. You probably won’t see how this will happen early in the writing process, and you shouldn’t worry about it yet. Your role as a writer in Week One is just to continue to wave all of these players down onto the field, and then write like hell to keep up with them.

There’s another benefit: Every year when I plan my novel in late October, I read up on characters and plot and pacing and conflicts and foreshadowing and climaxes and set pieces. Ever since that first cold November night I sat down with a story being born, I’ve noticed these things in the media I consume, and even what I write. Any sort of writing has traits in common with storytelling, and when a page-turning couple of pages produces itself out of my mountain of first-draft drivel (which happens surprisingly often in November!), I say Aha! This is how you make something worth reading!

Also, I have a thing for crazy projects. Like joining a roller derby team, winning a gold medal in the Knitting Olympics, taking trapeze lessons (only did it once but wish I could go again), training to swim a mile while 5 months pregnant (only missed the race because a family funeral was the same day), you get the idea. It’s great to have a project to devote yourself to, then walk away from with a sense of accomplishment. “I’ll never do anything like that again,” you say. “Until next year.”

November 2008: wrote my first novel
November 2009: wrote my second novel while caring for a newborn babe
November 2010: writing my third novel on a typewriter (while caring for a 1-year-old). Not sure how I’m gonna top that for 2011, but I’ll try.

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