It is October. Somewhere that is not Los Angeles the chill of autumn is in the air and leaves are turning colors other than green and brown. But all over the country, even in Los Angeles, thousands of people are waiting for midnight on October 31. The witching hour. But this has nothing to do with Halloween. The last stroke of midnight marks the first day of November, the start of National Write a Novel Month. And all around town there will be parties, groups, and solitary writers, all beginning their new novels.
Are you the kind of person who has an unfinished novel in a drawer? Several novels? In a box in the closet? Boxes in storage? Did you transfer all the writings you saved on floppy disk starting from the days of Word 3.0, then transferred them to flashdrive and are now contemplating the cloud? In short, are you the creator and owner of gestating stories with characters knocking at your psychic door, demanding, pleading, begging to be set free once again and come to some conclusion?
Most of the time they are easily ignored. Job, family, friends, the necessity of sleep: All of this can drown out the voices, although there may be a persistent sound of whimpering. But every so often those voices can be loud. They are guilt inducing and lead to the queasiness of unfulfillment and the ache of blocked creativity. This is painful and can make you not very good company for awhile and lead to self medication (i.e. really good television) until the voices go away.
About 18 months ago I heard about NaNoWriMo. National Novel Writing Month. Literally. Write a 50,000 word book in a month. That month is November.
It does not have to be a good book. In fact, it probably won't be. Which is incredibly liberating.
It sounded intriguing. Somewhat doable. Time limit 30 days. A little intimidating. Well, a lot intimidating.
So I thought I'd ask around.
And what better place to ask than at a book fair? There was one happening in West Hollywood next to their new wonderful library. (And a welcoming place to write). The West Hollywood Book Fair is a good book fair, small enough to be manageable with plenty of booths and author panels. So I stopped at various author and bookseller booths and asked "Have you heard of NaNoWriMo?" Turns out not only had people heard of it, a surprising number of them had actually done it. A number of times. And even won some years. If you hit 50,000 words and finish you win. And even those who did not win did not feel like they lost. All I got were enthusiastic reactions.
I thought I'd check it out some more. Of course they have a web site. A really terrific one. I learned that it began with a freelance writer named Chris Baty who started a write-a-novel-in-a-month group in 1999 with 26 friends in the San Francisco Bay area. Last year, again according to their website, 250,000 participated -- worldwide.
I kept checking out the website. Did I have the nerve to take the plunge? The time to commit was coming closer. I had the NaNoWriMo page open at work one lunchtime when a co-worker/friend walked by and took a look at the computer screen. "I know that website," she said with great enthusiasm. Turns out she had tried, had not succeeded, but had a friend who had done it and completed a novel. And then ended up selling it and had a two-book deal -- well, you get the picture.
Another co-worker/friend, also a writer, knew about it as well.
They both promised to do it with me. I signed up.
NaNoWriMo is many things. As I mentioned before, there's a terrific website with lots of virtual support. Pep talks. Blogs. Writing guides. The ability to chat with others going through the same thing as you.
I signed up for the regional chapter, which is Los Angeles. As I write this there are 10,244 members. Luckily they don't all show up for the kick-off party. But many do. There are also plenty of meet-ups all over the city that get organized on the website -- someone is going to write at a Starbucks in North Hollywood on Saturday mornings and invites others to join him; somebody else is at an IHOP in Venice beach. Bookstores and libraries open their doors. Writing groups form. There is a real sense of community.
There were awful days when nothing came and I got inspiration from others online who were going through the same thing. Also of enormous help were the Municipal Liaisons (MLS) -- there are four in Los Angeles this year -- who keep the local Los Angeles website organized and arrange the Kick-Off, Mid-Month, and Thank Gosh It's Over (TGIO) Parties, at which they give out prizes. The MLS also coordinate writing group meet-ups all over the city as well as what sounds like a glorious weekend train trip to San Francisco for the official "Night of Writing Dangerously." They are four wonderful people who have day jobs in which they are not professional writers. They help make this experience fun.
Or you can do it all by yourself and never talk to anyone.
There are a few rules. It needs to be a new work of fiction. If you think it is a novel it is a novel. Do not attempt to rewrite a novel and claim it is new or awful things will happen to you (Flying monkeys are mentioned frequently). Now I interpreted this to mean that I could go back to an old idea and previously imagined characters and start fresh. I did not look at any of the old stuff in the aforementioned drawers and boxes. I was not visited by gremlins or any other mystical creatures so I assume that this was/is okay.
NaNoWriMo also works because it is structured. There's a deadline. You are committing for 30 days only. It is possible to survive without enough sleep and ignore housework for 30 days. You can write and still do your job competently for 30 days. You can ignore Facebook for thirty days.
What you cannot do is rewrite. You have to press on. You have got to keep writing. And if you don't have time to try for perfection, if you do not rewrite and revise that passage, you can make it to the end. You can finish a novel.
There are surprises to be had writing this way. I thought I knew the structure of my book and the characters (I am somewhere between someone who has outlined and someone who is writing by the seat of their pants. These people are called "pantsies"). Turns out there were twists and turns I did not know and a whole center section which came out of nowhere; characters who turned out to be quite different and some I did not know were there at all.
This is wonderful. It gives you energy, makes you feel good. And it gives you something entirely different to talk about to friends, family, and co-workers for 30 days.
The two friends who promised to do it with me ended up backing out. However they were both incredibly supportive and also extremely persistent in asking how many words I was up to each day. Which can be annoying but is also very helpful in motivating you to disappear during lunch so you can write so that they will leave you alone.
And I did it. I tried to write the 1667 words a day that would bring me to the magic number on November 30, and the days that I could not, I made up for on the weekends. I hunkered down over Thanksgiving and pushed hard. In the end you upload your book onto a link on the website. It digests all your words, counts them, and then shoots you back confirmation that you've done it. Cheers, music, and fireworks emanate from your computer (at least that's how I remember it).
You've written a novel. At least a first draft. (Mine will get a rewrite, I promise, but this is a whole different level of guilt.)
And now it is October again. There is excitement on the NanoWriMo website, Facebook page and Tumblr blog. I am getting emails from my MLS about kick off parties and meet-ups this month to get those juices flowing. It is time to take another dream out, blow the cobwebs off an idea, and give it a brand new start. Or maybe come up with something entirely new this year.
A confession. Remember when I said that what you wrote didn't have to be any good? At the wrap party -- there were maybe 60 of us -- we each brought one page of our books and passed them around to be silently read.
And you know what? Everyone's that I read was good. And so was mine.