The Rewards of NaNoWriMo – A Writer’s Post-Mortem

Writing fifty thousand words of a brand new novel in thirty days is a lot. Writing that many as a side project – on top of family, friends, chores, jobs, shopping for groceries, cleaning the bathroom, reading a book or two, keeping up with the Wikileaks scandal, voting for or against Bristol Palin on “Dancing with the Stars,” reconvening with family for the Thanksgiving holiday, and crafting the fifty thousand or so words you’re already writing (give or take 10 or 20K) if you happen to be a professional writer – is a creative Mt. Everest.

So why, then, does anyone in their right mind agree to participate in National Novel Writing Month?

I am grateful that this is a question I never bothered to ask – or that, perhaps, I am in something less than my right mind.

The idea of National Novel Writing Month, (or NaNoWriMo, as its known colloquially), is, as stated above, to start a novel from scratch (or virtually so – you can have a vague idea, notes, or even an outline. I barely had the first of these) on November 1. Then, by November 30, you are to have written at least 50,000 words of this novel. The implication is that this should be a “completed” (although in no way submittable) work, although that’s not a requirement.

Whenever I mentioned to people unfamiliar with it that I was participating this year, the response was invariably, “what’s the prize?” They seemed to expect that participants – and there were over 167,000 in 2009, over 32,000 of whom reached the 50,000 word goal – were angling for representation, publication, a cash reward of some sort, or the internet’s more common currencies, virality, buzz, and fame.

But the prize is none of these things, because a 50,000-word novel (or novel excerpt) banged out in a month will probably be close to unreadable, nevermind deserving of publication. No, the prize is something else, and potentially something even greater (and I’m not referring to the downloadable “winner’s” certificate you can type your name into and print at will if you complete the verified 50,000 words).

The prize – much, I suspect, like the morning pages attached to The Artist’s Way – is that you write. You write every day (or almost so), you write furiously (because you have so much to do in so little time), and you write – theoretically – without self-consciousness or self-censorship. The prize of NaNoWriMo is that you get your creative juices flowing. That’s really it – and that, my friends, is a lot.

I decided to participate in this year’s NaNoWriMo last November, shortly after that year’s session began. I had never thought about it before, but as I saw friends update their Facebook status with word counts and enthusiasm, it occurred to me how strongly I needed that sort of creative spark. Three years ago, I wrote two drafts of a screenplay. I received some very good feedback on what I had, got it to the “it just needs a final polish” stage in the eyes of some (although I suspect a bit more work than that was required), and then….life happened. No one thing, just everyday life, that thing that is the death of so many creative works.

We’ve all heard some version of the phrase, “if you want God to laugh, make plans.” That’s because for most people, I suspect, life operates on two distinct tracks – the life we want, and the life we have. Then, the perpetual challenge of life is the attempt to merge these two tracks. Writers – or any others in creative pursuit – have a similar, and additional, challenge. There is our creative life – that project that drifts through our mind, that other project we started and put in a drawer, the third one we outlined then planned to work on the following weekend, only that weekend mysteriously never came – and then there is real life, the life of work, friends, family, obligation, conflicts, watching “Mad Men,” reading “Mad Men” recaps, Facebooking, tweeting, and the numerous other distracting facets of everyday existence.

Over the years, I have, like most, converged all these roads with varying degrees of success. But the past three years – for no one single or simple reason – my professional and personal roads paved right over my creative one.

So when NaNoWriMo approached, I saw it as a way to re-ignite my dormant creativity.

Halloween night, I set my iPhone alarm for 5:30 for every morning of that first week. That day, I had given the project some passing thought. I knew I wanted to write a satirical comedy dealing with politics and media – maybe something about a scandal. (Not coincidentally, this also describes that long-neglected screenplay.) And that was it – that was all the planning I did for the month of hard work to come.

I woke up at 5:30 on November 1, showered, put up a pot of coffee, and was at my desk just after six. I opened a new filed, titled it, “National Novel Writing Month,” and without any forethought, found myself typing, “The man in the black derby was late.”

Hmmmm. OK. Intriguing, I guess. Not too crappy for a first sentence. Let’s see where this goes.

By two hours later, I had created a senator, his top aide, the mystery spy with the antiquated hatwear, and the beginnings of the scandal.

Over the next few weeks, characters and plotlines flowed, as did scenes and lines well-written and otherwise. The effort to bang out words often came easier than expected; the effort to do so without judgment, as the official NaNoWriMo web site advises, proved impossible. Sex scenes emerged that hopefully avoided the cheese of books with Fabio on the cover; political speeches flowed that hopefully aren’t ham-handed and cliched. The emotional battles between a congressman and his wife mostly hit the right notes, I think – I could see them remaining almost intact in the movie version. Then again, is it possible to forge full steam ahead on a project such as this – on any attempt at a novel, really – without some sense of ego and self-delusion?

As for work flow, the thirty days of NaNoWriMo had some stops and starts. To make the 50,000 word total, you need to average 1,667 words per day. After keeping pace the first week, I fell off horribly in the second, missing four or five days. By week three, I was far behind goal, and now needed 2,500 words a day – even through Thanksgiving week with my family – to make my goal. But I was determined and got back on track, and 2,500 words per day often became 3,000-4,000. I wrote on planes, I wrote in coffee shops, I wrote in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel, I even once wrote in the passenger seat of a generous and patient co-worker’s car.

By the final days, plot and characters had coalesced in revealing ways. The senator and his aide from the first scene faded in importance, emerging more as devices for political and media response to the book’s other events than as a fully-formed characters. The senator’s opponent, however, became the book’s complex lynchpin, and the people around him acquired a richness that sometimes caught me off guard.

The man with the penchant for derbies never returned.

Over the course of the month, I became well-acquainted with my congressional loose-cannon moralist; his put-upon blue blood wife; the aide with the unenviable task of juggling a campaign and a scandal; an opportunistic dunce with aptitude for naught and hunger for all who might just, in the long run, become some people’s favorite character; and his wife, a woman with nothing who suddenly finds herself with everything – perhaps too much. For only thirty days of effort, I was rewarded with all these characters and more, every one of whom rumbled up from my subconscious as if by their own free will, and all because I was willing to put in the time and effort it took to give them the chance to appear.

On November 30, I typed the final words of my NaNoWriMo experience, bringing me to 50,075 words written in the month of November – officially making me a NaNoWriMo success story, and giving me a project I now have every intention of continuing.

That project, of course, is merely at a very early stage of its first draft, with all the slop and incompleteness that implies. These 50,000 words are only about one third or one quarter of the story. The writing itself is of a pronounced first-draft quality at times, an inevitability when banging out 2,500 words per session. The characters and settings need greater physical definition; far too many react to something at this point by “smiling” or “staring.” I still haven’t decided which state the book is set in, although I do have it narrowed down to three finalists. There are too-long paragraphs of expository inner monologue, and, since this draft was intended to help me invent characters and plot, details are often presented with an unnecessary Rashomon-like thoroughness, just so I could figure out exactly what the hell was going.

But all of this is to be expected in a first draft, especially one created under these conditions. The greater bottom line for me is the joy at having set such a challenging goal and then meeting it, and the thrill I have felt in the seeds of accomplishment – in creating characters I enjoyed creating, developed a vision for, and now feel compelled to accompany on a longer journey. By the end of the month, I was feeling not just a warmth toward my characters, but an obligation, as if they were creative beings that had been sequestered from the world for far too long, just waiting – much like striving writers – for a chance to show the world what they can do.

With any luck and a few years of hard work, I will give them just that.