In 2006, I discovered NaNoWriMo. That stands for National Novel Writing Month. Each year, in November, the challenge is to write a complete, 50,000-word novel in only 30 days. And here in the United States, November contains a typically four-day weekend holiday for Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday of the month. We typically get a vacation from work and spend time with our families, many of whom don’t understand why we write obsessively. And almost none of whom will understand the need for cloistering oneself away for at least a little while each day during this family time to work on a seemingly pointless ordeal.
Because we don’t, technically, win anything. Winning NaNoWriMo simply means that you did it. You finished. You wrote 50,000 words in the space of only thirty days, during four of which you probably didn’t get much writing done at all. It’s the satisfaction of knowing you can do it. That you can finish a goal you set out to accomplish.
In 2006, I started a novel I had had in my head for a while. It was something my mother and I had talked about.
See, in 2003, my maternal grandmother ended up having a very serious medical condition that caused her to spend several months in two different nursing homes. We could not simply let her stay in either one by herself. She would have gone crazy. So . . . my mother, my grandfather, an aunt or two, friends of the family, and I volunteered to stay with her 24 x 7. Yes, the nursing homes just loved us.
But the point of this digression into the medical history of my family is to say that my mother and I had a lot of time on our hands, and were doing a lot of people-watching. It’s one of our favorite pasttimes. We began to come up with the idea for a story set in a nursing home. I let my mother come up with some characters based on the patients, doctors, and nurses we saw all around us, and she and I worked on the plot.
Unfortunately, I only got about 1500 words in before life interrupted and . . . well, it’s hard to write a novel when family is ill and tempers are fracturing. Suffice it to say, I did not “win” NaNoWriMo in 2006.
Or in 2007. I had a great idea for a novel based on a short story I hadn’t finished, but . . . I failed to really get to know my characters. They started doing stuff I didn’t want, saying things that were out of character, I kept changing where the plot was heading . . . it was chaos. So about 5000 words in, I gave up. It was no great loss. The story was hardly worth finishing as a novel, but once I got to know the characters a little more and figured out what story I actually wanted to tell, I did eventually write it as a novella.In 2008, though . . . I knew I wanted to really try to win NaNoWriMo, this time. I was now a member of two different writers groups, and one of them—The Quillians on Second Life—was really pumped up. It got me pumped up. I decided that it was finally time to try to write down the novel that had been in my head for decades.
I started writing when I was eleven years old (1976). The story that I was telling then was still rattling around in my head in 2008. Practically nothing was the same as it was when I was a kid, but since it was a long, slow process of evolution, it still felt like the same story. I had copious (read: thousands) of notes on it. I knew the characters. I knew the places. I knew the histories of all the characters and the world.
I was ready.
And then about a month before NaNoWriMo, I stayed late after one of our Quillian meetings and chatted with a couple of other authors. We were discussing writerly things. One of them asked me to summarize my upcoming NaNoWriMo novel in 25 words or less. I did so in less than a minute. Then they started quizzing me.
And . . . I had a Fantastic Idea™. I changed the relationships among all of my characters. The history of the world . . . everything changed. Even how magic works (it’s an epic fantasy) changed fundamentally.
I wrote 51,115 words in thirty days, and called it The Third Prophecy. Almost all of it was only focused on the “good guys,” and just on getting the six of them in the same damned room. I began to see that the full story would take multiple books to tell. Once November was over, I put it aside, thinking I would go back to it.
And I did, a little. I took the prologue to The Fountain Pen writing group . . . and they gave me some helpful critique. Mostly that it was very raw and needed work, and they didn’t understand where and when it was taking place, etc. So I trunked it until the urge to fix it hit.
But I only did that because I had other ideas. I kept writing on other things, including a novella or two and some short stories. And then one day, it hit me. A great first line.
I started what would become Perdition’s Flames. The first novel I really felt enthusiastic about writing. The Fountain Pen was enthusiastic about it and was giving me fantastic feedback. But when NaNoWriMo rolled around again, there was no way I could take the 30,000 words I had written and cheat. I needed to start something new.So in 2009, I wrote 53,553 words of Death Scene, the second novel in the series started by Perdition’s Flames. Same characters, same world, but this time, solving a different set of crimes before time runs out. I wrote right up to the point where I was about to reveal who the murderer was, and then . . . it petered out. I haven’t really done much with it since then. It’s trunked as well, because I really wanted to finish the first novel in what I could loosely call “The Nick Damon Series.” I also got ideas for a third and fourth novel. In 2010, though, I decided that writing a third novel in that series was beyond silly. I needed to do something different. I took a novella I had written the prior year and which had gotten . . . mixed reviews. Everyone who read it said it was good except for . . . and up to . . . and . . . and . . . So, clearly, it needed work. And most of that could be fixed by making it longer. So I had my 2010 novel, Killing Time.
Because I knew the characters and the plot and how I wanted it to end, I was a writing demon during November. I wrote a whopping 78,035 words before the deadline on November 30 at midnight. Overjoyed, I even wrote a few hundred more words in the days following November, but then apathy set in. I am only a few thousand words before finishing the story, and I really intend to do so for the simple fact that I can then say I have finished a novel.In 2011, I had a whole different idea. I came up with the concept of writing 26 short stories, one for each of the letters of the alphabet. The titles would form a rhyme: “A Is for Anchor,” “B Is for Bard,” “C Is for Clowns that Creep Through the Yard.” “D Is for Dragon,” “E Is for Egg,” “F Is for Fangs that Are Sunk in Your Leg.” Etc. One story per day. With plenty of time left over at the end of the month for Thanksgiving. I figured each story would be ~2000 words, for a total of 52,000 words.
I hit 50,000 words on day 8, during “H Is for Haunted.” And kept going. By the 30th, I had topped 122,000 words. It remains the most number of words I have ever written as part of a single project. Or in a month. Or in a year. Not all of them were finished, and I have yet to get any of the published, but I have edited them on and off.In 2012, I decided that it would be a good idea to drop back and think about my novel series, which I was now calling, collectively, The Paranormal Crimes Investigation Unit, or PCIU for short. Something had to be done, because I had notes everywhere about the world and how magic worked and such, but nothing coherent. I hit on the idea of writing a . . . for Dummies-style book about magic. I called it Magic, Psi, & Necromancy for Normals. I designed it to mimic the format and organization of the . . . for Dummies books. I wrote sporadically on sections of it, haphazardly adding words here and there throughout November, keeping no plan. And yet I still managed to make a bit over 54,000 words on it. And I now had a much better understanding of my world. I had also decided that the series was better as The MCU Case Files, where MCU = Magical Crimes Unit. I registered the domains for MCUCaseFiles in anticipation of getting at least one of them done and edited before the start of NaNoWriMo 2013. In 2013, I had had a crisis. I let some people read my first few chapters.
It was not good. Although my premise sounded great and the characters sounded interesting and the magic had bounds and wasn’t over-the-top, people told me the story . . . was just boring. “Barren and uninteresting.” “Basically a police procedural.” Although those sound harsh, I agreed with them. Not only had I bored my readers to tears, I had bored myself. I resolved to fix this during 2013, in the hopes that fixing it would give me impetus to finish the novel and then write the others.
But it was not meant to be. I started well. I got about 2 chapters in . . . and then started writing background stories for the characters. I mean, how was I to get to know them, otherwise? And then the murder victims. After all, I needed to know their stories, as well. And the murderer. Because why did the murderer kill the victims? Everyone but my main characters. I didn’t stop to let it bother me, I just kept going, writing more and more background information until I actually did get over 50,000 words. And then I stopped. I haven’t looked at a single word of it since December of 2013.Which, of course, brings us to 2014. As I write this, it is mid-October. I have literally not one solitary clue what I will be writing for NaNoWriMo. Not even a glimmer. Or even whether I’ll be participating. I hate to break a streak of successes, but I’m not sure there is any meaning in doing it, this year. I have, like, five unfinished novels and thirty unfinished short stories. I suppose I could make it my goal to edit them and finish something. But what? How would I count progress?
I have been virtually unable to write for most of this year. Aside from a contest in January and February and sporadic edits of stories I already wrote, I’ve hated literally every word I’ve written. I have derived no pleasure at all from the writing itself, and only disappointment in the results.
Usually, NaNoWriMo energizes me. Makes me excited about writing. But this year? <sigh>. More when there’s more to say, I guess.
- It doesn’t actually have to be complete in 50,000 words. A 50,000 word novel is about 30,000 words from being even close to publishable, but as long as you’re not striving for perfection, the idea is to get down 50,000 words and then edit that sucker up to the proper size.