NaNoWriMo and the Accidental Novelist

I have participated in NaNoWriMo for the past two years, and will again this year, but more on that later.

To those unacquainted, NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month, is an event that takes place every November in which participants are encouraged to write 50,000 words of a novel. The philosophy is to just get the words down on paper (or computer screen). Don’t worry about editing; don’t worry about research. Sit your butt in your chair and pour out 50,000 words over the thirty days of November. We’ll deal with editing later.

There is a certain logic to this. Many of us have thought about writing a novel, but fear, insecurity, and procrastination prevent us from beginning. There is a quote that I like which is usually attributed (wrongly) to Goethe:

Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it.
Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it!”

NaNoWriMo gave me the push I needed to stop hesitating and start writing.

Some background: I had been working at a start-up company that was running out of funding. We had ample warning, but the axe finally fell at the beginning of November 2012. Over the previous few months I had written some initial scenes of a steampunk/alternate history/adventure story. I showed what would eventually become the Prologue of my novel to my teenaged sons and asked them, “Do you want to read more?” Fortunately, they said yes, and so I continued writing. The serendipitous coincidence of the start of NaNoWriMo and suddenly large amounts of free time prompted me to decide that I would take what I had already written (about 10,000 words) and add 50,000 more in the month of November. It seemed like a fitting way to make a clean break from my old job and start something new.

A somewhat daunting task for someone who had, to that time, never written anywhere near the pace that one must to be a “winner” at NaNoWriMo. Doing the math, 50,000 words over 30 days equals 1667 words per day every day, weekends included. And although I was usually known as the “scientist who could also write” at the various companies I’ve worked at, drafting invention disclosures and writing clinical reports seemed like the farthest thing from writing a novel.

So off I went into this uncharted territory. I kept up my word count fairly well, but after a week or so, I felt that I had developed characters, and put them through some interesting scenes, but I really had little idea where they were going. I was being a “pantser”, writing by the seat of my pants, when I really needed to be a bit more of a “plotter” to sketch out at least a rough outline of how to get my characters to where I thought the end of the story was.

Once I figured out that, I felt the writing was a bit easier. At times, it almost felt that my characters were acting autonomously, and I was just a by-stander, taking dictation as fast as I could. Once in a while they’d reveal some detail about themselves that I wasn’t previously aware of, but which made perfect sense in hindsight. How this happened, I’m still not entirely sure. Part of the magic of being intensely involved with writing, I think. I felt like it was a sort of milestone—akin to dreaming in a foreign language—a sign that one is becoming fluent.

November, as it turns out, at least for us in the US, is not a particularly convenient month for fast-paced writing as the Thanksgiving holiday pops up towards the end with the attendant visiting relatives, tryptophan overdosing, and Black Friday sales extravaganzas. I had built up a bit of a cushion in my word count by then, although my word count graph shows that I must have sneaked in a bit of writing on that day.

Word Count graph for NaNoWriMo 2012

Word Count graph for NaNoWriMo 2012

On the afternoon of November 30, I wrote the words “The End”, and hit Save. My word count was 63, 344 (minus the 10,000 I had started with), so I was a “Winner”, having written over 50k words in a month.

Writing that intensely for a month gave me a few insights. Most importantly, it confirmed that I really did enjoy writing, which I knew already, but writing fiction was new for me. I also realized that the discipline that NaNoWriMo imposes, as well as the encouragement and camaraderie, is very helpful for me.

Now that I had, essentially, a First Draft, I spent the next year pounding it into something resembling a novel. I found I had to add one entire chapter to improve character development, as well as adding or re-arranging several other sections to fill plot holes. A lot of research went in to making details correct. (Even an alternate history world needs to be based on something…) And finally, after many reviews and corrections, my 2012 NaNoWriMo work was published last month as To Rule the Skies.

How do I top that? Well, for NaNoWriMo 2013, I wrote the beginning of a prequel to To Rule the Skies which has a working title of The Secret Notebook of Michael Faraday (Word Count: 50,053!). One of the insights I had gained writing my first NaNoWriMo work was that I had started off in the middle of my main character’s story, and that all this back story that I had been mentioning would make a perfectly good story in itself (two in fact, I think…)

So, for NaNoWriMo 2014? Even though I’m not at a point where I know I will be able to write 50k words, I am still participating. I enjoy the community and I hope to use the time to finish the first draft of my prequel, which I’ve been sorely neglecting as I’ve worked on getting my first book out.

Anyone else doing NaNoWriMo this year? My NaNoWriMo NaMe is Makermike. Look me up; we can be writing buddies.

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One thought on “NaNoWriMo and the Accidental Novelist

  1. Pingback: NaNoWriMo Update | Airship Flamel

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