A few days ago, I had a wisp of an idea take root in my mind. A little snippet of a character and a world that just flitted into my brain. “This would make a great novel,” I thought. And maybe it would. I just don’t think I’m the one who should write it. Once a year for three years now, I’ve written a novel. Well, I’ve tried to write a novel. Well, I’ve started writing a novel. Some of you may be familiar with NaNoWriMo, National Novel Writing Month. NaNoWriMo challenges writers to write a 50,000 word novel in the month of November. For those doing the math at home, that’s about 1667 words a day. Which is really quite a lot of words, even for someone who loves words.
The first year I did NaNo, I did it for a number of reasons: because I was about ten years post-college and hadn’t done any real writing that wasn’t part of my job since then; to see if I had gotten any better at writing fiction over the years; and to prove to myself that I could. And I did. I wrote my 50,000 words, and even went over by a few thousand words. Once the month was over, I stopped writing, closed the document, and didn’t look at it for several months. When I finally opened it back up to see what my word frenzy had actually resulted in, I was embarrassed. 50,000 words is a huge feat; why would I possibly be embarrassed? Because it was awful, that’s why. I put so much effort into meeting that goal that what ended up on the page was total dreck. My characters were poorly fleshed out, I had plot holes you could drive a Winnebago through, and, I realized, I never really wrote an ending.
The NaNoWriMo website assured me that all of those things were OK. The point of the exercise was to meet your goal, and all of the refining and fine tuning could take place in the editing process. I edited about half of my novel before I gave up, and I haven’t looked at it since.
My second year of NaNo, I also met my word goal. Working off of the experience of my first year, I tried harder to make my first draft a little more well-constructed. I had an outline. I had character bios. I had a plot. So when November 30th rolled around, and I had pushed myself over the 50k mark, I was ecstatic. This was my masterpiece! It just needed some tweaking, and who knows, maybe I could self-publish or something. Hell, Water for Elephants was a NaNo book, surely my book would at least be good enough for a handful of friends and family to read. I let it sit for a month or so, and then attacked it enthusiastically in the new year. And, much to my surprise, that novel was pretty much garbage, too. I got frustrated and gave up.
Last year, I only made it about a third of the way through my book before I threw in the towel. My attempt at world-building had spun way out of my control, and there was no getting back on track; at least, not that I could do while still maintaining a full-time job and life.
Even though by any logical standard, my attempts at writing a novel have been catastrophic failures, I still think that it’s an experience I’m glad I went through. For one, sometimes you have to make a few serious attempts at something like long-form fiction to realize, “Hey, I’m not really cut out for long-form fiction.” I’m also glad I did it because for most of my academic and post-academic career, I’ve viewed fiction through an analytic eye. As a reader, you’re quick to notice when plot points don’t work, or when characters don’t quite come through. As a would-be author, I realized how difficult it really is to do those things, and to do them well. I’m not any less critical when I’m reading other authors’ works, but I do have a newfound appreciation for how much skill really goes into crafting a novel. And, if nothing else, trying to bang out a novel in a month got me to start exercising the parts of my brain that had atrophied due to not writing anything creative in a very long time. Since I’ve done this, I find it much easier to do other forms of writing; probably because fiction is so hard for me that I’m grateful for how much easier everything else is.
Will I do NaNoWriMo again this year? I’ll probably try if for no other reason than the fact that I didn’t finish last year. I hate not meeting a goal I’ve set for myself. This year, though, I’ll go into it with my eyes a little more open. I’ll keep my expectations low and just try to have fun with it. Who knows, that could be the recipe for a bestseller. Or not.
6 replies on “What a Novel Idea”
I tried to do NaNo several years ago but didn’t get too far. I discovered that my style lends itself more toward snapshots and short stories. There’s only so far you can take an idea before you’re just writing a lot of filler. I’d rather write a solid short story that leaves you thinking than a full-on novel that bores you after ten pages.
I love to read novels. But I’m never going to be able to write one.
I want to do NaNo so badly, but I just don’t have the time. I’m juggling three part time jobs plus taking care of a toddler and an out of work, whiny bored husband. One of these days though, I’m going to do it. I have a short story I wrote probably 7 or 8 years ago that I’m constantly revising and changing, and I think it could become a novella. It’s been so long since I wrote fiction, and I miss it. I’ve even gone so far as to write out whole outlines and casts of characters, and background info on books I plan to write, and just never get to them. At this rate I think I may never write the Great American Novel – *sniff*
I participated in NaNo for the first time last year and was o-so-proud when I finished it and ‘won’. But even during writing I discovered that I was writing for numbers, not story. It bugged the hell out of me because I’d like to be a writer of fiction and that seems to work better in novels than in the short story pages of some magazine (whatever happened to every magazine having their short stories and when did it change?).
I did it again when I participated in a competition for the next chicklit-author (yes I know). Again, pagefillers because after a couple of ten thousand words, I felt like the story was already told.
Maybe this is a trial and error thing, maybe I should just give up and be happy that I’m not doing bad when it comes to short stories.
I’ve never been at a place in the month of November to tackle NaNoWriMo (school, then busy season at work, then school) but this year I will have just gotten my bar results back. I’m thinking writing a novel is the perfect way to celebrate/pursue an alternate career path. Thanks for your story – it’s nice to know it’s doable, even if the results aren’t immediately publishable. I have a feeling I’m going to write a ton of crap, too, and when that happens, at least I won’t be the only one. Did you join the message boards and everything? For as little time as I had for actual writing, I spent a lot of time lurking in the message boards wishing I were among those agonizing over the plausibility of their plot and researching diseases for their characters.
I did join the message boards, and also got a lot of “writing buddies” via Tumblr and various ladyblogs and such. The challenges and prompts were really helpful.
What I absolutely love about NaNo are the pep talks from real, actual, famous authors. I maaaaaybe have Neil Gaiman’s saved as though he wrote it just to me.
I tried NaNoWriMo for the first time last year and got to a whopping 4063 words. I went into it without a plan of attack, so I think that was part of my problem (besides not really having the time to sit down and write every day). I might try again this year with a better outline and idea for where I want the story to go.