Tuesday, November 16, 2010

How Many Words was That? An Interview with Renda Dodge

Renda Dodge is a local writer, recently published novelist, liaison to the Seattle NaNoWriMo writers group and five-time NaNo champ. Recently, she took a break from churning out her sixth NaNo novel to answer a few questions for us about the event.

Joseph Lambert: How long have you been a liaison to the Seattle NaNoWriMo writing group?

Renda Dodge: I have been a municipal liaison since 2007, so this is my fourth year. I love the organization (Office of Letters and Light) and what they do for writers, especially young writers, and it’s my way of giving back. Anyone who knows me knows that September-December are sucked into the NaNo volunteer void.

JL: What was your original inspiration for participating in NaNoWriMo?

RD: In early 2005, I joined a writing group. That group wasn’t doing much for me. We’d have small assignments and put out some short stories, but I spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to tackle the daunting task of writing my novel. The idea became a thing to be feared instead of something ambitious I could be excited about. I spent a lot of time in the writing reference section of Barnes and Noble, I was searching for a book that would make it all make sense. Even after years of college creative writing classes, I still hadn’t written anything longer than 4,000 words. I stumbled upon "No Plot, No Problem!" by Chris Baty. It wasn’t the title so much as the sub-title that got me "A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days." (I personally believe that no plot is a big problem, but that’s not really the point of the book.) I read it in a day (it’s really tiny), and I loved the concept of putting aside all inhibitions and writing 50,000 words in one month. Apparently, all I needed was permission. Luckily I found the book in October. My first NaNoWriMo was that November.

JL: How many years have you participated in NaNoWriMo?

RD: Every year since 2005, so this is my sixth. I didn’t "win" the first year. The goal is 50,000 words and I hit 24,000 (or so, I can’t remember the exact number any more). The thing is, I was really proud of those words. It was a lot more than I had ever written on a single story. I was giddy. The difference between my first year and the years following is that I didn’t reach out to the community. And really, the community is the reason I keep doing NaNoWriMo. Because while NaNoWriMo gave me permission to write a novel in 30 days, it also gave me the confidence to write novels outside of November. I write all the time now, as a career as a matter of fact, but I keep coming back and participating in NaNo for the community. Writing is such a solitary craft, it’s so exciting to see others as excited as you are about writing.

JL: Your first novel, "Inked," was written during NaNoWriMo. Did you keep working on the novel into December, or did you set it off to the side for a while? What was the process like after finishing the marathon of writing and having this massive stack of papers to sift through?

RD: I took about a week off, but I was too excited to set it aside for too long. It was the first novel that I wrote during NaNoWriMo that I was truly excited about. I knew that it had the seed to grow into something much bigger and better, and it did. It took five full rewrites, characters changed and plots became more fully developed. It took months. Writing the first draft took me 30 days, but revision took me about a year of full-time work. The term "National Novel Writing Month" is slightly deceptive. Yes, you’ll write a novel, it will have a story and characters, but there’s a lot of work to be done once you’ve finished. I tend to tell serious writers, who are often the biggest skeptics, it’s more like "National Novel Drafting Month." But the difference is that you now have something to work with, you got black on white, and you didn’t have that before you started.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Brave authors attempt to write a novel in one month

photo courtesy of Flickr user Valeriana Solaris
When envisioning a novelist at work, it’s easy to picture a tortured artist laboring for months over a single paragraph or the precise rhythm of a sentence.

The agonizing process of writing and rewriting can go on for years, and some of the world’s most lauded novelists produce only a handful of books during their entire career.

That’s one way to write a novel, but it’s far from the only one.

As the 200,000 writers currently taking part in National Novel Writing Month can attest, writing a novel can also be a lightning-quick process where revisions and nit-picking go completely by the wayside.

NaNoWriMo, as the participants refer to it, is often called a writing marathon, but in reality it's more akin to a sprint.

Here’s how it works: Would-be novelists sign up for NaNoWriMo and begin their journey at 12:01 a.m. on November 1. By midnight on November 30, their goal is to have produced a 50,000-word novel.

That’s about 1,666 words per day. Assuming they sleep eight hours each night, the writers are responsible for producing just over 100 words of prose each and every waking hour in November.

Seattle writer Renda Dodge is currently writing her sixth NaNoWriMo novel and has served as a municipal liaison for the past four years.

As a liaison, Dodge works with many of the nearly 6,000 locals taking part in NaNoWriMo. She leads weekly “write-ins,” where participants gather at a local coffee shops or bookstores to write and encourage each other.

Dodge, who’s a published novelist, is part cheerleader and part taskmaster when dealing with fellow writers.

She knows how daunting a task NaNoWriMo can be, and she said offering support to the community of writers is what keeps her going.

“It’s absolutely about the community,” she said. “To be able to get all these people together, encouraging each other and having fun, that’s why I keep doing it.”

Like many struggling writers, Dodge had always wanted to write a novel but was intimated by the level of commitment it required. By forcing her to start and finish the novel in a single month, Dodge said NaNoWriMo gave her permission to take a stab at long-form writing.

None but a delusional few expect the novels produced during NaNoWriMo to be great, and that’s the whole point. Event organizers accurately describe the task on NaNoWriMo's website, saying “Make no mistake: You will be writing a lot of crap. And that's a good thing. By forcing yourself to write so intensely, you are giving yourself permission to make mistakes. To forgo the endless tweaking and editing and just create. To build without tearing down.”

When the dust settles and the pens, laptops and typewriters are finally put away, the participants who actually finished their novels celebrate the end of November with a “Thank God it’s Over” party.

To help fund the various parties and write-ins that happen during the month, NaNoWriMo is collecting used books to sell. Books can be dropped off at any of NaNoWriMo's write-ins or at Capitol Hill's Hugo House on Saturdays. Collected books will sold via betterworldbooks.com, with the profit going to benefit the Office of Letters and Light, which is the organization that puts on NaNoWriMo as well as various Young Writers Programs around the world.

[Conor Christofferson / Capitol Hill Komo]

Lincolnites get involved in National Novel Writing Month

Crete Middle School teacher Mary Unger (middle)
 helps students Nick Barber (left), 11, and Noah
Keck, 10, work on their novels as part of the
program for November's National Novel Writers
Month. (JACOB HANNAH / LincolnJournal Star)
The maxim goes: Everyone's got a book in him.

Every November, tens of thousands of would-be novelists set out to prove it.

November is National Novel Writing Month, the 12th annual writing program that gives writers an absurd goal: write a 175-page (or 50,000-word) novel from Nov. 1-30.

The program started in 1999 with 21 writers in the San Francisco Bay Area and has since grown to 200,000 participants in 90 countries. More than 1,000 Nebraskans are banging out their NaNoWriMo books this month; more than 200 of them are in Lincoln. Ages range from tween to octogenarian.

All this month the Lincoln group is hosting "write-ins" throughout town, in which writers shut themselves into a room for a few hours and get some words on the page.

The goal isn't to write a masterpiece - or even a very good book, for that matter, said Lisa Kovanda, liaison for the Lincoln group and three-year NaNoWriMo participant. The goal is to finish. Think quantity over quality; fine-tune it later. Better can wait.

Kovanda's first year, she "started with nothing more than a sentence scribbled in a notebook," she said. "I didn't have a plot and really had to make it up as I went along."

But she finished. This year, she's about 20,000 words into her latest attempt, "Letters to Lucy," a supernatural thriller about an arachnophobic writer struggling to come up with a plot for a new novel (another maxim: write what you know) who finds himself tangled in a web of terror and nasty flesh-colored spiders.

NaNoWriMo "gives me the freedom to run with something," said Kovanda, who writes novels outside of November, as well. "It takes a little more editing in the end. But it gives me a chance to break out of what I usually do."

While chunks of pages are just rambling, Kovanda admitted, there's good stuff there, too. It's raw, honest writing that might not have emerged if she'd had more time to think about it.

Crete Elementary teacher Mary Unger is not only working on her third attempt at NaNoWriMo, she's also convinced 13 of her fifth- and sixth-grade students to participate as well.

"Someone's got 13,000 words already," she said. "Another student's got 5,000. A little girl has 8,000. Some who have signed up have already fallen off, though."

Not everybody makes it, obviously. In fact, only about a sixth of participants finish. But the ones who do get a softbound copy of their novel free of charge printed by the National Novel Writing Month organization. Then you're technically a published author, though you might not get Random House to put your book in tens of thousands of households across America.

But you'll have your book. You'll get to put yourself on your shelf, good book or bad.

Admittedly, most are bad. At least at first.

But a few National Novel Writing Month books have gone on to be published, and some have become best-sellers. Sara Gruen's "Water for Elephants" started out as a NaNoWriMo book.

Unger's own book, a 1700s-set historical novel of which she's about 25,000 words in, is "so bad," she said. "It's so much better in my head."

But, she said, she's got plenty of time after Nov. 30 to make it something worth reading.

Some of the books being written by Lincolnites:

  • "Huachuca Sunrise": Gunslingers Sid and Jake find love in 1870s Arizona.
  • "Bloodmage": Drunk, washed-up detective Casey is hired to find a missing woman, but the trail leads through a world of magic, mysticism, danger and Casey's own past.
  • "My List of Grievances Against Humanity": An unspecified amount of time in the future, most of humanity's strings were cut. This is the story of those who survived -- among them an orphan, a pragmatist, a wishful biker and the one who caused man's demise.
  • "The Fall of Joy": A coming-of-age story about a young boy growing up in a dysfunctional family.
  • "Teacher's Lesson": Lynne is living the dream, doing what she's passionate about. But an assignment she cannot turn down sends her back home. Now her passions and her past collide, with lives on the line.
  • "Lessons from a Road Trip": Brielle loses the one thing she loves the most: her brother Nathan. Heartbroken and angry, she takes off on a road trip with only a handwritten note to her parents and coworkers.
  • "Thin Air": A woman is vanishing - disappearing into thin air. Soon, all that will be left of her is her butter-yellow station wagon, filled with the minutiae of 20-some years on the road, abandoned at a Kinko's copy center in Jacksonville, Fla.
  • "What a Year": Woman trouble, missing persons and a psychotic best friend conspire to make what seems like misery into the greatest adventure of Marshall's life.
  • "No Sex For Old Dogs": An elderly scientist with ALS gets a new lease on life when she's offered a fully prosthetic body and an opportunity to pick up research she was forced to abandon decades ago. But her field of study has changed over the years, and a growing, unhealthy competition between government and corporate interests for her research puts her principles and life at risk.
[MICAH MERTES / Lincoln Journal Star]

Friday, November 12, 2010

We’re Almost Halfway Through National Novel Writing Month…

Don’t stop now! There are two whole weeks left
to finish your novel.
It’s like speed dating for writing, if a speed dating session ended with a wedding. November is National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo. It started as a challenge back in 1999 by a writing group in San Francisco, and has since exploded into an online steel-cage prose match, attracting more than 100,000 would-be novelists around the world. The challenge: 50,000 words in 30 days. At stake are literary bragging rights. Once your word count has been verified by the web team at NaNoWriMo, you’re a winner. Of course, if you publish your novel and it becomes a bestseller like Sara Gruen did with her NaNoWriMo manuscript Water for Elephants —well, that’s just gravy.

But how to get to that winner’s circle? NaNoWriMo has made “noveling” a verb and turned a solitary endeavor into a team sport. Regional groups form, write-ins are hosted, and writer’s block is quashed by committee. Participants claim real estate at coffee houses, libraries and bookstores to write collectively. “When you have such a big group, you can reach out to the community and have them push you,” says Renda Dodge, the Seattle liaison for NaNoWriMo.

Seattle has one of the most active regional groups—this year, more than 5,500 local writers are registered. We even have a mascot (the duck). At public venues, writers place a rubber duck next to their laptops to indicate they are participating in NaNoWriMo. There must be a booming rubber duck trade in Seattle these days, considering we won the competition’s “overall word count” and “donations” categories in 2007, 2008 and 2009.

This year, the stakes are higher: Seattle has challenged the Atlanta WriMos to see who can dominate in average individual word count. It’s the Ducks v. the Pandas, and they’re talking plenty of smack. “Hey Atlanta, you should go to some of the many amazing places in your city for novel inspiration. Places like your airport, or your Coca-Cola museum, or your…well, that’s it, really,” Seattle WriMo’s CowOfDeath posted. IcyBrian, an Atlanta WriMo, fired back: “I thought about going up to Seattle for a visit once, but instead I decided to not get swallowed up by a major corporation.” Okay, so it isn’t 8 Mile style, but it’s a start.

Go to nanowrimo.org to sign up or to follow the action, or visit the Seattle group’s Facebook page. There’s a halfway point party and all-day write-in at Hugo House, 1634 11th Ave, on Saturday, Nov 13, from 10-6. Expect “prizes, contests, fellowship and fun.”

[Hilary Meyerson / Seattle Met]

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Get Inspired: Ten NaNoWriMo Premises We Would Totally Read (And Four We Liked Anyway)

We’ve all been there. You have this earth-shatteringly great idea for a novel, or a screenplay, or a hit family musical, and it’s totally original and better than all the other dreck that is out there and will outsell the pants off that Stephenie Meyer character.

And then, you actually try to sit down and write the thing. And by “write,” we mean type a few paragraphs before curling into the fetal position and crying, or being completely absorbed by Internet distractions.

Sound familiar? Enter National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo if you’re into the whole brevity thing, equal parts marathon and sprint, where intrepid bestsellers-to-be push pens and cheer each other on in an effort to finish a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. According to the NaNoWriMo website, more than 160,000 people participated in last year’s competition, officially logging more than two billion words. And yes, these novels do get published—perhaps the most notable example is Sara Gruen’s acclaimed Water For Elephants, which was drafted during NaNoWriMo.

Your correspondent attempted NaNoWriMo this year at the urging of a friend, but, like many, threw in the towel before hitting the 1k mark. But that didn’t stop us from looking around to see what other WriMos were working on. Amid all the tales of amorous orcs and dystopian futures (not that either of these things are not awesome), we found a few premises that delved from the usual fare. Maybe after reading these synopses and excerpts from this year’s competition, you’ll be ready to conquer your own writer’s block.

If this list doesn’t inspire you to break out the ol’ word processing machine, this list of literary dares from the Atlanta region (a.k.a. NaNoLanta) just might help you get moving. Our favorite dare? “Include the Kraken.”

Four Days of the Dragon: A Zombie Apocalypse Love Story
Author: ShayDeeWil
Region: Atlanta, Ga.
Synopsis: Dragon*Con. Zombies. Patrick Stewart. Chainsaws. Geek love.
Excerpt: “I once read that the most irritating noise to humans was the sound of cutlery scraping across a plate. Until today, I had thought it a reasonable possibility. Now I know better. The most unpleasant noise in the universe is the reverberating whine of a chainsaw working its way laboriously through human bone in the vast echo chamber of a hotel atrium.”

The Batmania Alternative
Author: MrBen
Region: Melbourne, Australia
Synopsis: A series of short stories:
“Hector, The Horse Love Doctor” – A talking horse dispenses love advice to people who don’t need it—while being very annoying and not a little disturbing.
“Quest Ad Infintum” – A particular boy is randomly chosen every year to undertake a dangerous quest to save his village. Now that he’s turned 27 he’s getting rather sick of it. This may be the year he finally cracks.
“Spy vs Spy” – Two spies with rather differing methodologies are put together on a dangerous mission, and only their mutual hatred of one other will keep them alive.
“The Lost Morning” – A creature of the night yearns to see the dawn, and he won’t listen to those who know better.
“Wannabe Weatherman” – After 15 years of failed attempts to pass the weatherman exams, John decides it would be easier to make the weather match his predictions than the other way around.

Author: mrs_moesy
Region: Salt Lake City, Utah
Synopsis: Steampunk murder mystery set in Salt Lake City in 1870.

One-Ranger Island
Author: kartoshka
Region: East Bay, Calif.
Synopsis: A lone park ranger fantasizes about the lives of other people, one of whom is probably fictional.

Wir sind für die Musik geboren (We Were Born For The Music)
Author: Raven SIlvers
Region: Singapore
Excerpt: “The Australian people — the original Australians, not the white settlers who came onto their land much, much later (over forty thousand years later) — believed that that all of creation was dreamt into being. They call it the Dreamtime. They have songlines, sacred verbal maps of the Australian continent, which helped their people navigate the vast expanses of Australia’s interior and its desert. They also believed that the songs had to be sung by every generation, or else all of creation would cease to be. They believed in the music.
Fast forward several thousand years, and now we have string theory. No matter what your feelings are about string theory, it posits that the world is made up of vibrating filaments and membranes of energy. Does that sound familiar to you? Like, say, how a piano or a guitar works?
In a guitar, the strings vibrate. These disturbances in the air resonate inside the body of the guitar to produce an audible sound.
It’s essentially the same thing in string theory. All matter is made up of tiny strings of vibrating energy. Essentially, we’re the disturbances in the air that were amplified into sound. Or, in this case, being.
So, these two systems of belief (have you seen how emotional theoretical physicists can be?) are separated by over forty thousand years. But why do they sound so similar?
Maybe because the world, this world at least, is made out of music. It may not be music as we understand it, but when you come down to it, it certainly is a kind of music.”

Sunday, November 7, 2010

November Nurtures Nonstop Novelling

Last Monday was the first day of November, and for sugar-shocked children and groggy college students, it spelled the end of a fantastic and eventful Halloween season. But for hundreds of thousands of ambitious would-be storytellers across the world, November 1st marked the first day of the most hectic month of the calendar year: National Novel Writing Month.

Held every year throughout November, National Novel Writing Month (or NaNoWriMo) is a celebration of hardcore writing and looming deadlines. Participants strive to write a novel of no fewer than 50,000 words, all within the confines of month of November. The writer then submits his or her novel—which usually averages at about 175 pages— to the NaNoWriMo website’s official word-counter, which checks the length and pronounces all who complete the task winners.

The challenge is not just for seasoned writers. Anyone can participate, and people from all walks of life do. Stay-at-home-moms, teenagers, working adults and even stressed and overtired college students set aside time every November to finish a novel.

A Daunting Task

The contest operates on an honor system. The word-counter is a computer program, and has no idea whether or not the participant started writing before November 1. It also has no way of checking whether the content it is counting is an actual story, or if it is one block of text copied and pasted again and again. But that would violate the honor code, and be pointless, anyway; the only prizes for a NaNoWriMo victory are a winners’ certificate, eternal bragging rights, and a 50,000-word story to call your own.

The tools of the writerly trade.
Photo Courtesy of Flick mcplemens
The NaNoWriMo novel is, above, all, a draft. As it is a large story written in a very small sliver of time, it certainly does not have to be literary. Chris Baty, who hatched the idea of NaNoWriMo among his friends in the Bay Area in 1999, knew from the start that the novels produced wouldn’t be great, or even good.

“The 30-day deadline helps you be less precious about every sentence,” wrote Beaty in an interview posted on the project’s website. “Yes, it’s hard to leave errors and awkward prose on the page, but the most important thing is to stay focused on the goal of getting a beginning, middle, and end of your story written in 50,000 words.”

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Deadline Frenzy: Writing a Novel in 30 Days

About 200,000 writers will participate in National Novel
Writing Month, a project that challenges participants
to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. (Getty Images)
If you invite Dan Scholes to a party this month, he's probably going to decline.

He's cleared his calendar of all obligations except his job as a groundskeeper at the University of Florida. He will spend his November writing.

Scholes, 44, is one of about 200,000 writers participating in National Novel Writing Month, frequently abbreviated to NaNoWriMo, or simply NaNo, a writing project taken on by professionals and amateurs alike.

The project challenges participants to write a 50,000-word novel, the equivalent of 175 pages, in 30 days. That breaks down to about 1,667 words per day.

Scholes has written podcasts and short stories for the past two years but has never attempted to craft a full-length book.

"I've had an idea for a novel for a long, long time," Scholes said. "NaNo is the push I need to get those ideas out of my head and onto paper."

The first National Novel Writing Month was held in July 1999. Chris Baty, a freelance writer from the San Francisco Bay Area, recruited 20 friends for the project. He was curious to see if a strict deadline would motivate writers. Six reached the 50,000-word goal.

In 2000, the month was moved to November, when the distraction of sunny summer days does not tempt writers into procrastination.

Today the Office of Letters and Light, a non-profit organization based in Berkeley, oversees NaNoWriMo as well as Script Frenzy, where writers attempt to complete a stage or screenplay in 30 days. Baty is executive director.

Lindsey Grant, program director for NaNoWriMo and a writer herself, said about 18 percent of participants will write 50,000 words by the end of the month. Grant said the project is designed to encourage everyone, from the seasoned novelist to the amateur writer, to write on a daily basis.

"The title of 'author' is this much sought after but very rare thing," said Lindsey Grant. "We're trying to make writing a little more accessible to people."

For some, the task seems daunting.