Sunday, November 14, 2004

The great American novel, written at warp speed

ST. PETERSBURG - Heaven Cacamese will probably never publish Snow Out of Season, a fantasy novel she wrote last year in a single month.

"I ended up running out of plot very early in the story," she said frankly, so "I can't see myself ever letting it out into the world."

But don't think of her as discouraged. She wrote her entire 52,000-word novel last November, when she was only 13. Her sense of accomplishment was "exhilarating, like an absolute, nothing-can-touch-me high."

Now Heaven, a homeschooled ninth-grader from St. Petersburg, is writing a new novel that she says she expects to finish Nov. 30, a month after she started it. So is her mother. So are more than 150 other Tampa Bay-area writers who are meeting weekly in Clearwater and Tampa this month. And so are thousands more around the world.

Inspired by a Web site and their own closely held dreams, dozens of writers across the Tampa Bay area are furiously clattering away at their keyboards every November night, while babies sleep, dishes go unwashed and spouses grumble about the muses who have come to possess their loved ones.

It's called National Novel Writing Month, and it's designed for anyone who longs to write a novel but needs the motivation of a firm deadline.

"I've always wanted to write a book and have started several, but none have come to completion," said Amanda Dwyer of Lakeland, who keeps in touch with the Tampa Bay writers group through an online forum.

Now she says she's trying to complete a paranormal mystery-romance by writing on lunch hours and after her children have gone to sleep. She is trying to ignore a persistent cold, even though she sometimes sneezes on her keyboard, and says she wonders how she'll fit Thanksgiving dinner and Christmas shopping into this same frenzied month.

A novel-in-a-month is "completely, totally, utterly insane - but doable," she said. "I'll finish it because there's a deadline. I have a sign up in my cubicle that says I'm doing this, and I will be publicly humiliated if I do not finish," said Dwyer, 34, a legal secretary.

"Embarrassment is a great motivator."

Here's how the process works:

Aspiring writers log onto the Web site for the National Novel Writing Month, which participants call "NaNoWriMo" for short. (NAH-no-WRI-mo).

To join, they agree to start a new novel in early November and type out enough each day to finish by Nov. 30. Participants get a series of encouraging e-mails throughout the month. They are allowed to participate in several online forums. In the Tampa Bay area, the writers also meet once a week at Barnes & Noble in Clearwater and at a Panera Bread in Tampa.

By Nov. 30, writers will send their manuscripts to NaNoWriMo by e-mail. The words are not read, but counted electronically. Everyone who submits more than 50,000 words is declared a winner.

How can anyone possibly write a whole novel in a month?

Many do it by moving past that old-fashioned literary convention holding that their writing should be, well, good.

Look at the way the NaNoWriMo Web site describes its founder, Chris Baty of Oakland, Calif.: "With his startlingly mediocre prose style and complete inability to write credible dialogue, Chris has set a reassuringly low bar for budding novelists everywhere."

Many NaNoWriMo participants joke about their bad writing. Some embrace it.

Heaven's mother, Mia Scala-Beltran, 35, wrote on one of the forums that:

"I've been looking over some of my stuff, and I realize something - It s----!

And all I could think was, "yea me!"'

Beltran is a freelance writer for various Web sites but said she wanted to write something for the pure joy of expressing herself, with no worries about whether it would please an editor.

"I am succeeding in my goal this year of having a ball writing an ultimately unpublishable" work, she wrote. Many are not troubled by their inevitable lapses into bad writing for the simple reason that bad prose can later be refined into good prose.

Eileen Doll, 27, a bookseller from Seminole, says she dreams of publishing her multigenerational, supernatural saga titled The Good Woman. "It will take an enormous amount of polishing," she said, but she's charging ahead because NaNoWriMo will at least give her a full first draft to work on.

"I think a lot of the problems that writers have ... is just moving past getting things perfect. It's about telling the story and then moving on to revision later on," Doll said.

Under pressure to write so quickly, some of these rapid-fire authors seem a bit desperate for material.

When a St. Petersburg Times reporter recently e-mailed local NaNoWriMo participants to interview them, one admitted, "I am easily distracted and can get sidetracked faster than I care to admit. Right now, for instance, I'm wondering if I can incorporate this e-mail into my word count for NaNo."

Despite these concerns, the thread that most connects these writers is optimism. Some are optimistic about finishing their books, attracting wide audiences and, as one participant put it: "publish it, make a million dollars, retire early and cruise forever."

John and Terri Tumlin, who are 65 and 64 and allegedly retired, both say they hope to get published. They are each writing their own novels on their own laptops, sometimes sitting together at the same kitchen table in their recreational vehicle, which is at a Sarasota RV park. Hers is titled Murder by Hurricane; he said he thinks his will be called Final Act. Both are upbeat about their chances.

Others are optimistic about the writing process itself.

Publishing would be great, but Dwyer, the legal secretary from Lakeland, says she will feel fulfilled just by typing the final chapter.

"It'll mean that all the times I said "Some day I'm going to write a book,' I don't have to say that any more."

* * *
And what happens after Nov. 30?

Well, these writers could always wait until March, which some people have dubbed NaNoEdMo.

That's right: National Novel Editing Month.

But that's a whole different Web site.


To learn more about National Novel Writing Month, go to Parents should be aware that some of the online forum postings contain profanity.

 [CURTIS KRUEGER / St. Petersburg Times]

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