Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The write stuff: Novelists take on challenge to write 50,000 words in 30 days

Andra Marquardt had a science fiction novel "banging around" in her head for the past year. She let it out last month.

The 36-year-old landscape surveyor from Mandan was one of thousands of wannabe writers around the world to take part in the National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo.

The idea is to write a 50,000-word novel in November. That's an average of 1,667 words a day for 30 days. It's enough to fit in a 175-page book.

"I made it - it's 50,315 words," Marquardt said of her novel featuring futuristic galaxy travel.

"The Red Dagger" was completed on Tuesday, a day before the deadline, she said.
She spent about three hours a day writing the novel on a computer about the size of paperback novel.

"I was pretty confident I was going to make it," she said. "I punched out 10,000 words in the last week."

Marquardt said there is no secret to speedy inkslinging "but it helps not to have a life."

Chris Baty, a 32-year-old freelance writer from Oakland, Calif., started NaNo-WriMo in 1999. That year, only a dozen people participated. Baty said he expects 59,000 people from every state and 30 countries to take part this year.

Baty expects 6,000 to reach the goal of being a "winner," the term used for the 50,000-word club. He's made the winner's list every year, including 2005.

Baty calls the project a "30-day kick in the pants for would-be writers." It's done in November because it's "generally ravaged with bad weather."

The goal is quantity over quality.

Baty said the 50,000-word first draft is a "blueprint for a second manuscript."

A few writers have turned their rapid-written novels into "big-time book deals," Baty said. Most just have bragging rights for having written a book.

"All you win is the satisfaction of having done it," said Derri Scarlett, of Bismarck. The 47-year-old copy editor at the Bismarck Tribune finished her novel, "In Search of Grace."

The novel "is about a woman searching for her missing daughter who finds herself instead," Scarlett said.

Scarlett, one of about 50 North Dakotans who participated in the project, finished her 50,600-word novel on Saturday.

Baty said people from all occupations participate in the novel-writing project and journalists make up a good percentage of them.

"Those are the people that are drawn under the magical and terrifying power of the deadline," Baty said.

The NaNoWriMo Web site offers help to novelists with writer's block. They can get tips from their fellow "caffeinated and frenzied" writers, Baty said, by posting questions.

A sampling ranges from such queries as "What happens to coal when you spit on it?" to "Am burning two of my characters alive, Yes, morbid and sad, but it has to be done. … I need to know how burnt flesh smells."

Crysta Parkinson, news editor at the Williston Herald, said Wednesday that she would not make the novel-writing deadline - she was hampered by the desire for perfection.

"I will finish it eventually, but not this month," said Parkinson, 26, the mother of three. "I only made it to about 30,000 words."

Her novel, which has yet to be titled, is about a little girl left on the streets of New York after her father killed her mother, she said. Fiction is more difficult to write than fact, Parkinson said.

Baty said the quest for perfection goes against the grain of the novel-writing project.

"Really, the goal is to turn off the inner-editor and embrace the idea of imperfection and allow yourself to make mistakes," Baty said.

Parkinson said about five people were writing the 30-day novels in the Williston area but none was expected to finish.

Baty said the goal of a 50,000-word novel is "very doable" and several have written two novels during the time limit. Three people have written three novels in a month, he said.

"Their typing fingers should be bronzed," he said.

[JAMES MacPHERSON / The Bismarck Tribune]

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