Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Fifty thousand words later: Junior participates in novel writing contest and lives to tell the tale

Well, it’s all over now. It’s been 30 days, 50,000 words and countless hours of sacrificed sleep, but my novel is finally done.

November was National Novel Writing Month – affectionately dubbed NaNoWriMo by its followers – where the goal is to complete a 50,000-word novel over the course of the month. The event originated eight years ago as a fun challenge between a group of friends in San Francisco, but since then it has ballooned into a phenomenon of approximately 100,000 people across the country. Generally, less than 20 percent of the novelist-wannabes actually reaches the 50K goal. I, I’m proud (and slightly astonished) to report, am one of them.

It was a gloriously stupid idea. What was I thinking anyway, tackling a novel in addition to a Williams workload, not to mention a host of extracurriculars? I’d made a pact with myself, though, that if I started turning into a hermit, or a grouch or a sleep-deprived zombie, I would quit right then and there. But it never reached that point, miraculously enough, and so I kept on writing.

I blame my family and friends for my perseverance, because they made NaNoWriMo fun. There were a bunch of entrymates attempting novels, so we made a word count bar graph for the common room, each person’s name below a bar to fill in as they completed every thousand words. A bonding activity. Other Williams students decided to write novels of their own, and while I was in awe of how many other slightly crazy, certainly determined, writing-inclined students existed here, somehow I was not surprised. Even my family joined in the merriment; my mom decided to write a novel herself, and we’d e-mail each other our word counts every night, along with motivational quotes and novel excerpts. As time went on, though, she needed more and more encouragement. My younger brothers made fun of her writing, and she made fun of her own writing as well. “You’re never going to make it to 50,000 with an attitude like that,” I informed her, and sure enough, she didn’t, dropping out after 10,000 (“But you keep going,” she urged me. “You can do it!”).

You can do it, you can do it, everyone told me. I wasn’t too sure. Fifty thousand words was mind-bogglingly gargantuan, the kind of quantity that’s hard to even wrap your head around. I calculated that to be on schedule, I’d have to write 1667 words every day. Instead, it was already day two before I even broke a thousand. I realized that if I really wanted to do this, I’d have to completely murder my inner editor, my inner critic, and my inner sense of sanity. And so I did. It was only then, when they were all lying in a bloody dog pile that I was able to type furiously, recklessly, writing things that I knew were ridiculous yet also knew I couldn’t afford to think through rationally or reasonably. There just wasn’t time.

After a week, I made the mistake of printing out my work-in-progress (at the time, only about eight single-spaced pages. Yes, I had already fallen dreadfully behind schedule). I read through it and was horrified. Flat dialogue, character inconsistencies, and an already overly confusing plot. Oy vey. Why was I wasting lord-knows-how-many hours on this story that was, effectively, a hunk of junk? But, bigger question: how could I possibly stop now? (There was that all-telling bar graph in the common room to consider…)

And so I barreled onward, spinning convoluted interwoven stories of obese tortoises, train hijackings, Bulgarian woodcarvers, Hal’s Unfortunate Tractor Incident, and – perhaps most frequently – hilarious and possibly incriminating anecdotes of my own family, under the guise of clever pseudonyms, of course. (“Hey, is this character supposed to be me?” asked my dad, after I e-mailed out an excerpt in which the father in the story is suffering from a bit of a baldness complex. “No, no,” I assure him. “That’s Mr. Bugle. This is a fictional piece of literature, Dad.”)

I soon discovered that NaNoWriMo writing is wonderfully liberating. There’s simply no time to search painstakingly for the perfect word or to stress over syntax (that’s what December is for). Instead, you can write freely, splattering sentences on the page in an explosion of exuberance. It’s such a different mentality from schoolwork, where you think carefully, draft an outline and then edit heavily to make your text crisp and clear before turning a paper in.

In contrast, the emphasis of NaNoWriMo is on quantity over quality. It’s not supposed to be a literary masterpiece right away. Rather, the idea is that from amidst all the rubble (and believe me, there’s a lot of it), a few gems will emerge. I can only imagine trying this on an English paper. “Sorry that the first few pages stink,” I would write on a little post-it note disclaimer, “but check out that gem on page four.”

Some people might approach novel writing as a solo endeavor; however, I learned that I worked most effectively when I involved as many people as possible. Everyone turned into my story fodder. I solicited countless ideas from friends, and I made my relatives role-play a few of the pivotal scenes over the Thanksgiving table. I’d send out e-mails, urging people to bombard me with “social pressure” to go write. I told scores of people that I was trying to write a novel, figuring that once the word was out, I wouldn’t be able to weasel my way out.

With this social pressure flowing free, I knew that I would meet the challenge. I did get just a little worried as the end of the month approached and I still had 10,000 words left to go, but I knew that I could always have one character read aloud from the Bible or Anna Karenina to take care of a couple thousand words. On the eve of November 30, I finally put my finishing touches on the novel, overlooking major plot inconsistencies to end it in a flash of drama, poignancy, vigor.

I’m not going to even think about this novel for the next two weeks. Some time after that, I may pull it out eventually and give it a good read-through, keeping my eyes peeled for gems. Maybe I’ll like it. The nice thing is, if I don’t, it’s only 11 months until I get to do this again.

[Elissa Brown / Williams Record]

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