A revelation

I’ve been wanting to jump in to National Novel Writing Month this year – I haven’t gotten to 50,000 words since I wrote the first draft of “Soapstone” in 2007, and my last serious attempt was in 2009 — but didn’t have a good premise.

Tonight, I found one.

I’d been waiting all week for the somewhat-anticlimactic call telling me that the polyp removed during my colonoscopy on Monday was benign. It came today, while I was at work. (I thought I’d given them my mobile number, but I guess not.) I got it on the answering machine when I got home.

I think that seems like a good dramatic setup – someone waiting on results which could prove either a banal afterthought or a life-changing shock. Now, I need to flesh out some characters and situations. I can make notes, create character bios or plot outlines, and other such preparation between now and next Thursday, as long as I don’t do any actual writing.

NaNoWriMo has grown exponentially in the past few years, and I’ve blithered about it here many times in the past, but if you still don’t know, it’s a writing exercise that takes place each November. Each participant attempts to write a 50,000-word novella between November 1 and November 30, an average of about 1,667 words a day. It’s just for fun; you’re only challenging yourself. There are no prizes except a downloadable certificate and web icons for those who reach 50,000.

There’s no real way to write 50,000 words of good fiction in 30 days – but “good” fiction is not what NaNoWriMo is all about. In order to keep up with the pace, you have to plunge in headlong and turn off any internal editors or naysayers. You have to just write, every day, whether it’s good or lousy. And this leads to unusual things; it liberates your creativity in unusual ways and results in things that you might never have produced at a more deliberative pace.

When it’s all over with, you have a big ol’ chunk of fiction. What happens next is up to you; you can have a good laugh at your own expense, and consider this an experience in the discipline of writing. Even if you have no aspiration of writing for others, you can compete in NaNoWriMo just as a personal challenge.

Of course, if there seem to be little flecks of gold in your 50,000 words of dross, you can go back and try to rewrite, refine, revise, edit. That’s what happened to me with “Soapstone” in 2007. I liked it and thought I could make something out of it. I tried to get some outside help in editing, but the person who promised to read the manuscript never got around to it. I did some rewriting on my own, and when a special promotion in the fall of 2008 offered the previous year’s NaNoWriMo winners a discount on self-publishing, I decided on a lark to go ahead and go that route.

I often joke in this space about my “bad self-published novel.” There are things about it I remain proud of, things I’m kind of embarrassed by, and things I still don’t know whether to think of as failures or successes. But it’s been fun putting the novel out there. In honor of NaNoWriMo, you’ll be able to download the Kindle version of Soapstone for free all day Nov. 1.

I still feel like I have a good novel, a real novel, somewhere in me, if I can ever coax it out. I don’t put enough effort into doing that the other 11 months of the year, but the fun, game-like atmosphere of NaNoWriMo brings something out of me.

The NaNoWriMo web site offers plenty of support – author pep talks, online bulletin boards, and even in-person meet-ups where participants from a particular city or region can gather with their laptops to write in each other’s company, kibitz and encourage each other. I’ve not been to any of those in-person events; maybe I’ll try to do so this year.

Anyway, whether or not you think of yourself as a writer, NaNoWriMo is a great way to challenge yourself. There’s still time for you to make preparations for Nov. 1!