I participated in National Novel Writing Month (called NaNoWriMo) which is held every year in November. The goal of NaNoWriMo participants is to write a novel containing a minimum of 50,000 words. To get there, you have to write at least 1,667 days per day.
This was my first NaNoWriMo and my first time writing a novel. I managed to write 50,409 words. I wrote an average of 1,867 words per day and finished on November 27. On some days I wrote almost 2000 words, on other days I could barely squeak by writing the minimum number. It took me about 1 hour to 1.5 hour every day, for 27 days, to finish the novel.
I have never shown my novel to anyone and I never will, unless I edit it extensively. My NaNoWriMo novel is quite awful. It is a piece of “dystopian fiction” and has everything a novel should have — characters, plot, tension, beginning-middle-end, and dialogue.
NaNoWriMo tells you to sit down everyday at your desk and write at least 1,667 words because unless you commit yourself to a schedule, a deliverable and a deadline, nothing happens. This is the MOST important lesson for anyone who attempts any kind of artistic endeavour.
Here’s what I learned from writing my novel in 27 days.
(1) I don’t have writer’s block.
I never suffered from writer’s block and it was no different this time. I sit down at the computer and type away. I have tried writing by hand and I sometimes still do, but I find that the words pop out of my head so rapidly that I need to get them down as quickly as possible. When I write, I feel as if I’m on a bobsled or a luge heading down a steep slope.
(2) Banishing the Editor works.
“Write shitty first drafts,” says Anne Lamott, an American writer. NaNoWriMo and writing instructors tell you not to begin editing your work until you have everything written down. This is extremely difficult. In the middle of writing this novel, I violated this rule and corrected my spelling, deleted sentences, changed the names of characters — but not too much. I did manage (most of the time) to keep the Editor imprisoned in an imaginary underground cell. Keeping the Editor underground made sure that I got the novel going.
(3) It’s fiction anyway, so you can do whatever you like.
Somewhere in the third chapter of this exceedingly terrible novel, I was wondering how to end the story, that is, how to rescue the characters who are stranded at the top of a very tall apartment building. I went to bed that night and the solution popped into my head in the morning. As I began writing the ending (you’re allowed to skip around as long as you write the minimum number of words per day), I thought to myself, this is too bizarre, no one will believe it. But the more I wrote, the more believable it became. At that point I realized that the whole thing is FICTION anyway and I get to do whatever I want so long as there’s enough in the story to make people think that the ending is plausible.
(4) Writing a novel is an exercise in problem-solving.
Writing a novel is like pushing a big rock around a maze. Sometimes you hit a giant pothole. How do you get it moving again? How do you get it around the corners of the maze? I encountered plot problems, character problems, setting problems! How quickly I solved these problems depended upon several factors:
- Dreams: I began dreaming about the novel. Solutions to vexing problems would appear early in the morning, in that sliver of consciousness between wakefulness and sleep. I would write down the solution in a notebook and incorporate it into my novel.
- Exercise: Running, yoga and walking caused ideas to pop into my head (intriguing plot twists, character revelations, snippets of dialogue).
- Keeping the inner critic at bay: This is related to point (2) about banishing the Editor, but it goes further. When the problems arise, your first reaction is to tell yourself that you have no talent, you have no business writing anything at all and it’s going to be awful anyway. This reaction impedes problem-solving. You need to loosen up, not take it too seriously. Then, you find yourself coming up with interesting ideas.
- Remembering how other (great) writers solved their problems: Here’s where years of reading the great works of literature came into play. I found myself looking back on the great novels, plays and short stories I’ve read, to find my way around plot and character problems. If there’s one thing that helped me tremendously during the novel-writing process, it’s having read these classic works. We learn at the feet of the Masters.
(5) The novel’s characters become as real as the people around you.
This is the weirdest part of writing a novel. I found myself having conversations with the characters of my novel. Pieces of dialogue and full sentences would come out of my mouth (when hovering over a stove top cooking a meal or running outside). If I happened to be at home, I would write them down in the notebook. But if I happened to be outside running or walking, I had to commit them to memory. Once I told myself that if I continued to talk to myself like this, someone would alert the mental health authorities. Then I realized that I was living in the San Francisco Bay Area and there are so many crazy people wandering around talking to themselves, it wouldn’t matter.
(6) Getting stuck is really painful but it’s a momentary feeling. One just has to get over it.
Day 4 of novel-writing was the worst day I had. The novel seemed stuck. I had no idea what to write when I got up that morning. The characters seemed so one-dimensional. I felt very anxious. The way I pulled myself out of it was to acknowledge I was anxious and to do yoga. After that, things started to flow. I got the characters to do interesting things and to interact with one another. If I had focused only on how stuck and horrible I felt, I would not have gone ahead.
(7) I have become impatient with the imprecise way that people use words.
What happens when you start writing a novel is that you struggle to convey emotions and to describe scenes clearly. You need to be precise. You have use the right words. Otherwise, people won’t understand what you’re trying to say. After the first week, I found myself very angry at the way a writer had used the word “freedom” in an article about how technology allegedly deprived people of “freedom”. What did he mean by “freedom”? Did he mean “free to do anything you like”? That seemed childish to me, but he did not make clear what he meant by that word. Yet, that’s what most people think of when you tell them that they have “freedom”. I started noticing how words like freedom, democracy, transparency, equality, green, and happiness get thrown around by writers. It is assumed that we agree on the meanings of these words but we don’t.
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Practical tips for writing a novel:
- Keep a notebook – paper or online notebook, it doesn’t matter. You need one place where you can write down snippets of dialogue, twists of plot, and new ideas.
- Write whatever you want to write. It’s not the end of the world if your novel never wins the Pulitzer Prize or the Man Booker Prize. Remember this: “The Leopard” by Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa (1896-1957) was published after Lampedusa died. The author sent his manuscript to many publishing houses in Italy, but they considered it unpublishable. When Feltrinelli finally published it in 1958 shortly after the author’s death, people criticized it for its sympathetic portrayal of 19th century Sicilian nobility and clergy. Now it is considered a classic.